My high school friend Jon Ossoff almost became a Congressman last night

Ossoff and I were both in the Paideia Class of 2005. No way I would miss election night in Atlanta.
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Jon Ossoff Rembert Browne

Photograph by Dustin Chambers/The Jon Ossoff Campaign

“Our generation has a unique cultural viewpoint and a unique ability to discuss how we view culture, politics, and their interaction. Revolutionary: a meeting place where a generation said to be unconscionably apathetic will assert not only its involvement and engagement but its demands, its desires, its hopes. This is a place where idealism can be brought back to the forefront of public discourse as a legitimate goal and not just a pretty dream; this is a place where a youthful intellectual insurgency can repudiate the stagnant, cynical status quo and demand innovation and vigor. But the message should be less an indictment of today and more a vision of tomorrow.”

This treatise of sorts found its way into my college email inbox on January 25, 2006. More than 11 years ago, Jonathan Ossoff sent this to me at 11:07 p.m. on a Wednesday night. I remember reading that email, agreeing with it, and then laughing because it exemplified why we were so similar and so different. What we shared: a passion for progress and an absurd belief that we would change the world, both partially stemming from spending six years together in Atlanta’s liberal smarts factory known as the Paideia School. But what separated us: him having the nerve to send that email just five months into our freshman year of college.

I loved reading the email again the next morning, but there was no chance in hell I was going to respond to it. I mean, what was I going to say at the time—True, True. But four years later, days away from losing that college email account, I forwarded a handful of messages to myself that I didn’t want to forever disappear into the abyss. I kept it because I found myself reading it a few times a year, continuously inspired by that unfiltered, passionate, Carpe Diem, never meant for anyone else’s eyes-kind of writing that, when I graduated, I wanted to turn into something real, much better, perhaps even into a career.

This decade-old unanswered email from an 18-year-old Jon Ossoff is why nothing about this election day is surprising. It’s also why there’s little way for me to pretend to be objective about what I hope is his future success. That lengthy connection—both as friends, thinkers, and would-be colleagues—is why missing April 18 in Atlanta was out of the question.

And that 30-hour trip was a far cry from where this process began. Before Christmas, Ossoff gathered a select few at his house to tell us whether or not he was going to run, weeks after floating the idea. I was en route to Atlanta from Washington D.C., alongside another friend who also would have been at the house were we not on the road.

We conferenced in—put it on speaker phone—slightly to the chagrin of the three other people in the car. Assuming there were only three to four people at his house, I took the call very lightheartedly, and then once he’d said what he needed to say, we hung up so we could go back to listening to T.I.

So far, I’d ignored an email and left a conference call early—I was 0-for-2. But after months of talking to him during the campaign, it was finally time to come home and see this through in it’s entirety, from the day’s opening bell to the final results.

Early Tuesday morning, already diving into the lunch my mom packed into a Wreck-It Ralph bag, I quickly realized the gross underestimation of how long it takes to get from the south south side of Atlanta to the north north side on a traffic-filled morning—especially when the city’s roads recently look like God’s been playing Battleship. The first campaign event on the schedule was at 7 a.m.; I went from arriving five minutes early to 45 minutes late.

Arriving in Sandy Springs and seeing no rally, I assumed I’d missed everything. But then a staffer took me aside and asked if I wanted to watch Ossoff do a press hit with CNN. He took me to the other side of the building, on a terrace, and looking down—there he was.

It was finally real—my friend might be a Congressman by nightfall. I was proud, but also exhausted for him. It was startling to see how many people were working, volunteering, all in the name of one person. Watching his interview, I did a double-take at one of the cameraman. It was another high school friend, Daniel. This day was going to be a family affair. And that’s how it was supposed to be—some of us were supposed to leave Atlanta and come back, others stay forever, but all in the name of helping this city. And it was happening.

Once Ossoff was done, I went down, gave him a hug, and then he was whisked off in a big black car, something I quickly realized was becoming a commonplace in his life.

Next stop: Marietta, for his second appearance at one of his field offices. The thing about the 6th district that is worth noting—it is large, and if you’re from south of it, chances are you know all the district’s cities by name, but have no idea which one is where. They’re simply the places and roads you hear about on the morning traffic report.

Since what I thought would be a 10-minute ride getting from Sandy Springs to Marietta was actually 35, I had a lengthy spate of time with the radio. And on the radio—my first taste of the Ossoff radio attack ads. Back in New York, I’d seen the Han Solo blunder from the Republican party, heard a few other attempts at smears, but there’s something about hearing them at home, about someone you know, that makes you want to go fight.

The first used the coded language of bringing up “San Francisco” and “Berkeley” and “New York City” as places that influenced Ossoff, which was a reminder that I still prefer my bigots up-front.

The next said that he was a pawn of Washington (since he was educated and employed there) that Nancy Pelosi owns him, and that real Georgians’ freedoms were on the line. (That spot was paid for by the NRA Political Victory Fund.) Following that, the radio personality played the Trump robocall against Ossoff, in which the President of the United States of America said that Ossoff was going to “flood our country with illegal immigrants.” And following that, the radio personality joked that Democrats could still vote on Wednesday, quickly mentioning he probably shouldn’t say that because he could get in trouble.

The Marietta office was energized. Volunteers were out on the street with signs asking drivers to honk as they passed by. People drove up in cars to drop off food, each one wearing their own unique piece of Ossoff flare.

Ossoff walked out to cheers in the office and gave a quick speech. Minutes later, yet again, he would be whisked away in a big black car. Running into another of our high school friends, also working with the campaign, we hopped in his car and bounced around polling places in the district.

When we stopped for lunch, I picked up a copy of the Brookhaven Buzz newspaper. In the middle sat a full-page ad of Ossoff. Today alone I’d watched him be interviewed by CNN, get cheered on by his volunteers, seen his yard signs, and heard him spoken about on television, but this—this little local paper—was when it all became real. Because there was no escaping it. And, for the first time, it was beginning to feel normal.

Around 1 p.m., we stopped at the hotel where the watch party would be held, the Crowne Plaza Ravinia. A few minutes later, the afternoon’s light rain turned into a monsoon.

It rained, and it did not stop for a long time.

The conversation turned to weather and the election. How, historically, has rain impacted special elections? The rain is during the lunch break, when people often vote—what does that mean? Are old white people scared they’ll slip and fall in the rain, or is there literally nothing you can do to discourage an old white person from voting?

These conversations—75 percent in my head, 25 percent aloud—happened until a little after three, when they finally calmed. Around this time, I got word there was another Ossoff event at a third office at 4 p.m. I prepped myself to go, and then was promptly stopped in my tracks.

The video for Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” had just come out.

Don Cheadle was in the “DNA” video.

Don Cheadle and Kendrick Lamar had a lip sync rap battle in the “DNA” video.

So, in the spirit of being on assignment but also being black in the very white 6th district of Georgia, I skipped the event and watched the “DNA” video on a loop while talking to as many people as I could about it.

By 5 p.m., more high school friends showed up, a few with parents in tow. By 6:15, I could see friends, parents, and teachers all in one frame. And at 7 p.m., we were all in the ballroom for the beginning of what hoped would be a celebration.

If there had been a chocolate fountain and a set of candles, this could have been a Bar Mitzvah. Who knew? An election party was like My Super Sweet 16. I started saying that we were 100 percent lifting Ossoff in a chair and doing the hora to Hava Nagila if he won outright.

Our crew of friends that had known him for so long couldn’t get over this was all for him. People were hitting the stage, talking about how much they believed in our serious but goofy friend. It was surreal. I kept saying I felt like I was in an episode of The West Wing, but my friend accurately corrected me—this was a special election episode of Parks and Recreation.

At 8:19 p.m., the first result came in—Ossoff at 71.3%. The place erupted.

More importantly, moments later, it became known that the DJ’s name was DJ Nutty. And he was playing jams, most importantly “Square Biz” by Teena Marie.

A handful of results streamed in and things began to look really, really good for Ossoff. And then people started doing the Electric Slide, and I got scared.

I’d seen this. I was having flashbacks. The last time I was in Atlanta, the Falcons were up 28-3 in the third quarter.

Dammit.

I took off my pin—a Mike Lukovich-drawn Ossoff/Trump cartoon passed out by Ossoff’s mother—and hid my press pass under my shirt, embarking on what became a 4-hour stress loop of sitting down to type, going out into the masses to stress talk to friends, grabbing a stress drink, eating a stress quiche, and then leaving the hotel to sit outside the makeshift stress smokers lounge, before then pulling my press pass back out and sitting down again to type.

At 10:10 p.m., the chair of the Georgia Democratic Party got on stage and started a “Flip The 6th” chant, which was amplified by the airhorn accompaniment from DJ Nutty. We were past the point of this hopefully becoming a runoff—Ossoff was hovering a few points over 50 percent.

The room now had its sights on the win. Tonight.

But then, at 10:37, something wild happened. DJ Nutty played “Fade” by Kanye West. It was the first song I questioned, even though I loved it. My guy DJ Nutty was playing the most fire mix in Cobb County history, but “Fade” might have been his heat check.

After hearing the censored version of Kanye saying “real-ass nigga”—an edited version that did a half-hearted attempt at censorship, I was praying for Nutty to get out of this alive.

But this was DJ Nutty. I knew he had a plan. And a plan, he had. “Fade” harmlessly transitioned into that “sunshine in my pocket” bullshit that Justin Timberlake sings. All was right again at the Ossoff Mitzvah.

As we crept toward the 11 o’clock hour, the news slowed. Mayoral candidates Vincent Fort and Ceasar Mitchell were in the room, as was Mayor Kasim Reed, garnering the majority of the attention. Leaving my press perch for the first time in a while, I didn’t see anyone I knew. But when I walked outside, there was everyone, stress-eating delivery Dominos.

We were perfect, and, as we all acknowledge, what a miracle it is that none of us ruined this election for him.

At 11:30 p.m., I went back in to check the numbers. The room had thinned a bit, but was still quite packed. Ossoff had 71,970 votes—50 percent—with 113 out of 210 precincts reporting. The 50 was comforting, but 107 precincts still unaccounted for still wasn’t.

Then a wave hit the room.

Fucking Fulton County!

Goddammit, Fulton County.

Big surprise, Fulton County is doing what Fulton County does.

Cobb and DeKalb had fully reported, while Fulton County had reported 19 of 116 precincts. At 11:30 p.m. Why?

From WSB: “Rare data error from one of the cards means Fulton County will have to manually go through hundreds of cards to find the culprit.”

You had to be kidding me.

More time went by—but then, out of nowhere—Star Wars music.

Ossoff was coming out.

I texted everyone outside to get in, immediately.

Did his team know something we didn’t, or was he about to warn us that it could be a long night? When he hit the stage—16 hours after I first saw him—he still looked fresh. I was impressed. All I wanted to do was hand him a beer before he went on stage, but it didn’t seem appropriate. He went up there, said the things, thanked the people, and said that there was a lot of work left to do, if they won it tonight or if it was a runoff. People were straight-up Beatlemania screaming at him, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

Photograph by Dustin Chambers/The Jon Ossoff Campaign

When he made his way off stage, shaking hands on his way out, I was gearing up for 3 to 4 more hours until Fulton County remembered how to pass 3rd grade math.

But just a few minutes later, the runoff was declared.

It was an odd feeling in the room. A runoff had always been the assumption and the goal, but it couldn’t help but be a slight letdown once we all tasted victory. But once you put it in perspective, it was a hell of a feat, just feeling any victory in a room like this. At the very least, even if the 6th hadn’t yet been flipped, we’d most certainly flipped this nice-ass hotel.

As the room cleared out, with the exception of a handful still dancing to DJ Nutty, I spoke to some support staffers. That taste of victory became very real for them to, many briefly realizing how close they were to having their guy elected two months ahead of schedule. But no, there was more work to be done, a sobering thought tonight, one that would again be exciting tomorrow.

Rembert Browne is an Atlanta native and former writer-at-large at New York magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @rembert.

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