Gabriel Sterling, the breakout star of Georgia’s contentious election season, grew up watching Star Wars. He credits the battle between intergalactic warlord Darth Vader and Jedi Luke Skywalker with helping mold his personal and political philosophies. The sci-fi opera, he says, somewhat prepared him to navigate the fractured political world that’s brought him fame and infamy, praise and death threats.
You don’t expect someone with a title like “voting system implementation manager” to end up on 60 Minutes. But Sterling, now 50—though still “boyish and bespectacled,” friends tell him—was jolted into the national spotlight after disputing the deluge of misinformation regarding election integrity. “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Sterling said in an explosive and widely viewed December press conference from the Georgia capitol steps, was when someone threatened the life of a young elections worker in Gwinnett County who was wrongly accused of vote tampering. “Someone is going to get hurt; someone is going to get shot; someone is going to get killed,” Sterling said, fuming. He was right, it turns out. He wishes he hadn’t been.
The son of a now divorced artist mother and businessman father, with liberal and conservative leanings, respectively, Sterling got interested in politics and adopted Republican ideals early on. “I was nine years old and wanted Reagan to beat Carter,” says Sterling, who was born in Decatur, raised across intown Atlanta, and moved to Sandy Springs in high school. “He got elected when I was 10. I went to high school in ’84, at the height of Reaganism, and that defined a lot of what I saw as good stuff: freedom, justice, the American Way.” Decades later, Sterling’s resume includes experience as a congressional staffer, political consultant, marketing pro, Sandy Springs city councilman, and several jobs within Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office—as chief operating and financial officer and, during the election, as the voting system implementation manager, a $200,000-a-year contract position.
At the University of Georgia, he joined the College Republicans and soon took on campaign gigs—from Bart Ladd’s state House bid, to George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign, to Charlie Norwood’s run for U.S. Congress. He ascended the ranks of conservative circles and even, at 24, turned down an offer to be Norwood’s chief of staff after spearheading a successful campaign to make him the representative of Georgia’s 10th District. “I said, Charlie, I can run a campaign all day long, but I don’t know squat about running a Washington office,” Sterling says. “But I’m going to find you the best person I can.” His pick, John Walker, served Norwood until the congressman passed away in 2007.
Lately, though, Sterling’s knack for fact-checking—he regularly bullet-pointed holes in election-fraud claims during press briefings—has spurred death threats. To cope with stress, he gardens, watches Georgia football—“It’s a huge part of my life”—and smokes meat. “I’ve got a barrel smoker, an electric box smoker, a Primo ceramic smoker, a Big Green Egg smoker, and a Weber gas grill.” His dream of launching a dry-rub barbecue company has been shoved to the back burner, though, thanks to the Covid-19 crisis and recent political turmoil. He contends that, if only people could still safely congregate to chomp barbecue and talk shop, the country’s ideological divisiveness might not be so severe. “It’s harder to dehumanize someone if you’re able to look them in the eye,” Sterling says.
A Christian, Sterling also says he finds solace in prayer. In fact, he got baptized just two weeks before the November election. “My minister told me that evil tries to chase you four days before and four days after [baptism],” he says. “I later told the election staff, Thankfully, we’re outside the four-day window. But my elections director [Chris Harvey] said, Yes, but with the governor’s health order, that’s been extended.”
Indeed, Sterling has taken flak from all points on the political spectrum, fielding feverish accusations on social media, entertaining middle fingers when he walks down the street, and even enlisting police to protect his home from conspiracy theorists. The barbs come from his own party because he’s decried Trump’s election-fraud claims as nonsense, and from Democrats because, despite his criticism of the president, he still voted for him, as well as for defeated Republican ex-Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who both called for Sterling’s boss, Raffensperger, to resign because of how he handled the election.
Sterling still thinks impeaching Trump wasn’t the way to manifest the unity America aches for, and he declined to support efforts to remove the president before Joe Biden’s inauguration, comparing the situation to “striking a match over an open gas can.” Taking another lesson from the Jedi, Sterling believes hate is wasted energy. “[Star Wars] also taught me something about redemption,” he says. “Even Darth Vader, at the end, was redeemed by his son, Luke.”
Sterling hopes to play a role in America’s redemptive arc. He plans to stick around the secretary of state’s office at least until the end of Raffensperger’s term in two years. What comes after that remains to be seen, although, armed with his newfound fame, Sterling says he wants “to help right the ship” of the Republican party. To do that, he says, some of the party needs to admit they were wrong about election fraud. “We have two different sets of reality for two different sets of Americans,” Sterling says. “Like water over a stone,” he says, “eventually the truth will smooth things over.”
This article appears in our March 2021 issue.