It’s a sweltering Saturday afternoon on Marietta Square, and Jen Jordan is way outside her comfort zone. As kids lick drippy popsicles and a sweaty crowd line-dances to the “Cupid Shuffle,” Jordan—the political newcomer elected in 2017 to a state senate seat in an affluent, former GOP stronghold—stands inside the Cobb County Democrats tent. It’s not Jordan’s political affiliation or her relatively freshman status that’s the source of her unease. Rather, it’s the fervor with which fans greet her.
“I just want to tell you that I worship you,” says a woman named JoAnn Wood. “You are giving voice to so many things that I want said.”
Two moms from Cherokee County approach with their 13-year-old daughter to tell Jordan how excited they are to have her in the Gold Dome. “Thank you for showing our daughter that there are people willing to stand up for her,” one says.
Jordan, who despite the heat looks polished in a crisp white blouse, flats, and full makeup, smiles and thanks each person who approaches her, shaking hands and posing for selfies. But a slightly dazed expression settles on her face whenever the cameras drop.
“The irony of all this is that I am the most introverted, repressed person,” she says in a low tone, as if embarrassed. “I hate talking about personal stuff.”
“All this” began with a viral speech she gave, three months earlier, in which she laid bare the most tragic moments of her life. On March 22, 2019, Jordan went from little-known legislator to household name—at least among the politically active set—thanks to her impassioned dissent against Georgia House Bill 481, the so-called “heartbeat bill” that is one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country. In the speech, which has been viewed and shared tens of thousands of times, Jordan, without so much as a crack in her voice, opened up about her eight miscarriages, including the death of a daughter, Juliette, whom she lost five months into pregnancy. One of her many concerns about the bill was that someone like her could be prosecuted if she was suspected of causing her own miscarriage.
Within weeks, Jordan was catapulted to A-list status among state Democrats. In April, she was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about a bill cosponsored by Republican Georgia U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The same month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution included her on their shortlist of potential Democratic challengers to Perdue, whose term is up in 2020. (Jordan later decided not to run for Perdue’s seat and more recently ruled out running for the one vacated by Isakson and filled, temporarily at least, by Kelly Loeffler, Governor Brian Kemp’s appointee.) Democratic presidential candidates including Elizabeth Warren have been calling.
Stacey Dougherty, a founding member of No Safe Seats, a group that provides grassroots support for female candidates in Georgia, says she thinks Jordan or someone like her is the future of statewide politics. “I love her scrappiness,” she says. “People underestimate her because of her Southern gentility, her attractiveness, her small stature. They think she won’t be fierce, but she’s not afraid of the tough stuff.”
Jordan is now approached constantly by women—“it’s almost always women,” she says—telling her how much her speech meant to them and sharing their own stories of reproductive trauma: infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion. Still, although she is strongly pro-choice, Jordan says she never wanted to be known as “the abortion speech lady.”
On the other hand, given Jordan’s extensive experience stepping outside her comfort zone—as a child who grew up poor in rural Georgia and worked her way into law school, as a self-sufficient woman who married into an elite Southern family, as an unlikely candidate for a Republican-held seat, and as an even more unlikely face of the state’s pro-choice movement—she might be one of the politicians best-poised to persuade Georgians to step outside theirs.
“I was very uncomfortable at first when it looked like this was going to come down the pike,” she says of HB481, which Governor Kemp signed into law. (It has stalled due to a legal challenge.) “It was not the hill I wanted to die on. But you take the fight that comes to you.”
Jordan was born Jennifer Auer at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base near Jacksonville, North Carolina. Her dad, Michael James Auer, had enlisted after high school and married her mom, Winona Giddens Purser, not long after. When Jen was in kindergarten, her parents split up, and Winona moved with Jen and her younger sister, Jessica, back to her hometown of Eastman, Georgia, south of Macon.
Jordan saw her father only a handful of times from that point on. He left for his next military posting “and was really just out of our lives after that,” she says, adding, “I don’t think he knew how to be a father.” She remembers her dad as an “unhappy person”; even as a kid, she sensed it was a gift to have him gone.
In Eastman, a rural town of about 5,000 people, the family became Section 8 tenants in a building filled with single moms and their kids. Winona got a job cutting hair at the family’s beauty shop for $100 a week. After school, Jordan would take the bus to the shop and sweep the floors for pocket money. To this day, she is soothed by the sound of a hair dryer. When Jordan was in middle school, her mom saved up to buy a single-wide trailer.
“I didn’t really realize that we didn’t have a lot because when you live in an area where everybody’s fairly poor, there’s no comparative there,” Jordan says. “It’s not like in Atlanta, where the disparity is so clear.”
Still, there were moments when Jordan recognized her hardship. Once, when her father came to Georgia for a weekend, Jordan and her sister went to see him; his new wife complained about what the girls were wearing. “I overheard her saying to my father, ‘I know your ex-wife did that on purpose, sent those children with holes in their shoes to make it look like she didn’t have any money,’” Jordan recalls. But those were the shoes they wore to school every day. “I just remember being mortified.”
Jordan was brought up to be a hard worker, and she thrived at school, where she joined the cheerleading squad, edited the yearbook, and ranked at the head of her class. “She had grit, and she always rose to the top,” says Wendy Evans Rogers, who went to high school with Jordan and now teaches middle school in Eastman. “Even as a teenager, she was somebody who seemed bigger than Eastman.”
In the 11th grade, Jordan was accepted to the Governor’s Honors Program, a residential summer program for gifted high school students. “All these kids were talking about where they were going to go to college and what they were going to do,” she says. “I remember thinking, the counselor at our school is more concerned about the dropout rate. She’s got her hands full with that. If you went to college, you went to Middle Georgia, which was the two-year college in Cochran.”
Despite being a straight-A student, Jordan had never really considered what she might do after graduation. “My mother’s expectation was that maybe I would end up doing hair one day, which is laughable,” she says. “I can’t even do my daughter’s hair.”
Jordan realized that if she was going to get out of Dodge County, she needed a plan. But she’d never so much as taken an ACT practice test. Plus, she had no money for college. Her teachers had told her that she was smart, that she could do it. “But it wasn’t like my mother was pushing me to do it,” Jordan says. “She didn’t have any concept of how life-changing it can be if you get an education.”
In 1993, during her senior year of high school, something happened that put college more easily within reach: Georgia began awarding HOPE scholarships to cover the cost of tuition for high-achieving students. Georgia Southern accepted her, and HOPE made it possible for her to attend. It was while filling out forms to qualify for HOPE that Jordan got a clear picture of her mother’s financial situation. In 1993, her mom’s tax return showed an annual income of just $12,000. It was the most money she’d made up until that point.
At Georgia Southern, Jordan worked three jobs to pay for expenses that HOPE didn’t cover, like rent. She’d wake well before dawn to start making bagels at 4 a.m. at the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery. After her shift, she had just enough time for a quick shower before reporting to an administrative job at the university at 7:30 a.m. In the evenings, she waitressed at Buffalo’s Cafe. Her roommate complained she always smelled of beer and hot wings.
Halfway through Jordan’s junior year of college, her father had a massive stroke at the age of 45. Michael Auer was now twice divorced and retired from the military, living in Olathe, Kansas. Jordan had only recently gotten back in touch with him, but at 21 years old, she was his closest adult relative—and, as such, responsible for making decisions regarding his medical care.
At the hospital in Kansas, her father lay unconscious; it was the first time she’d seen him in over a decade. Five days later, after conferring with her father’s sister and mother, who met her there for moral support, Jordan told the doctors that she would not prolong life support. Michael died on January 13, 1996.
“We thought he was in great health because he ran 10 miles a week, had been a Marine. But when I went through his records, I ended up finding out that he had high blood pressure that he wasn’t treating,” she says. “And that’s what killed him.”
Jordan majored in political science at Georgia Southern, and, after her father’s death, she took an internship in D.C. at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the now-defunct nonprofit founded in 1985 that aimed to attract voters with a more centrist philosophy to the party. At first, she says, she figured she was too broke to pursue it. “Then my dad died, and I was like, ‘I’ve got to get it.’” She no longer was willing to postpone what mattered to her.
A self-described political nerd, Jordan had grown up listening to NPR and watching C-SPAN, which “I guarantee you no other kid was doing in Eastman.” Her senior year of high school, in the run-up to the 1992 Presidential Election, she led a voter-registration drive in Dodge County.
The internship went so well that the DLC asked her to stay on permanently, but Jordan decided to return to Georgia Southern and finish her degree. The following summer, she signed up as a campaign volunteer for Jim Wiggins, who was running against Republican Congressman Saxby Chambliss.
Jordan says she found the political circuit fascinating but decided that, as a career, it wasn’t for her. She says she cared more about policy and helping people. Instead of jumping into another campaign, Jordan enrolled in law school at the University of Georgia. There, her classmates say, she stood out for her work ethic.
“Jen had a different perspective than the students who may have felt their family name or connections or educational pedigree owed them something,” says Leslie Lipson, a disability civil rights attorney who attended law school with Jordan from 1998 to 2001. “She holds herself, and everyone around her, to a very high standard. She takes a deep dive into something, and she won’t look up until she’s mastered it.”
One well-connected classmate, Lawton Jordan (pronounced “Jer-dun”), remembers her as a “wonk” who wasn’t content to just read or understand or talk intelligently about a problem. “She was urgent about changing things,” says Lawton. “I was probably a little intimidated by her.”
Urgent is a word that comes up a lot when people describe Jordan. She speaks in a broad South Georgia drawl, but at a turbo pace unpunctuated by “um”s or pauses. And despite her private nature and poised appearance, she pulls no punches when the subject turns to what she considers poor policy decisions or boneheaded behavior.
After law school, Lawton and Jen’s friendship turned romantic. The relationship moved quickly: They attended the UGA homecoming football game on their first date, and, “by the Georgia-Auburn game, we had decided to get married,” she says.
Lawton, who comes from a well-known Southern family—his uncle is Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s White House Chief of Staff, and he grew up taking trips to Camp David—was a fellow political junkie who had worked on Al Gore’s presidential campaign and helped found the Red Clay Democrats. When they wed, Jordan, who had been financially and emotionally independent since her teenage years, was jolted into a world of privilege and tradition.
She remembers getting a job offer, and Lawton said they had to call his parents to talk about it. The experience was foreign to her. “I have always been an independent loner,” she says. “I never had to check in with anybody because it’s just been me.
“I think we all seek what we’re missing, in some ways,” she says, describing her marriage. “I was looking for somebody who would make the best father in the world and be supportive. And that’s what I got.”
After law school, Jordan took a job as an associate at Bondurant, Mixson, and Elmore in Atlanta and fell under the wing of founder Emmet Bondurant, who famously argued the “one man, one vote” case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court at the age of 26. Bondurant, whom Jordan describes as her early mentor, taught his staff that lawyers have a public duty to right society’s wrongs.
She took the lesson to heart. Jordan assisted Bondurant on a case brought against then Mayor Bill Campbell, who for months had refused to sign an airport-concessions contract, costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2006 and 2007, she represented Georgians in multiple class-action lawsuits against payday lenders. The same year, she successfully blocked a law that required Georgia voters to present a photo ID from being enforced.
She points out that many Georgians, especially the poor and elderly, don’t have an ID. Many were born at home and don’t have birth certificates. “They didn’t have the ability or the money to figure out how to get an identification card,” she says.
Jordan and her husband wanted to have children, so after she left Bondurant’s practice, she took a job at the Barnes Law Group, led by former governor Roy Barnes. She knew a plaintiff’s practice would have more family-friendly hours than a defense practice, and Barnes’s daughter, who was also a partner at the firm, had convinced the office to add an on-site day care.
Their son, Richard Lawton Jordan IV, whom they also call Lawton, was born in 2005, and a daughter, Corinna, whom they call Cokie, followed in 2009. When they tried to conceive a third child, though, Jordan miscarried time and again. Each positive pregnancy test was followed by agonizing days, weeks, even months. In 2013, Jordan showed up for a post–20-week ultrasound to find that her daughter, whom she and Lawton had already named Juliette, no longer had a heartbeat. Jordan had to be escorted out the back of the medical office, so the other pregnant women in the waiting room wouldn’t hear her wailing.
Jordan also suffered physically during each of her pregnancies, developing severe lethargy and flu-like symptoms. “It was as if I was on chemo,” she says. She felt pressure to show that her pregnancy wasn’t affecting her at the office. “But if I wasn’t at work,” she says, “I was in bed.”
The emotional pain of the miscarriages was devastating, but the physical toll made it doubly hard to endure. In all, Jordan lost eight pregnancies in a span of five years. Finally, in 2015, they’d had enough. She never carried another child to term.
Most people I speak to say that they had a hunch Jordan would end up in office one day. The only person who seems caught off guard by her decision to run is Jordan herself.
Like many women, she credits the 2016 presidential election with reigniting her interest in politics. Late that November 8 night, when Donald Trump was declared president, it felt like a great hand slapping down her and women like her. The following week, she made a list of all the women in her Rolodex who she thought would make good political candidates.
“Women need to be running for office more,” she says. “But they never self-select; they never say, ‘I’m going to be the person to do it.’”
Jordan invited the women to join a private Facebook group called Georgia Women Mad as Hell and offered to help them figure out how to put together a campaign. A few candidates emerged from the group and won their races, including state senators Zahra Karinshak and Nikema Williams and state representative Teri Anulewicz. But Jordan hadn’t considered putting her own name on the ballot.
“I really like to work and read and think and not have things be about me,” she says. But when you’re a candidate, it’s all about you. “You’re the product.”
It was a legal case that changed her mind. Two years earlier, in 2015, Jordan had started representing a young woman known as J.B. in a civil case against a dental practice, where she had been sexually assaulted in 2009 by a nurse anesthetist. The jury awarded $3.7 million in damages to J.B., who had been a high-school student at the time of the incident. The judgment was appealed, and in December 2016, Jordan went to argue it in front of the Georgia Supreme Court.
“The justices came out, and it was all men. I just remember thinking, ‘This isn’t going to go well.’” To rule in favor of J.B., she says, the justices would have to decide that the injury was significant. The dentist’s attorneys argued that since J.B. had been under anesthesia during the assault, she hadn’t been damaged by it. Jordan says that during the questioning, she got the impression that the justices agreed. When the verdict came out in February 2017, it unanimously overturned all the prior decisions that had gone in favor of J.B.
“I remember having to call my client,” who was in her early 20s, Jordan says. “And she was just like, ‘Is this it? People can just do this with impunity?’ And I was just like, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’
“Before then, I thought that if you work hard and you stick with it, at the end of the day, justice prevails. After that decision, I said, ‘It’s just not enough anymore to be a good lawyer. We need more diversity in the rooms where decision-making is happening. Because clearly people—men—don’t get it.’”
The problem, as she saw it, was that she was a Democrat living in what was purportedly a very Republican area: Sandy Springs. And she didn’t want to run unless she thought she could win. Then, two months after the J.B. ruling, Jordan’s state senator, Hunter Hill, announced he was vacating his seat to run for governor. A Democrat hadn’t won the office since the sixth district lines were redrawn in 2011 by the state’s Republican leadership. (The district is U-shaped, curving from Dobbins Air Force Base, down through Smyrna and Vinings, over to Buckhead, and up through Chastain and Mount Paran to Sandy Springs.) Jordan saw a path to victory, although she knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“Everybody was like, ‘You’re crazy,’” she says. “It was almost like, ‘Oh, isn’t that sweet.’”
Many of Jordan’s early campaign supporters were women who, like her, were deeply disturbed by Trump’s election and felt a responsibility to push back. Kate Kratovil, a 30-year-old site director for a nonprofit, began volunteering for Jordan after seeing a Facebook campaign ad for her in May 2017.
“Before the presidential election, I probably wouldn’t have even known which state district I lived in. But I just had this sense—and I know it sounds silly because I had only seen a picture of her—that she was someone who could win,” Kratovil says. “She seemed so professional, so accomplished, so polished. She looked like the future.”
In November 2017, Jordan beat out six other candidates, including five Republicans, during the nonpartisan election and advanced to a runoff against fellow Democrat Jaha Howard. But Howard’s campaign sputtered after anti-gay messages he had posted on social media came to light.
The morning of the runoff, Jordan checked Facebook, and a memory popped up. “It was a year to the day that I had argued the J.B. case in the Georgia Supreme Court,” Jordan says. “It was a little sign. We’re going to win this.”
Her victory broke the Republican supermajority in the state Senate, making it more difficult for the party to override the governor’s vetoes and pass constitutional amendments. “I like to say that my race was the canary in the coal mine,” she says. “But it didn’t make me the most popular person [in the Gold Dome].”
“As a woman, this did not feel like the usual political debate. They were talking about pregnancy like it was nothing.”
In her first legislative session, Jordan tried to throw off assumptions Republicans might have about her as a metro area Democrat and build alliances with rural senators. “I do think that I understand rural issues, but I can say, ‘Trust me,’ or I can show people they can trust me,” she says. She won the respect of Republican Greg Kirk, who represents Jordan’s hometown of Eastman. Kirk, who is battling stage-four cancer, spoke from a chemotherapy appointment to say that, despite their differing ideologies, he and Jordan have often met on the same page.
“Jen really tries to make sure that people in the legislature consider how things are going to affect all of Georgia,” he says. “She understands the dynamics that people in Atlanta don’t always consider. For example, unpaved roads are a huge issue back home. Not many people from the metro area would get that.”
Still, Jordan has come up against plenty of resistance from her Republican colleagues, who aren’t always open to her brand of lawyerly persuasion—no matter how much evidence she compiles to support her argument. She cites a 2018 antihacking bill that was written so broadly, it would have made it illegal for companies to perform legitimate cybersecurity measures.
“I gave people law-review articles, I drafted a few different versions [of the language] that would have fixed it. And the bill’s sponsor wouldn’t even talk to me,” she says. During the debate, she relentlessly cross-examined the sponsor, Republican lawmaker Bruce Thompson, who eventually refused to take any more questions from her. The bill, which was widely criticized by tech experts, passed but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Nathan Deal.
“I was like, ‘I told you so! Maybe you’ll listen to me next time,’” says Jordan. “At that point, I figured out that I didn’t need to be liked, but I needed to be respected. And I was going to have to fight tooth and nail for respect in that chamber.”
When the anti-abortion bill HB481 came up for debate in her second session, Jordan says she again felt there was a wall between her and her Republican colleagues that she could not penetrate. This time, though, it was personal.
“As a woman—and just about every woman I know has been through some kind of trauma with regards to pregnancy or fertility or sexual assault—this did not feel like the usual political debate,” she says. “They were talking about pregnancy like it was nothing, but I know the toll it takes on your body, your career, your ability to care for your family.” It’s a toll, she says, that women shouldn’t be forced to endure.
Jordan decided if she wanted to try to reach people on the other side of the aisle, she had to show them why it mattered. So, late one night, she started writing, vividly describing her painful history of pregnancy loss—details many of her friends and family didn’t know. The speech she crafted made the case that the bill, which would outlaw abortion six weeks after conception (before many women even know they’re pregnant) and make both women and their doctors subject to criminal prosecution, could leave women vulnerable to arrest if it was suspected that they purposefully caused a miscarriage. By laying bare her own experiences, filled with pain and loss, Jordan also hoped to make the point that women deserve a fundamental right to privacy—and freedom from prosecution—when it comes to their bodies.
Lipson, Jordan’s friend from law school, had the speech on in the background at home and says that, during the first few minutes, as Jordan laid out a powerful critique of the bill and its legal implications, she thought to herself, ‘Hot damn, she’s on fire!’ Lipson’s pride and admiration were joined by shock when, nearly 10 minutes into Jordan’s fierce takedown of HB481, she began to speak about her miscarriages and about Juliette: “I have been on my knees time after time and in prayer to my God about my losses,” Jordan said in her measured yet impassioned drawl. “I have loved each and every one of those potential lives, and my husband and I have grieved each passing. But no matter my faith, my beliefs, my losses, I have never, ever strayed from the basic principle that each woman—each woman—must be able to make her own decisions in consultation with her God and her family. It is not for the government or the men of this chamber to insert itself into the most personal, private, and wrenching decisions that [women] make every single day.”
“I got emotional because I knew what a self-sacrifice it was for her,” says Lipson, who was close friends with Jordan when she lost Juliette. “That was the lowest point of her whole life, and she never opens up about it. To anyone.”
Lipson compares Jordan’s mental discipline and ability to compartmentalize to that of a soldier. “She can go through the most excruciating, painful experiences and then put them in their place. In a lot of ways, I think that has been an incredible gift for her because it’s allowed her to move past so much trauma in her life.”
Lawton adds that he doesn’t think his wife could have made herself so vulnerable two or three years earlier when the wounds were much more raw.
“We shed a lot of tears over those miscarriages, but we’d also been through a healing process,” he says. “That she was able to deliver it in such a composed way—that was the lawyer in her coming out.”
Jordan says her biggest goal with the speech was to cut through the talking points and get someone, anyone, even just one person to consider the real-life impact that the bill would have.
“Though we disagree on many things, I certainly admire the faith and honesty with which she has shared her convictions.”
“It’s like when your mama grabs you by the shoulders and says, ‘What are you thinking?!’ I wanted to say, ‘What are y’all thinking?!’ This is going to end up hurting people, and you need to understand what the implications are,” she says. “I really believed that maybe I could do it. Which made it so hard coming out of that vote when it didn’t seem to have an effect on people—people who I do respect and know and believe are good.”
The Georgia senate passed the bill 34-18, straight across party lines. (It went on to pass the state House a week later—by just two votes—with five Republicans voting against it.)
“I know Senator Jordan’s story touched a lot of people, even Republicans, which goes to show how personal and conflicting this issue is for many Georgians, for many Americans,” Butch Miller, a Republican senator who represents District 49, which includes Gainesville, said in a statement to Atlanta magazine. “Senator Jordan has shown courage and leadership in her party, and though we disagree on many things, including the right to life, I certainly admire the faith and honesty with which she has shared her convictions.”
Mike Dugan, a Republican state senator representing District 30, northwest of Atlanta, shared a similar sentiment in a statement to Atlanta: “While this issue is emotional and conflicting for each of our members, I believe our chamber handled the debate and vote with respect and dignity. A prime example of this is when Senator Jen Jordan delivered her speech. . . . It is never easy to stand in a crowded room, in front of your peers, the public, and all of Georgia and share something so personal like she did.”
It’s a full house at the Cobb County Civic Center on the evening of August 19. Hundreds of people are packed into bleachers and rows of folding chairs, and mostly, they’re furious.
A month earlier, a report produced by WebMD and Georgia Health News revealed that Sterigenics, a Smyrna company that sterilizes medical products, had been releasing hundreds of pounds of ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas, into the air—and that the state’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) had declined to alert nearby residents. At the public meeting, attendees hold up signs demanding the facility be shut down and loudly boo representatives from the EPD and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. There are a lot of politicians in the room, including Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and U.S. Representative Lucy McBath. Yet Jordan’s name gets the biggest applause by far.
Since the news about the carcinogens broke, Jordan has been extra busy: sharing information on her public Facebook page, issuing a statement calling for more transparency from Sterigenics and the EPD, submitting an official request to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the health impact of ethylene oxide in communities surrounding the plant, and pressuring Governor Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr to do the same. Again, it’s a fight that feels personal. For years, Jordan had worked in a legal office located down the road from the Sterigenics plant, and on August 6, she got word that one of her coworkers there, Missy Bird Wilson, had died of breast cancer.
“I don’t know if there’s a relationship between [Missy’s] cancer and the plant. But you can’t help but wonder. That’s what everybody is doing that lives here,” she says. “People are scared.”
After the public meeting on Sterigenics, Jordan repeatedly called on the governor’s office to shut down the plant and others like it in Georgia. The plant suspended operations in August to install upgrades to reduce emissions of ethylene oxide, although the state EPD’s consent agreement with Sterigenics allowed the company to keep operating during that time. On September 6, Jordan filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court to invalidate that consent agreement. Since then, officials have refused to grant permits allowing the facility to reopen.
“This movie’s already played up in Illinois,” where Sterigenics was shut down in the wake of a similar issue with ethylene oxide, says Jordan. “There, the company entered into a sweeping consent agreement with the state of Illinois that is probably as protective as you can get. To compare what Sterigenics has agreed to do in Illinois and what they’ve agreed to do here, the people in Georgia got a raw deal.”
In November, Erick Allen, a Democratic state representative from Smyrna, announced his intent to introduce legislation that would strengthen the state’s oversight of ethylene oxide when the legislature convenes again this year. Jordan says that more state involvement is critical, given the federal EPA’s hands-off attitude under the Trump administration.
“I think we clearly need to rethink the role of Georgia EPD in this process,” she says. “You have a federal government that’s saying, ‘Well, it’s on the states to deal with this.’ And then, you have a state agency that isn’t really doing what it needs to do. That creates a real problem.”
Still, Jordan knows she and her Democratic colleagues may well be playing defense on the issue.
“When you are part of the minority party, you don’t dictate policy, priorities, anything,” she says. “You just have to respond to whatever they’re pushing.” It’s not an enjoyable role, and it doesn’t always feel rewarding, she says.
“People think it’s like some kind of honorific, like, ‘Oh, you get to be a senator!’ They ask you sometimes, ‘You having fun over there?’” she says. “It’s not fun. But it’s important.”
Although her name has been tossed around to run for higher office, Jordan says she has hesitated over whether to make a play for Washington. Part of her reasoning is that she doesn’t want to uproot her family or spend months out of every year away from them in D.C. (“When I’m not there in the morning or evening,” she says, “I start to feel discombobulated a little.”) And part of it is because she’s not sure she’s ready to leave the Gold Dome, where she feels she can be of value.
Her biggest concern is restoring balance to state government. Supermajorities, where a single party controls the House, Senate, and Governor’s office, currently exist in 36 states, including Georgia, and Jordan has seen firsthand that it disincentivizes compromise.
“When you have that kind of imbalance, it takes away space for people to come together. It creates these far-right, far-left corners for people, where there’s no room in the middle,” she says. “The partisan rancor, the inability to even see each other as human beings—it’s almost like this crazy fever dream that we’ve got to wake up from. For too long, communication and compromise has been seen as a weakness. But we’ve absolutely got to get back to that place.”
Heading into the 2020 legislative session, her third, Jordan is plagued by a sense of unease. After last spring’s battle over HB481, she was hoping for a break from what she sees as “extreme social legislation.” But with a highly conservative governor at the state’s helm, and with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that federal courts can’t put brakes on partisan gerrymandering, she’s worried.
“The gerrymandering [case] gives an all-clear. The training wheels are off. That’s why I’ve been telling [Democrats], we’ve got to take the state House in 2020,” she says. “That’s the only way that we don’t end up with completely partisan maps that are going to put us again in a place where you have the fringe element taking control.”
She and others in the state legislature and beyond think some Republicans may be fearful of a 2020 blue wave in Georgia and will use this legislative session to push through a conservative wishlist: permitless gun carry, religious liberty bills. In 2016, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed in the state legislature but was vetoed by then Governor Deal. Critics argued the bill would have allowed faith-based organizations to refuse to serve or hire LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs. A similar bill was proposed in the state senate in 2019 but never made it out of the chamber.
“I’m really, really concerned about RFRA this year,” Jordan says. “It’s kind of like their last stand.”
Battles like these are part of the reason why, back in September, Jordan announced that she wouldn’t challenge U.S. Senator Perdue in 2020. “With state senate, I know what I can bring to the table. It’s a bird in hand,” she says. “To jump from this job where I really feel like I’m making a difference, there has to be more to it than just, ‘Oh, it’s time.’”
She also backed away from the race for U.S. Senator Isakson’s former seat after formidable Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock announced in late January that he’ll be running. Had Jordan wanted to vie for that seat, she would’ve been making a perilous political decision—splitting the Democratic vote in November’s “jungle primary,” in which qualifying candidates from both parties all compete against each other. It’s possible that finance executive and political newcomer Loeffler, Kemp’s appointee to replace Isakson (who says she’s willing to put $20 million of her own fortune into the race), will split the GOP vote with fellow Republican candidate Congressman Doug Collins—though it’s more likely one of the two will bow out, under pressure from President Trump.
“Kemp’s choice of a person who isn’t from Georgia and who basically bought the appointment by giving millions to Republicans isn’t exactly inspiring,” Jordan says. “The pick, however, is a recognition of the emerging electoral power of women in this state.”
She adds: “But being pro-Trump isn’t being pro–policies that matter to women, and Georgia women are smart enough to know the difference.”
Regardless of when or if she might seek higher office, Jordan looks like a Democrat who could pull off a statewide win. She can connect with a range of audiences, whether it’s attorneys at white-shoe law firms or public school teachers. She’s also a Christian who owns the label “progressive” but bristles at being called a radical. “The problem with these labels is that they’re just intended to signal to people that this isn’t somebody that’s on ‘our team,’ and therefore, you need to reject them out of hand,” she says.
She might not have swayed Republicans on HB481, but she hasn’t given up on finding common ground—whether under the Gold Dome or potentially in Washington. “Although you may not like certain things I do,” she says, “I bet if you keep looking, you’re going to like something I’ve done.”
This article appears in our February 2020 issue. It has been updated since it ran in print.