Where lies the way forward for the Democratic Party in 2018: Offering a progressive vision for the nation, or setting itself in contrast to its enemy in chief, Donald Trump?
In races national and local, that’s the question deciding the identity of the out-of-power party still reeling from its 2016 presidential election defeat and in search of a message in the Trump era.
In Gainesville and Clayton, the poles of the 9th Congressional District, two candidates are working to answer that question.
On one side, Josh McCall: Gainesville teacher, ardent progressive and first-time candidate who has spent more than a year in the race campaigning on a platform of health care for all, economic fairness and a message of passionate, Christian equality.
On the other, newcomer Dave Cooper: Clayton pilot and a former Army officer and EPA official who for the past decade has volunteered for Democrats in races throughout the country — including stints in multiple states working precincts for Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary — and who said he was motivated to run after the “Trump tax theft of 2017.”
The two men debated for the first time at the end of April in Gainesville, little more than a month after Cooper jumped into the primary during the March qualifying period.
They’re running to decide who will challenge incumbent Republican Rep. Doug Collins, the preacher, lawyer and former Georgia state House representative from Gainesville now working his way up the ladder of GOP congressional leadership.
As a result, and with the president enjoying wild approval numbers in Georgia and the district, Collins has made himself an ally to Trump and the White House in Congress — to the frustration of district Democrats, who have protested outside his office and packed his annual town hall to shout him down.
That frustration is fueling the primary between McCall and Cooper, who have different approaches to their campaigns but similar policy prescriptions for the district and nation.
Both candidates call for a form of universal health care or insurance, both want higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and both argue in favor of additional restrictions on firearms ownership (though Cooper goes much further than McCall on this point).
It’s in their rhetoric and backgrounds where the two candidates differ.
A Southern progressive
Raised in Georgia, McCall is a young, clean-cut Southerner and longtime Gainesville resident who bathes his campaign in the water of Christianity, pulling Bible verses out of the air on the stump in favor of his government-based solutions to problems of poverty, inequality and corruption.
He’s gone so far as to rebuff the complaints of his more secular potential voters who chafe at faith-filled speeches, saying he sees it as the way forward for Democrats in the district.
McCall, 37, who teaches at Riverside Military Academy, is married to Jennifer McCall, a Green Street lawyer. They have three children.
His political awakening came during the Iraq War. As a student at the University of North Georgia, McCall had the choice to enter military service.
“I wasn’t political at all back then. I didn’t even follow the news much — enough to just know the basics of what was going on,” McCall told The Times last week. “And so, I said to myself when we were going to Afghanistan, that was an obvious one for me.”
While he supported the invasion of Afghanistan, he found the invasion of Iraq afterward and the war on Saddam Hussein to be illogical, leading him to be “profoundly skeptical of the push for war in the wake of 9/11.”
Democrats don’t have a perfect record on the issue of Iraq, McCall said, noting it’s “one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton lost both against Obama and against Trump. They both ran against her on the Iraq issue.”
The 2001 terrorist attack on New York City has shaped our politics and culture, McCall said, and not for the better. He wants to pull the United States out of what he sees as too much focus on global involvement, from the military to global business, to focus on issues at home.
“The American Dream has moved overseas,” McCall said. “We are all about the troops, which we should be, but what about the youth, what about the poor, who are equally American? Our patriotism stops at our borders.”
His willingness to question both parties led him to his Bernie Sanders-style progressive politics, calling for government-guaranteed employment and Medicare for all (but not government control of health care in a truly socialized system).
“Nobody has more power over you than a private insurance company,” McCall said.
McCall also sees a restoration of full welfare benefits without work requirements as a means of reducing the abortion rate in the country, especially among the poor, who can run the risk of losing their job because of a pregnancy.
He supports paths to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally, with a quicker process for those who have been here the longest and immediate citizenship for those who were brought here as children. McCall also argues for restrictions on high-capacity magazines and universal background checks on all firearms transfers, including between family members.
West Coast to East Coast
Cooper is a casual West Coaster and lifelong Democrat, spending much of his life in Oregon and California and eventually settling in the San Francisco Bay area community of Novato.
Coming from the Oregon and California coasts, Cooper has strong words about Trump and Republican control of Congress.
“The things he’s said, the things he’s proposed, the incredibly unqualified candidate members that he’s brought on — not every single one, but too many of them — his proposals for how to treat people, the language he’s used: All of those things are at a minimum unpresidential and certainly unprecedented in so many ways” Cooper said of Trump’s time in office. “It certainly figured in very heavily (to my run).”
But far from being an unhappy warrior in a grim fight, Cooper is a cheerful retiree who considers himself the luckiest man on the planet.
“And that includes Lou Gehrig,” he said, laughing.
Cooper’s neighborhood is almost beyond belief. His driveway is a taxiway, his front yard a half-mile runway and his neighborhood streets are in the clouds.
He lives in Heaven’s Landing, a “mountain estate airpark” that sits 3 miles from Clayton in Rabun County. He purchased property in the airpark, tucked around a hill at the end of the runway, in 2015 after visiting the area the year before.
“I went by expecting just to visit,” he said, but he was hooked by the area and the wider East Coast. “I thought, ‘Yes, I will go on this adventure, because how can I not?’”
Cooper flies an RV-12, an efficient, kit-built aircraft that — along with his daughter, son-in-lawand grandson— gives him a great amount of wide-eyed joy.
“Until the last 100 years, no human being could fly. No general, no businessman, no king, no prophet — no one could fly, and now ... just a regular guy like me, I can fly,” Cooper said, stressing every word. “It is a privilege.”
The aircraft is painted with the American flag and the Vietnam-era name, “Freedom Bird,” an homage to the name soldiers gave the aircraft that would carry them away from the war zone.
But back on the ground, under the wings of his freedom bird, Cooper’s war goes on.
The divorced, retired soldier has worked at every level of government, from cities and counties in California and Oregon to state governments and up to federal planning for the Environmental Protection Agency.
In the Army, Cooper served from the reserves and moved into active duty to work in civil affairs. For the EPA, he worked as a strategic planner for the agency’s “superfund” sites, polluted areas requiring long-term cleanup. He spent 15 years with the EPA.
As the son of a woodworker, Cooper has designed three of his homes in his life — including his current home in Heaven’s Landing. And now retired from both military service and the EPA, Cooper writes in his free time and has worked as a freelance reporter.
But his motivating work for the past few years has been in politics. He’s traveled the country to volunteer in Democratic races from Arizona to Colorado to Virginia. Cooper was a frequent volunteer for the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, and, while building his home near Clayton, he worked on the Jon Ossoff campaign in the Georgia 6th Congressional District.
Cooper is a tried-and-true Democrat. He believes Clinton was the right candidate to back in 2016 and says his party has been the leader on human rights, environmental stewardship and the economy.
His personal politics are close to that of McCall, though Cooper argues the Second Amendment does not protect individual rights to gun ownership and instead enshrines a militia whose modern iteration is the National Guard.
He wants to reverse the 2017 tax cuts, expand Obamacare into true universal health care, guarantee access to abortion and restore the Federal Communication Commission’s Fairness Doctrine as a method of stamping out “fake news.”
McCall and Cooper will be on the ballot for the Tuesday, May 22 primary. Early voting continues this week.
The victor between the two Democrats will go on to face what currently appears to be an unbeatable opponent in Collins, who’s sitting on almost $580,000 in campaign cash — about 26 times the amount raised by McCall and Cooper put together — and is the incumbent in what remains a ruby red district.
But both men represent the choices faced by Democrats at the national level: Does the path to victory lie in an affirmative, progressive vision for the nation or in a position of down-the-line opposition to Republicans and promises to undo the changes of the past 16 months?
Primary day will tell.