6th District: Abel Meets Voters in Middle
Georgia Politics6th Congressional District

6th District: Abel Meets Voters in Middle

Temple Sinai member Kevin Abel carries a centrist message with his American dream.

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

Kevin Abel
Kevin Abel

This is one of four profiles of Democrats running in the May 22 primary to win a chance to challenge Rep. Karen Handel for her 6th District congressional seat in November. See links to a campaign overview and the other three profiles below.

Kevin Abel — who has an electrical engineering degree but never worked as an engineer, instead starting in technology consulting and eventually launching, running and in 2015 selling a tech company — said he always thought he would end up in the public sector in some form.

He prepared for a second career in public service through involvement with community agencies, including the boards of New American Pathways, the Carter Center, the Davis Academy and the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

He has a passion for foreign policy and even took the Foreign Service exam for a possible State Department career after moving to Atlanta to be with his eventual wife, Cindy, in 1990. He made it through the tough written portion, but in his group of six who advanced to a daylong oral exam, none was hired.

Flipping the 6th?

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It’s probably no surprise that he was the only one of the four Democrats in the congressional primary to issue a statement immediately after President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal Tuesday, May 8.

“By pulling back from this deal, the United States is abdicating its role as a leader on the global stage,” Abel said. “Instead of speaking out against this president’s reckless foreign policy decisions, Karen Handel has been a rubber stamp for Donald Trump’s agenda and has helped put us on a path that will ultimately make our country less safe.”

Still, Abel had never thought about running for Congress while living in the 6th District for a quarter-century. Then Jon Ossoff almost won, and the day after the June runoff, Abel wrote a letter to the editor in which he described the Democrat who could succeed: a businessman who had created jobs and balanced budgets, a district resident deeply involved in the community, “and maybe a Democrat who’s not so tied to the establishment of the Democratic Party. You know, someone who’s more interested in what’s good for America but comes at political philosophy from a Democratic point of view.”

He was describing himself, and by late October he was committed to the race.

But although he is determined to win the primary and the general election, Abel rejects talk of “flipping the 6th.”

It’s “a term that sets Republicans on edge and makes them think this is just another Democrat trying to win a seat,” the Sandy Springs resident said. “This is not about another Democrat trying to add another D to the column. This is about someone who thinks he can best represent the 6th and more broadly represent what’s better or ideal for America. So I want Republican votes. I can win Republican votes.”

While all four Democrats spoke of bipartisan measures and appealing to independents and Republicans unhappy with President Donald Trump, Abel has made his crossover appeal a core part of his campaign.

“I believe that central path is the right way to go, and we need a candidate who fits there,” he said, estimating that the $40 million spent for the Ossoff campaign probably brought out most of the Democrats in the district. “That’s the right type of candidate to win, and I fit that model.”

He cited the two Republicans he ran with three days a week when he lived in Alpharetta and with whom he still runs in Sandy Springs. “I always felt that we had more in common than separated us.”

He said national issues in the Trump era will be the keys in the election, although he said he doesn’t want to insult people who voted for the president.

“When I win, there is going to be a collective gasp, from more than just my family, and we’re going to have an opportunity to articulate this message, this idea, that there is a better way for America,” Abel said.

That better way includes new House leadership for Democrats and Republicans.

“What alternative is there to trying to make this better?” he said, noting that his children are ages 18, 20 and 23. “What does the country look like when they’re my age in 30 years?”

Abel has the big picture in mind. He said most Americans hold views that put them between the 30-yard lines on a football field, while the Fox and MSNBC and the commentators they highlight prefer to play in the red zones (inside the 20-yard lines, at the political extremes). Abel hopes that over a few elections Americans will send 40 to 45 centrists to the House, and they will hold the key to any legislation.

“I don’t fixate on who sits in the White House at any point in time because I think the real systemic, endemic problems in this country are in Congress, and it’s moved toward the extremes — this divisiveness not only in Washington, but in the populace as a whole,” he said. “My idealist, simple sense of how to fix this is by finding common ground in the center.”

That common ground includes improvements to the Affordable Care Act, which was never going to be perfect from the start when overhauling 17 percent of a $20 trillion U.S. economy.

“We are the richest country in the world, and no American should be one diagnosis away from losing their home,” Abel said. “Every American should have access to affordable health care, so let’s put policy in place that makes that a reality because we’re smart people and we can do it.”

The improved health care system would include the individual mandate, would expand Medicaid in all 50 states and would enable Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

It also would make use of accountable care organizations, an approach to health care delivery that rewards providers for the quality of outcomes rather than the quantity of care.

“This idea that private enterprise will take care of it is silly. It’s not working. It hasn’t worked,” he said, citing his firsthand knowledge as a business owner providing insurance to employees that costs were spiraling long before Obamacare.

By comparison with health care, fixing the immigration system should be easy, starting with the 2013 comprehensive compromise bill that passed the Senate but never got a House vote.

“No one’s happy when you negotiate a compromise, but as long as you don’t compromise your values, compromise is not a bad thing,” he said.

As a representative of a successful immigrant story, albeit someone who was too young to understand the difficulties of the system when he arrived at age 14 in 1979, Abel has clear views on what an immigration overhaul should include, such as a path to citizenship for people who came here illegally and enhanced border enforcement and security technology.

“But this idea of a wall just appeals to a hateful, nativist instinct and the ugliest part of the American soul,” he said. “It’s something that Trump thrives on, and it’s something that’s a very sad reflection of who we really are as Americans.”

He also has a visceral dislike for the term “chain migration,” which he said take something that should be loving and wonderful, family reunification, and tries to make it ugly.

“It makes me feel dirty as an American when I hear that,” Abel said.

He doesn’t feel much better that the United States welcomed only 25,000 refugees in 2017 after President Barack Obama had raised the maximum to 100,000 from an annual average of about 70,000. The U.S. reduction came despite a worldwide refugee population at the highest level since World War II.

“It’s just wrong. We are not fulfilling our responsibility. Not just our responsibility on the world stage, but our responsibility as Americans, who we are as Americans,” Abel said.

Based on his experience at New American Pathways, a refugee resettlement agency, Abel said refugees get little government support. They must pay their own way here and receive a modest government stipend for only six months, by which time 93 percent of New American Pathways families are self-sufficient by working in poultry plants and warehouses — critical jobs no one else wants.

He said refugees, particularly from Muslim-majority countries, are targets of the same sort of hate seen in rising public expressions of anti-Semitism.

“Permission is being given to that part of the human soul,” he said. “Hate will find expression. … Anti-Semitism is one of those expressions.”

He is a strong supporter of Israel, where an uncle moved his family in 1974. He backs the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and badly wants to see a two-state solution but doesn’t think the United States should set preconditions for negotiations.

His Judaism is a primary driver for who he is and what he believes, starting with tikkun olam (repairing the world) “It’s my favorite, favorite expression,” he said. “Everything you do, no matter how small or how large, that makes the world a better place is a mitzvah. It’s the right thing to do. It makes you human. It validates your humanity.”

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