A lifelong Republican stood up to Trump. His reward: Death threats
One of his earliest political memories was being a 9-year-old rooting for Republican Ronald Reagan to defeat Democratic President Jimmy Carter. At 15, he volunteered on a Republican senator’s unsuccessful reelection campaign. He served as executive director of his state’s College Republicans.
By 1992, at the age of 21, Gabriel Sterling was helping direct President George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign in Georgia. He’s continued to work for Republican candidates and causes ever since.
But Sterling, a boyish and bespectacled 50-year-old with thick gray hair, has found himself in a surprising place for such a loyal Republican: on the receiving end of ire and death threats after he criticized President Trump over his falsehood-filled campaign to overturn the results of an election he lost.
The threats are graphic. Someone texted him his home address and told him to sleep with his eyes open. Another urged him to commit suicide. He found his name on a website of the president’s perceived enemies, his face in gun crosshairs. Police guard his home. On a recent evening, he heard his front door rattle and, not expecting company, leaped to attack an intruder. It turned out to be his startled fiancée.
“I never expected to be in this situation. I mean, my title is statewide voting system implementation manager, right?” Sterling said.
As many elected Republicans have joined Trump’s baseless attacks on the foundations of democracy, this statewide voting system implementation manager has emerged as one of the few who had the courage to bluntly and passionately speak truth to power.
And while other elections officials across the country are breathing a sigh of relief Monday as the electoral college is expected to cement President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, Sterling is girding for more: That same day he begins overseeing early voting in two contentious runoff races that could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
He says he will continue speaking the truth, just like he did at the Dec. 1 news conference at the Georgia Capitol when he sharply criticized rhetoric from the president and others that was leading to threats against election workers:
You need to step up and say this, is stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed. And it’s not right. It’s not right. ...
It’s time to look forward. If you want to run for reelection in four years, fine, do it. But everything we’re seeing right now, there’s not a path. Be the bigger man here and step in. Tell your supporters, ‘Don’t be violent. Don’t intimidate.’ All that’s wrong. It’s un-American.
Be the bigger man. Sterling wouldn’t use the words to describe himself, but that’s the test he faces.
A top Georgia election official has lashed out angrily at the rhetoric surrounding the election and the threats of violence that have resulted.
Republicans have never been great at confronting Trump, who maintains an iron grip on a huge chunk of the electorate. Sterling understands the conundrum. He isn’t fond of Trump’s demeanor or behavior, but has supported his policies and voted for him in 2016 and this year. Even now, after the lies and death threats, Sterling cannot say he wouldn’t vote for Trump if he was on the ballot again.
So what led him to so directly challenge the leader of his party? His friends say it’s simple: He cares deeply about the facts and truth.
“Look, if you really want to know what the truth is, listen to what Gabe Sterling says. Gabe has earned my trust over 20 years,” said William “Chip” Collins, a Republican attorney.
Sterling, for his part, says he’s not exactly sure why he took on Trump. He said his father called him Wednesday and said he had not been surprised his son had taken such a stand.
“Ever since you were a little boy you have been focused on what is right and wrong,” his dad told him.
Sterling can’t pinpoint an incident that shaped his values, but he recalls that he had never liked bullies and had always felt responsible for helping others.
“I remember being very cognizant of right and wrong growing up,” he said. “But, listen, politics can be really crappy and cutthroat. I get that. I was a politician. But these people, these elections workers, they didn’t sign up for that.”
Despite its ugliness, Sterling has always loved politics. His school friends frequently compared him to Alex P. Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s conservative politics-obsessed character on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.” After college, he worked as a political and business consultant and served on the Sandy Springs City Council.
He got into election management by accident. In 2018, he helped plan a victory party for Brad Raffensperger, when the then-state representative won the race to be secretary of state, otherwise known as Georgia’s top elections official. The two were longtime acquaintances, and Raffensperger asked him to join his office to help with the herculean task of rolling out a new statewide voting system.
For the last two years, Sterling oversaw the purchasing of tens of thousands of new high-tech voting machines that leave an easily audited paper trail, as well as the training of county elections officials on how to use them. Sometimes, he had to delve into the weeds to solve unexpected problems — finding the right kind of batteries for power-hungry printers to ensure the devices didn’t trip circuit breakers and throw precincts into darkness.
When the coronavirus hit, Sterling and his staff worked with counties to ensure they had enough machines. They came up with new ways to ensure that mail-in ballots reached those who needed them. He was proud of how state and local officials worked through a pandemic to ensure people were able to exercise their right to vote.
Sterling also watched as Trump said again and again the election was sure to be stolen. In a fairly typical comment, Trump told a crowd in Nevada in September that the only way he could lose is “if they screw around with the ballots, which they will do, in my opinion.”
The election manager shrugged off the comments. Just typical Trump bluster, he thought, with no basis in fact. Sterling says he knows rigging a state’s election, let alone several, was close to impossible.
He was also convinced Trump would win Georgia. “He was complaining about other states,” Sterling said. “I didn’t think much about it.”
Sterling saw the coming storm on the afternoon of Nov. 4, the day after the election. When he studied what Democratic-leaning precincts remained outstanding, he knew Trump was toast. “He is going to lose by 10,000 votes,” Sterling told a colleague. He was off by just 2,000 or so ballots.
Soon thereafter, the fusillade began. Trump called Sterling’s boss, Raffensperger, a RINO (a Republican in Name Only) and an “enemy of the people,” an insult he usually reserved for reporters or political opponents. He tweeted video footage he claimed showed election workers in Fulton County had been engaging in fraud. It didn’t.
As more conspiracy theories started rolling in, each more absurd than the last, Sterling grew increasingly vocal in his defense of the election system.
He said in news conferences and interviews that the state had done a hand recount of printed paper ballots that aligned with the electronic tally, debunking a theory that Dominion Voting Systems, which supplies the voting machines in Georgia, had somehow changed millions of votes from Trump to Biden.
Sterling called such conspiracy theories “hoaxes and nonsense” and worried about the long-term damage of Trump’s attacks on the election system.
By Nov. 30, at a news conference, his frustration was boiling. “The ridiculous things claimed in some of these lawsuits are just that — they’re insanity, fever dreams,” Sterling said.
A hand audit proved no votes were switched, he said. “I mean, that in and of itself should be enough to make people understand.”
Only it didn’t.
The next day, Dec. 1, as he got ready to announce the status of the recount, he took a call from a shaken manager at Dominion saying someone had tweeted the name of one of the company’s technicians, accusing him of treason. Next to the young man’s name was a photograph of a noose.
One of Trump’s attorneys, Joseph diGenova, had already said a former Homeland Security official should be executed for daring to claim the election had been the most secure in history. Raffensperger’s wife was getting “sexualized threats” in text messages. It was all too much. Despite taking an hour to calm down, Sterling unleashed on Trump.
“I’m doing interviews — I can take the threats,” he said, explaining his decision to speak out. “But this kid, he’s just a kid, who is excited to have an IT job. That crossed the line.”
Raffensperger told reporters the next day that Sterling “spoke with passion and he spoke with truth. And it’s about time that more people are out there speaking the truth. It perhaps wasn’t the exact wording that I would have used, but you caught the essence of it.”
Election officials in other states said they admired Sterling for speaking so bluntly. “It was clear from that speech how exasperated he had become,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican election official in Philadelphia who was attacked by Trump and has spoken out against the conspiracy theories. “It was a very good thing he did.”
In his hometown of Sandy Springs, part of a swath of the affluent north Atlanta suburbs that has in recent years shifted dramatically from red to blue, Sterling has the support of a string of local Republican leaders. He has also earned praise from Democrats, though they wish he had raised the alarm or disavowed Trump when he attacked so many others during his presidency.
Sterling said such criticism is fair but believes it misses a key point:
“I was just the statewide voting system implementation manager. Who would care what I had to say?”
Turns out, a lot of people.
Wilber reported from Washington and Jarvie from Atlanta.
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