The Pastor, the Pandemic, and the Political Race of a Lifetime

Kenya Harmon and Keynan Williams are cutting it up on a December afternoon at the Kayton Homes in Savannah, Georgia. Williams, a wiry man with big eyes, sits in a wicker chair with a sun-bleached cushion, cigarette in his hand, Miller High Life at his feet, dog staring quizzically out of the screen door behind him. A tinsel wreath, hanging from a railing outside the upstairs apartment, twinkles in the sun above them. 

“…The thing about it, if you have the Republicans win this here? Win that Senate? We’re doomed,” Harmon, who is round with big teddy bear energy, says.

Williams nods in agreement. “They gonna buck on Joe. Everything he try to do, they gonna pull it. You say you work for Rolling Stone? How’d you land that job in Savannah?”

But Harmon is busy making a point: “If the Democrats get it, then it’ll be 50-50. It’ll be an equal playing field. I didn’t care about the presidency, or vice president, I just went for the party that I think would actually fit the seat better—”

 “— That can actually help me,” Williams interjects.

“ — Help the economy and help everybody, because in the end of the day? Trump screwed us up. He literally just blew us completely up,” Harmon finishes.

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Williams chews on this for a moment. “But you know what? You know what’s so funny? Rick Ross, the rapper, now, he got a song — he said he’s glad Donald Trump became the president because we’ve got to destroy, before we elevate.”

Harmon chuckles. “They destroyed!” 

Three-hundred thousand dead, 20 million sick, an economy in tatters, and a democracy just barely dragging its hollow husk across the finish line — it’s hard to survey the past four years and disagree with Harmon. The question is whether all that destruction — coupled with a decade of relentless on-the-ground voter organization efforts in Georgia — has created an opportunity for Democrats not just to clinch two Senate seats and control of the chamber, but to elevate, for the first time in Georgia’s history, a black American to the U.S. Senate. 

Rev. Raphael Warnock grew up here in the Kayton Homes, just two doors down from where Williams lives. Anyone in this small subdivision of two-story brick quadplexes, sandwiched between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the interstate highway, can point to the apartment where he lived. Some of the neighbors even met the reverend when he filmed a campaign ad here earlier this year. “I know that a kid growing up here today, and struggling families all across Georgia, have it harder now than I did back then,” Warnock says in the ad. “That’s gotta change. And it will.” Across the street behind him, one of those kids walks inadvertently into the frame. It’s Williams’ stepson. 

Williams recalls how Warnock stayed and talked with him and some others after they finished shooting. He and Harmon like Warnock. They like the fact that he’s from the projects, and proud enough of it to come back and film an ad here, to ask for their votes. They don’t like President Trump. They don’t like the way he blames everything on Obama, the way he refused to wear a mask even as he left a trail of outbreaks everywhere he went, the way he managed to secure large, mysterious loans and avoid paying any taxes. They think Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are both fine, but Harmon says he really voted in November to get Trump out of office. They’re equally committed to voting early for Warnock and his Democratic counterpart, Jon Ossoff, to replace Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the Senate and give Biden a chance to actually get something done. 

Historically, Republicans have dominated runoff elections in the state, but, in case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t a year in which precedent has much bearing on reality – especially in Georgia. Already, more than 2.5 million have voted, including almost 100,000 Georgians who didn’t vote in November. That’s extraordinary for the kind of election in which turnout typically tanks, sometimes by as much as 90 percent, compared to a general election. The question is whether more of those voters are Democrats, newly empowered by Joe Biden’s narrow win in November, or Republicans, still smarting from Donald Trump’s humiliating loss and looking for a shot at redemption.

What’s clear is that Donald Trump’s stubborn refusal to accept his loss has ignited a flame war that continues to consume the Georgia GOP. In November, Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue called for the Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger’s resignation, declaring he “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections.” When Raffensberger started getting death threats, and protesters egged on by the president began showing up at Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s mansion, another GOP official resorted to begging, publicly, for the president and senators to stop indulging conspiracy theorists. “Someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed,” Gabriel Sterling pleaded. 

But just a few days later, Trump campaign lawyer Lin Wood was on stage in Alpharetta, drawling to a cheering crowd, “This is Georgia, we ain’t dumb! We’re not gonna go vote on January 5th on another machine made by China… If Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue do not [demand Kemp call a special session of the Georgia legislature to overturn the election results]  they have not earned your vote. Don’t you give it to them. Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election for God’s sake! Fix it! You gotta fix it before we’ll do it again!”

While the president and his allies seem intent on supplying Republican voters with reasons to stay home in January, a once-in-a-century global pandemic, a historic economic downturn, and a reckoning around race triggered by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have given legions of new Democrats registered this year reasons to turn out. In Raphael Warnock, pastor of the church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached in Atlanta, Democrats have a candidate with a history of advocating for both the expansion of health care and racial justice. Loeffler, his opponent, meanwhile, was investigated for selling stock after a private Senate briefing on the virus, has been protested by her own WNBA team for opposing Black Lives Matter, and posed for a photo beside a former KKK leader. The choice is pretty stark. 

“I think that Georgia realizes that the lights of the stage of our national politics are centered on Georgia,” Francys Johnson, a civil rights attorney and longtime friend of Warnock’s, says. “I think people understand this moment very well.” 

Sen. Kelly Loeffler at a rally with President Trump and Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) on December 5, 2020 in Valdosta, Georgia.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Forty-six years ago, Rev. Joseph L. Roberts became pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church under unusual circumstances. A Presbyterian minister who’d come to know Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, Roberts occasionally preached at King’s old church as a favor to his parents after King’s death. He was scheduled to give a sermon on the fourth Sunday in June 1974, the day a 23-year-old Black Hebrew Israelite named Marcus Wayne Chenault stormed the church with two handguns and shot King’s mother, Alberta Williams King, while she was sitting at the organ. He intended to murder her husband, Martin Luther King Sr. — Daddy King — and he might have, but the gun jammed. 

Not long after, Daddy King gathered a few hundred parishioners together and announced he was retiring. “I’m gonna tell you who you need to get as your new preacher so we won’t have a whole lot of confusion, and this thing will go right,” Roberts recalled King saying that day, in an interview he gave years later. “You know that Presbyterian boy, who I’ve had over here every now and then? Y’all ought to call him as the pastor.” At least one deacon protested — “He’s not even a Baptist!” — but King wouldn’t hear any objections. “I can make him a Baptist overnight,” he said. 

Forty years later, when it came time to select his own successor, Roberts knew he needed to take a different tack. “I didn’t choose to do it the same way I was chosen,” he said in 2007. He created an application, called together a committee of four church officials and five laymen — nine, like the Supreme Court, so there could be no deadlock, he said — and tasked them with vetting 36 candidates from all around the country. The committee conducted interviews with the top applicants, then invited their favorite, Raphael Warnock, a senior pastor at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, to come meet the congregation. 

For Warnock, returning to Georgia was a homecoming, and taking the pulpit at the church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached the fulfillment of a longtime dream. Since he was a child, Warnock tells me, he was captivated “by the voice and the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. — a moral voice that challenged people to use their faith for the work of social change in the world.” 

Warnock was born in Savannah the year after King’s death. His parents were both Pentecostal preachers, each with children from past relationships, making Warnock and his younger sister, Valencia, the 11th and 12th children in their blended family. On the campaign trail, he likes to tell how his father, a World War II veteran who grew up in the Jim Crow South, would rouse him every morning at 6 a.m., even Saturdays, and tell him to put his shoes on and get ready, even if he didn’t know what they were getting ready for. When he wasn’t preaching, the elder Warnock had a small business selling scrap metal and other odds and ends. But where his father was guided by a determination to seize any opportunity that might appear, Warnock, from a young age, seemed to know exactly what he was getting ready for. 

Orlando Scott worked alongside Warnock as a teen peer counselor for the county health department. He remembers discussions about scripture in the van on their way to do community outreach. “This is a 14-year-old having an in-depth conversation about the Bible, the Book of Revelations,” Scott says. The program’s director gifted Warnock a slim volume, Best Black Sermons, that helped crystallize his intention to go into ministry and attend Atlanta’s Morehouse College, just as King did. “I wanted to go to the school that Martin Luther King Jr. attended when he read Thoreau’s classic essay on civil disobedience,” he says.

After Morehouse, Warnock went on to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he found a mentor and a theological framework in James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, a philosophy that centers the black American experience and the struggle for equality in its interpretation of the gospel. Before coming home to Georgia, he had stints at historic black churches like Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, steadily transforming into the pastor who Barack Obama would tap to give a unity prayer at his second inauguration, the spiritual leader picked to preside over John Lewis’ funeral, the kind of minister whose sermons he might have read as a teenager.

Over the years, at every opportunity, Warnock has sought to align himself with King in both style and substance. In 2014, when he was arrested occupying Gov. Nathan Deal’s office in protest of Deal’s refusal to expand medicare in the state, he was carrying a sign bearing King’s famous quote, Of all the injustices, inequality in health care is the most shocking and the most inhumane. “We thought the equal of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door [was] Governor Nathan Deal standing at the hospital door,” attorney Francys Johnson, arrested with Warnock that day, says. 

At Ebenezer, Warnock helped recruit thousands of new congregants, raise money for renovations and a new community center named for the elder Dr. King. Jason Carter, grandson of Jimmy Carter, a parishioner who now counts Warnock as a close friend, describes him as “a dynamic intellectual in the pulpit,” who has helped ensure that Ebenezer remains “a place where faith works hard toward the good.” 

Last January, Kelly Loeffler attended a Martin Luther King Day service Warnock presided over where she likewise praised Ebenezer as “a sacred place” that “puts words into action.” Since the runoff race began in November, however, Loeffler has dramatically changed her tone. Her campaign has blitzed Georgia’s airwaves with ads casting Warnock as a “radical” pastor in the mold of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, chopping up lines of his sermons between clips of Wright’s infamous “God damn America” speech, apparently convinced voters will find Warnock as objectionable today as Wright was deemed to be in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama publicly distanced himself from his former preacher. 

It’s been 12 years, though, since Obama denounced Wright in the heat of the 2008 election. The comment that ultimately forced Obama to renounce the man who officiated his wedding and baptized his children? It was Wright’s remark that “Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run.” After Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland, after the protests in Ferguson, and Donald Trump’s election, years of debate over Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling, a summer of demonstrations in the streets over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks — it’s hard to fathom a time when declaring America is racist might be considered so controversial. 

Republican strategists are convinced the Wright retread is a winning strategy, though, and their PACs, like American Crossroads, co-founded by Bush-era throwback Karl Rove, are outspending Democrats’ 3-to-1 in Georgia to ensure the message that Warnock as a “dangerous radical” reaches voters. (The considerably more staid Senate Leadership PAC, primary funder of the ads being run against Ossoff, has focused, for instance, on the fact that he omitted details from his Senate financial disclosure forms.) 

Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff bump elbows during a “It’s Time to Vote” drive-in rally on December 28, 2020 in Stonecrest, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

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This year, though, a broader coalition of voices are pushing back against the racialized attacks on Warnock. Dozens of pastors from across the state joined in an open letter earlier this month calling on Loeffler to end the attacks of Warnock as a “radical,” declaring “there is nothing in his background, writings or sermons that suggests those characterizations to be true, especially when taken in full context.” The pastors added: “We see your attacks against Warnock as a broader attack against the Black Church and faith traditions for which we stand.” 

Warnock, for his part, has countered with a series of playful, lighthearted ads, poking fun at the attacks, and in one case, likening them to a bag of dog poop. (The spots, which feature the reverend walking a beagle through a picket-fenced suburban neighborhood, are doing their own specific work to neutralize Loeffler’s racialized attacks. As Stanford professor Hakeem Jefferson observed on Twitter, “It’s obv cute, but it is also meant to deracialize Warnock with this cute ‘white people friendly’ doggy.”)

If Warnock wins in January, the race will be a proof-point that voters are much more attuned to — and less tolerant of — racist politicking than in the past. Earlier this year, as protesters were filling city streets to protest the police killings of black men and women, players in the W.N.B.A. dedicated their season to the Black Lives Matter movement. Loeffler, the co-owner of Atlanta’s Dream, denounced the effort, declaring herself “adamantly” opposed in a letter to the league’s commissioner. The players responded by sporting “Vote Warnock” shirts. Warnock has called it a turning point for his campaign: Within 48 hours, he raised $183,000 from thousands of new donors. Not long after, the reverend emerged as the favorite in the race, outpolling both Loeffler and the other Republican, Doug Collins. In November, he won a plurality of the vote. 

But there’s a reason Georgia has never elected a black senator before — or a black governor, or a black lieutenant governor, or even black secretary of state. “In a runoff, Georgia was designed to suppress the black voting bloc,” Johnson says. The runoff ”was designed as a tool of suppression in and of itself.”

 

The runoff election in Georgia traces back to 1963 and a state legislator from Macon named Denmark Groover. Elected and ejected from office four times in 50 years, Groover was a bellicose former fighter pilot with a flair for drama. Once, during a heated debate over Congressional redistricting, Groover dangled over a railing to pry the Capitol’s clock from the wall and keep it from ending the legislative session. (It didn’t work, but a photographer from the Atlanta-Journal Constitution managed to capture the indelible image of a man trying, and failing, to stop time.) After Georgia’s schools were ordered desegregated in the early ’60s, it was Groover who lobbied, successfully, for the Confederate emblem to be embedded on the Georgia state flag in response. Shortly before his death in 2001, he also helped convince lawmakers of the need to remove it. But it was Groover the stalwart segregationist who helped shepherd Georgia’s present election system into existence. 

After the Supreme Court declared Georgia’s previous method for electing officials — which was similar to the Electoral College — unconstitutional, the obvious solution would have been to hold elections in which the candidate who got the most votes won. The problem with that idea, Groover announced on the House floor in 1963, was that “the Negroes and the pressure groups and special interests are going to manipulate this state and take charge.” Instead, he suggested a workaround that would “prevent the Negro bloc vote from controlling the elections”: the runoff.  

In a regular multi-candidate field, the thinking went, the white vote might splinter among multiple candidates, while black voters and their allies could coalesce around a single choice. To prevent that from happening, Groover proposed that a candidate would have to get more than 50 percent of the vote to win, giving white voters, the majority in the state, a second chance to consolidate behind the remaining white candidate. The conceit was so explicitly racist that, in 1990, the Justice Department filed a suit against the state of Georgia, citing Groover’s remarks alongside statistics that showed the system worked as designed: in 20 counties across the state, Justice Department lawyers found, 35 black candidates had triumphed in their first election, only to be defeated in the runoff. 

That lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, which is why Raphael Warnock is running against Kelly Loeffler a second time in January, despite earning a higher share of the vote than her or her nearest Republican rival, Rep. Doug Collins, in November. Now, the two Republicans are united in an effort to defeat Warnock, showing their solidarity at rallies like the one set to take place at the Savannah airport, a few miles down the road from the Kayton Homes where Warnock grew up.

Air Force Two glides onto the tarmac at the Savannah-Hilton Head airport to the sound of soaring synthesizers and electric guitar — the Top Gun anthem. A pimply Ohio teen who has temporarily relocated to Georgia to campaign on behalf of Perdue and Loeffler pronounces it a “powerful” scene. Parked beside the baby blue Boeing C-32 is a bus with Sen. Perdue’s face alongside the words, “Win Georgia, Save America.” The recently defeated Collins bounds up on stage, beams out at hundreds of mostly maskless supporters and gamely attempts remarks that both affirm the president’s claims that the November election was rigged and concede that his own loss to Kelly Loeffler in the same election was legitimate. 

“I may be down just a little bit, and I know that some of you may be down, saying, ‘Oh, we got all these problems’ — and believe me, there are those of us who are fighting to fix the problems we found in Georgia and all across this country,” Collins says. Referencing “problems” that will be “fixed” in Georgia has become a GOP theme in this election — a tortured way of validating Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud while assuring voters that it’s still worth casting a vote in January.

But the truth is that Democrats’ success in 2020 was the predictable outcome of trends that have been apparent in Georgia for years now, or as Gabriel Sterling, the Republican official in charge of the state’s voting system, has said: “We saw it coming. And the people who were so shocked by this are people who haven’t watched Georgia.” Two of the largest counties in the Atlanta  suburbs — former GOP strongholds Cobb and Gwinnett — first went Democratic in 2016 and have only turned a deeper blue in the time since. The question now is whether Democrats can capitalize on the breakthrough they made in November, or if Republican voters, shocked out of complacency, will return with a vengeance.

Democrats have the added burden of needing to carry both races to flip the chamber, while Republicans only need to hold on to one to maintain control. Results from November indicate it will be difficult to pull off: There were some 100,000 voters across the state who pulled the lever for Joe Biden but not Jon Ossoff for reasons that are not entirely clear. “By research, we know voters of color will skip a race rather than vote for someone they don’t know,” Stacey Abrams told me in November. She doesn’t attribute the 100,000-vote margin between Biden and Ossoff to ticket-splitters. “It is much more likely it was attributable to voters of color saying, I don’t know enough about him and I’m not going to make this mistake. So I’d rather not vote, whereas Republicans and white voters in general tend to vote down the ticket. What we need to spend money on is making sure that people actually know why they’re voting for these two men.” 

Democrats have succeeded at the fundraising part — Warnock and Ossoff have raised more than $100 million each, hauls that both shattered the previous record for a U.S. Senate race — but the bigger challenge has been finding ways to reach voters in the middle of a plague. “It’s tough to preach in an empty sanctuary every Sunday,” Warnock tells me when we speak by phone in separate cars in the same parking lot ahead of a socially-distanced drive-in rally in the Atlanta suburbs. In a few minutes he’ll take the stage here in a frigid, windswept high school parking lot and attempt to summon the same energy to address rows of honking cars that he brings to the Ebenezer pulpit. “It’s difficult to figure out how to connect with voters while at the same time being responsible enough to maintain social distance,” he says, “but these are things we must do in this moment.” 

From a campaign’s perspective, the circumstances are less than ideal, but the pandemic has, and continues to be, a deeply motivating issue for Democrats. “Our federal and state leaders, the way that they mishandled the pandemic contributed to the increased turnout,” says Nsé Ufot CEO of the New Georgia Project, a voter registration organization founded by Stacey Abrams and chaired by Warnock. “Across race, across age, across geography, and gender, Covid was the number-one issue on top of Georgia voters’ minds.” 

The matter is particularly fraught in Georgia: five of the 10 counties with the highest death rates for Covid-19 nationwide are in this state, while eight hospitals here have closed in the last 10 years — closures that critics say would have been avoided if the state’s Republican governor expanded Medicare when he had the chance, back when Warnock was arrested inside his office demanding he do exactly that. 

 

A December 14th Democratic campaign event to encourage people to vote in Atlanta.

Megan Varner/Getty Images

At the rally, Warnock tells the story. “Capitol Police came and said, ‘Reverend, you all have to clear the office or, unfortunately, we are going to have to arrest you.’ What they didn’t understand was that I had already been arrested,” he says, his voice rising. “My mind, and my imagination have been arrested by this idea that if my neighbor is uncovered, that means I too am unprotected, that what affects one directly, affects all indirectly. My mind had been arrested by this idea that we are tied in the single garment of destiny, that we are all in this together!” 

When he got in the race last January, Warnock didn’t know that 11 months later he would be campaigning in the middle of a parking lot, in the midst of a global pandemic. He didn’t know this year would bring a renewed conversation around race activated by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks. He didn’t know that the next president’s political fortunes, and so much else, would all depend on what happened in Georgia, and on his race. Warnock  — whose life’s work has been the protection of health care, the pursuit of racial justice, and the expansion of voting rights — didn’t know any of that, “but I did feel a sense of urgency,” he says.

But if it weren’t for the pandemic, if it weren’t for the tragedies that forced a conversation about race this year, if it weren’t for all that Obama endured as a candidate and as president, or that all that civil rights activists before them went through — you get the distinct sense perhaps he wouldn’t be standing here at all. Maybe it took this specific confluence of events to finally create an opportunity for a preacher and a student of black liberation theology to be elected to the U.S. Senate, for a black man to be elected to statewide office for the first time in Georgia’s history. In other words, maybe Rick Ross was right — maybe you do have to destroy in order to elevate.

 

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