How Biden’s support for the All-Star Game boycott divided Democrats in Georgia
By Ashley Parker, Sean Sullivan and Cleve R. Wootson Jr.,
Demetrius Freeman The Washington Post
The question should have been a simple one.
President Biden had just finished delivering remarks outlining his infrastructure plan when he sat down for an interview with ESPN’s Sage Steele in Pittsburgh last Wednesday. Midway through the conversation, the “SportsCenter” co-host noted that “sports and politics cross paths sometimes” and pressed the president on the campaign by some Major League Baseball players to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to Georgia’s controversial new voting restrictions.
Biden’s answer was swift — and seemingly definitive.
“I think today’s professional athletes are acting incredibly responsibly — I would strongly support them doing that,” Biden said of the boycott, before going on to describe the new Georgia law as “Jim Crow on steroids.”
With those impromptu remarks, Biden injected himself into a highly-charged debate with major political, economic and social consequences — in a state that is increasingly up-for-grabs politically and crucial to both Democratic and Republican success in coming elections. Less than 48 hours later, the MLB announced it was moving the July 13 event, ultimately deciding on Denver.
The political uproar in Georgia comes in response to a sweeping voting measure signed into law last month by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp that Democrats say will lead to longer lines, partisan control of elections and more difficult procedures for voters trying to cast their ballots by mail. The conflict is part of a larger nationwide battle over GOP-led voting restrictions, which have been fueled in large part by former president Donald Trump’s bogus claims of election fraud last November.
Cardboard cutouts of fans in the otherwise empty seats face the field during the sixth inning of a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays at Truist Park in Atlanta, which lost out as the site of the All-Star Game.
In Georgia, Biden’s involvement has sparked broad condemnation from Republicans as well as unease within his own party, especially among local Democrats who had opposed or urged caution in moving the All-Star Game because of the economic impact on the state.
“I think he probably should not have weighed in,” said Jacquelyn Bettadapur, chair of the Cobb County Democrats. “As push came to shove, I know some of the local elected officials were disappointed that he weighed in.”
Influential Georgia Democrats reached out to the White House shortly after Biden’s remarks to indicate it was not their preferred message, according to three people with knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity to describe the interactions. The conversations reached high levels of the White House, involving deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon.
The White House heard from the political teams of voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, a potential candidate for governor, and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), according to the people with knowledge of the situation. Their goal was to give the White House a heads up that both politicians planned to release statements opposing the boycotts.
At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki has spent days attempting to clarify Biden’s answer — asserting that he was not explicitly calling for a boycott, but rather was voicing support for voting rights and for the MLB if they chose to move the game.
“He was simply conveying that he would support that decision if that decision was made by Major League Baseball, just like he would support decisions made by private sector companies,” Psaki told reporters Tuesday. “We’re not standing here and calling for companies to boycott. That’s not what our focus is on from the White House.”
But Biden’s remarks were widely seen as encouraging the move, and Psaki has since been pressed on whether the president supports other boycotts as well — from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing to the Masters, which began Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.
African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Reginald Jackson announces a boycott of Coca-Cola products outside the Georgia Capitol on Thursday, March 25, 2021 in Atlanta.
To many advisers and longtime allies, the president’s answer reflected his deeply-held conviction that voting is a fundamental right and that Georgia’s new law — which Democrats say makes voting more difficult, particularly for minority voters — is abhorrent.
“This issue of voting is fundamental to democracy, and the president — the leader of the free world — is of course interested in the success of democracy, has views on it, is a leader on it, and was asked about it,” said Catherine Lhamon, the deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council for Racial Justice and Equity. “The president was not calling for any particular action. His view is that making voting hard is reprehensible and he expressed that view.”
But to others, Biden went too far with his ESPN comments, wading into a tense local debate and adding fuel to calls for a boycott that many fear will be counterproductive. The move also gives Republicans a sharp new line of attack, casting Democrats as causing economic and reputational damage to the state.
Following Biden’s remarks, representatives of Abrams, Ossoff and other Georgia Democrats reached out to White House officials to highlight their opposing views, according to the people familiar with the situation. The point of the conversations was not to blame Biden, but to get on the same page and stress that many Democrats in Georgia were still eager to keep the game in the state, the people familiar with the talks said.
The economic repercussions of the move are significant. In Cobb County, where the game was to be held, tourism officials estimated the move to Colorado could cost the area $100 million, including some 8,000 hotel rooms that had been booked for the game. Much of the impact is likely to fall on low-income and minority residents who work in the service sector.
The economic damage explains why many Georgia Democrats — including some who have organized against the state’s new voting law — oppose the MLB boycott.
“I absolutely oppose and reject any notion of boycotting Georgia,” Ossoff said in a statement the day after Biden’s interview. “Georgia welcomes business, investment, jobs, opportunity, and events. In fact, economic growth is driving much of the political progress we have seen here. Georgia welcomes the world’s business.”
Georgia Democratic Sens Jon Ossoff, left, and Raphael G. Warnock appear at a Stop AAPI Hate Rally in Atlanta on March 20, 2021.
The same day, Abrams said critics should not boycott her state “yet.”
And Cobb County Commission Chairwoman Lisa Cupid (D) directly rebuked Biden in a statement: “While we are both frustrated by the recently-enacted elections legislation, the president’s remarks concerning moving Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game out of Cobb County sends an unfortunate message to those residents and businesses here who have supported him.”
In announcing the All-Star Game move, MLB Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. wrote in a statement, “Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.” But Biden’s comments did not have any impact on the commissioner’s decision to move the game out of Georgia, a league official said.
Some Georgia Democrats said Biden’s influence on the MLB decision should not be overstated and that Republicans were ultimately culpable.
“The MLB did not leave Georgia because of President Biden’s remarks or any other politician or elected official in Georgia’s remarks,” said Tharon Johnson, a Georgia Democratic strategist who advises Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. “They left Cobb County, Georgia, because Republicans passed Senate Bill 202.”
Cobb County has become a crucial bellwether in Georgia. Once a Republican stronghold, Biden won a majority of the vote there, an improvement from Hillary Clinton’s narrow advantage in 2016 and Barack Obama’s loss there in 2012. Georgia also handed Senate Democrats narrow control of the chamber after Ossoff and Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) both won in January runoffs.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who conducted surveys for Biden’s campaign and continues to work with the White House, expressed confidence that the public would appreciate Biden’s candid response in the ESPN interview.
“I think voters in general respond to Biden being Biden,” she said.
Even if Biden does not suffer any broad political damage, Democrats in Georgia — a must-win state that hosts marquee gubernatorial and Senate races in 2022 — are in a more difficult position.
The day the MLB announced its decision, Abrams released a statement on Twitter saying she was “disappointed” by the move.
“As I have stated, I respect boycotts, although I don’t want to see Georgia families hurt by lost events and jobs,” she wrote. “Georgians targeted by voter suppression will be hurt as opportunities go to other states.”
Warnock also released a statement last Friday calling the MLB decision “unfortunate.”
“It is my hope that businesses, athletes, and entertainers can protest this law not by leaving Georgia but by coming here and fighting voter suppression head on, and hand-in-hand with the community,” Warnock wrote.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) speaks during a news conference at the State Capitol on Saturday, April 3, 2021.
Georgia Democrats have come under fierce attack from Republicans seeking to blame them for the economic consequences of losing the game.
“What did you think was gonna happen?” asked former congressman Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) in a tweet last week directed at Warnock. Collins — a potential Warnock opponent in 2022 — accused the Democrat of promoting lies about the voting bill that resonated with “the woke culture that doesn’t care about Georgians.”
The reaction has been more positive among religious leaders in the state who have been mulling a boycott of Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta Air Lines and other Georgia-based corporations for allegedly not voicing stronger opposition to the voting restrictions.
“Any encouragement the President gives is wonderful and we thank him for it,” said Bishop Reginald Jackson, presiding prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who leads a coalition of churches opposed to the voting measures.
Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, an organization started by Abrams in 2013 that focused on registering voters of color, said she understands the political calculations to offer a more restrained perspective, given that both Biden and Georgia’s two Democratic Senators were elected by slim margins in Georgia. But she said people on the left have learned valuable lessons from previous failed attempts to compromise with Republicans.
“In a lot of ways, he is the chief spokesperson for America or the idea of America,” Ufot said, adding that Biden is “not weighing in just on Georgia; there are 47 states that are deliberating anti-voting bills right now.”
Billy Honor, who is part of the effort to expand voter access, said Biden weighing in may help with mobilizing people who believe the law should be overturned, but “it also then makes the issue a Democratic issue, it makes it a partisan political issue.”
“I support the spirit of the boycott, but I don’t support the strategy,” Honor said.
On Tuesday, after delivering remarks in the State Dining Room on coronavirus vaccines efforts, Biden was asked if he supported moving the Masters golf tournament out of Georgia.
This time, the president took something of a mulligan — offering a more restrained response than he had about the All-Star Game. He said that the decision was up to the Masters, and that he was reassured to see businesses “speaking up about how these new Jim Crow laws are just antithetical to who we are.”
And then he turned his attention to “the other side” of a boycott.
“When they, in fact, move out of Georgia, the people who need the help the most — people who are making hourly wages — sometimes get hurt the most,” Biden said.