A tale of two men

Credit: @HerschelWalker and @ReverendWarnock

ATLANTA — Political foes Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker’s hardscrabble Georgia upbringings have produced alluring figures now locked in a head-to-head battle in one of the nation’s marquee races of the 2022 midterms. 

The outcome of this closely-watched race could decide control of the U.S. Senate — and set the trajectory of Georgia politics for years to come. 

“What makes this race fascinating is it’s the first time in Georgia history you have two Black people running as representatives of two major parties in a statewide election,” said Fred Hicks, a national political strategist and commentator who knows both men. “This is amazing and phenomenal. This race is going to lay bare exactly where Georgia is because race is not a factor. Name ID is not a factor. Both of them are going to have enough money to do what they need to do. This is going to tell us exactly how red or blue or purple Georgia is.”

Recent polls have the pair in either a statistical dead-heat or give Warnock a 10-point lead over Walker. 

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, for instance, puts Warnock and Walker at nearly a tie at 46% to 43%, respectively. The poll, conducted by the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs, surveyed 902 likely voters between July 14 and July 22 and has a 3% margin of error. 

So how did a former football phenom and a progressive preacher – both from conservative rural Georgia – end up in a battle royal for senate seat No. 35  on Capitol Hill?

Beyond sharing the glare of news cameras, campaign appearances, fundraising and fastidious handlers, the two candidates count middle and south Georgia home — where hard work, family and faith was ingrained in both. 

“There’s something a little bit different when you’re coming from South Georgia,” said Hicks, who grew up in Early County. “In the country, family is everything. How you treat someone today could have very serious ramifications down the line because everybody knows everyone. So there’s a bit more sensitivity. There’s a bit more charm. There’s a bit more ease with people. And there’s a different work ethic that’s instilled in a person during childhood where on Saturdays you dutifully did your chores.”

“There’s a streak of independence that comes along with being from the country,” he added. “There’s a lot of courage of conviction attached to it. Even though their convictions are different. They truly believe in what they believe in.”

Growing up, both men relied on charm and resilience to get ahead. Warnock’s oratory skills led him to prominence in the pulpit. Walker acquired his by gaining yards on the football field. (As a running back, Walker could run the 100-yard dash in 9.3 seconds).

After their early years, Walker and Warnock’s paths diverged, taking them into different social circles, leading to different lives and political views.

“One’s world-famous and not really dealing with [everyday] people unless you go back home,” Hicks said. “The other one is in the trenches seeing poverty, people struggling with addiction and bad life choices and the consequences. So those formative years is how we ended up with two people with similar backgrounds who reached different conclusions.”

Warnock and Walker graphic

The athlete

Hershel Junior Walker, 60, was raised in Wrightsville, a south-central Georgia farming town with fewer than 3,000 residents where the “Old-Fashioned Fourth of July Festival” is the biggest event of the year.

Walker grew up one of seven children in a blue-collar family. As a young boy, he stuttered and was bullied. As a defense against the bullying, Walker says he developed 12 distinct personalities, a disorder he chronicles in his autobiography, “Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder.”

But it didn’t break Walker, a late bloomer to the game of football. He worked out relentlessly, transforming his pudgy body into a chiseled running phenom, becoming the most celebrated and sought-after high school gridiron player in America. 

Not only did he shine at football, he thrived in track and field. At 6-foot-2-inches and over 200 pounds, he was state champion in the 100-yard-dash and the shot put.

Herschel Walker at USAFA
Herschel Walker visits with the U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2016 at Basic Cadet Training.
(Credit: Ken Wright)

He also excelled academically. He was president of the Johnson County High School chapter of the Beta Club of academic achievers. He also was one of only two seniors to get a “Citizen-Leadership” Award. 

At 18, he was Wrightsville’s lone Black celebrity with juice.

And yet, the high school football star would stand silent against the racial strike engulfing his town in April and May 1980, when despite the fact that nearly four in 10 residents were Black there were no Black elected officials or law enforcement. Protests at the Johnson County courthouse square by Black residents seeking more minorities in government, led to protesters being attacked and beaten by white mobs, resulting in the injury of nine Blacks and the arrest of more than 40. The bitter fighting between the races led the governor at the time to deploy more than 125 state troopers to Wrightsville.

Despite pleas from other Black students and civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King to speak out against the town’s racial injustice, Walker stayed on the sideline. 

Numerous attempts to reach Walker and his campaign last week for comment went unanswered.

“Herschel Walker stakes his claim on being conciliatory at all cost,” said Andra Gillespie, Emory University political scientist. “And it comes through in ways that he articulates and talks about race. So he doesn’t talk about race in the same tone, or even with the same policy proposals, as someone who styles himself as a civil rights advocate.” 

“There will be times when he will sidestep issues,” continued Gillespie. “There will be times where he will clearly take policy positions. If you hear him talking about racial issues, and not acknowledging systemic racism, those kinds of things are problematic.”

While some take issue with Walker, his non-confrontational style along with stunning athleticism has helped him navigate a life his hometown folks – whose median income in 2019 was $28,594 – could only dream about.

University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock III recalls meeting the young superstar when Walker was getting snacks from the vending machine near his office. Bullock remembers him as a “very personable young man unaffected by fame.”

“He was in my building a lot because he was a criminal justice major,” Bullock recalled. “If you didn’t know who he was you’d just think he was just another student going to class.”  

Walker’s career as a college and professional football star helped ease his way into the rarified world of high society and hobnobbing with millionaires like New York real estate tycoon Donald Trump.

His glory days at the University of Georgia, which earned him the 1982 Heisman Trophy in his junior year, served as the launch pad. In 1983, Walker signed a three-year, $5 million contract with the  United States Football League’s (USFL) New Jersey Generals, whose owner then was Donald Trump. Trump worked out a deal to pay Walker more than the league’s salary cap of $1.8 million.

After the USFL collapsed in 1986, Walker signed a five-year, $5 million deal with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. He played 12 seasons in the NFL, moving from the Cowboys to play for the Minnesota Vikings, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.

Walker’s success later carried over into business (at one point, he was the largest minority-owned chicken distributor in the country) and endorsements that yielded tens of millions of dollars.

The preacher

Eight years Walker’s junior, Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, 53, grew up in a Savannah’s Kayton Homes public housing project, the 11th of 12 children of pentecostal preachers. His upbringing was steeped in God, country and ingenuity.

His father, the late Jonathan Warnock, a native of Georgia’s Screven County, was a World War II veteran who flew the American flag in front of his home and was once ordered by a bus driver to give his seat to a white teenager. 

The senior Warnock hung portraits of American presidents on the wall of his family’s home, and led his church in reciting the pledge of allegiance before Sunday service. He salvaged abandoned cars to bring in additional income. He once salvaged a “For Whites Only” sign and kept it in his home as a reminder of the Jim Crow past.

Raphael Warnock’s mother, the Rev. Verlene Warnock, of Waycross, grew up picking cotton. At age 83, she still preaches at Bible and Prayer Ministries, her church in Savannah, and on occasion, she has appeared in Warnock’s campaign ads. 

Warnock, whose middle name — Gamaliel — is of Hebrew origin meaning “recompense of God,” was the first in his family to graduate from college. He prepared for the journey by participating in the federally-funded Upward Bound program that prepares high school students from low-income families, or who hail from families where neither parent has a bachelor’s degree, for a successful college experience.

Warnock attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he joined the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, the “first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African American men,” according to the fraternity’s website.

After graduating from the historically Black men’s college in 1991 with a degree in psychology,this past May, Warnock received an honorary degree from Morehouse at its Class of 2022 graduation, where he also served as the commencement speaker. In his speech to the graduating class and their parents, Warnock recalled when he first arrived on campus in 1987.

“This is for me a full circle moment. When I came to Morehouse, brothers, in the fall of 1987, I didn’t have enough money for the first semester. Some of you know that story. I came to Morehouse on a full faith scholarship. That’s when you don’t have enough money, but you come anyhow,” said Warnock, adding that his parents’ annual income was equal to the college’s room and board. “… but I was determined, and my parents were short on money, but they were long on faith.”

“And when I arrived on this campus in the fall of 1987 and there were brothers here who came from middle-class families and families that were affluent, some dressed already like they were on Wall Street, hadn’t been to the first class. There I was struggling, trying to figure out how I was going to make it through the first semester, and I look to my mom, and I looked to my dad, both generous now, but a family of 12 and I looked at my dad, hoping he’d give me just a few dollars to get started,” said Warnock.

“My dad looked at me and he spoke to me in King James English. True story. He said, ‘Son, silver and gold have I none — but such as I have, I give unto thee. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.’ Here my mom gave me a great big hug, got in the car and drove off into the horizon. Left me standing there.”

Warnock spent his 20s and early 30s obtaining advanced degrees – a Master of Divinity, a Master of Philosophy and a Doctor of Philosophy, all from Union Theological Seminary – and ascending the ranks of some of America’s most prominent Black churches: Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, Douglas Memorial Community Church of Baltimore and finally Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served as co-pastor.

Warnock is only the fifth pastor in Ebenezer’s 136-year history and the first one who is not a member of the King family.

Warnock’s activism got him recognized by a network of high-profile ministers and civil rights leaders who saw to it that doors opened for the young, confident orator.

In his 20s and 30s, Warnock, the father of two with his former wife Oulèye Ndoye, spent just as much time in the streets as he did in the pulpit. He led sit-ins, voter registration drives, marches, got arrested and got results for the less fortunate through an activist form of ministry called social gospel. 

Warnock’s efforts to expand Medicaid in Georgia in 2014 helped put him on the political map.

Raphael Warnock at Delta Flight Museum
U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock visits the Delta Flight Museum mass vaccination site in Hapeville, Georgia, on March 8, 2021.
(Credit: Chris Rank)

Former Atlanta city councilman and community activist Derrick Boazman recalled the time he and other activists were feuding with doctors at Emory University Hospital over an ailing toddler who needed a kidney transplant. Emory medical officials at first wouldn’t let the child’s father donate his kidney because of his probation violation. Boazman got a call from Warnock, his fraternity brother, during the ongoing dispute.

“Look, man, is there anything I can do?’  Warnock asked.

“Yep.  As a preacher at Ebenezer, you have a lot of sway over this school,” Boazman told him.

“I have already placed a call to the president of Emory,” Warnock replied.

“O.k. I’m going to let you work the suites while I work the streets,” Boazman said.

The case was resolved shortly thereafter.

“There was always a discussion around Warnock running for office. Because he’s a Black preacher in the south at the right church,” said Hicks, the political strategist and commentator who splits his time between Atlanta and Florida as president and founder of the political consulting firm HEG LLC.

Warnock was elected to the United States Senate in a special election on Jan. 5, 2021, to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of Johnny Isakson. Warnock took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2021, becoming the first Black senator from the Peach State.

No room for error

For Walker and Warnock, getting to Capitol Hill  is “a game of inches, not yards.”

Political commentator and attorney Elie Mystal, who is Black, finds the reasons behind the tight Walker-Warnock race troubling. 

“It’s going to be a close election in Georgia because Walker has the backing of the Republicans,” Mystal recently told MSNBC. “You ask why are Republicans backing this man who’s so clearly unintelligent, who so clearly doesn’t have independent thoughts, but that’s actually the reason. Walker is going to do what he’s told, and that is what Republicans like. That’s what Republicans want from their Negroes: To do what they are told.”

Walker recently fired back, calling Mystal’s comments “racist and derogatory.”

“When I saw what he said, it reminded me of the differences between myself and Raphael Warnock,” Walker said in a prepared statement. “Warnock and his allies on the left believe that America is fundamentally full of racists. They want to divide us and turn us against each other. With God’s help, we’re going to bring the people of Georgia back together.”

In 2020, by all accounts, the presidential election bulldozed Georgia’s political landscape. Democrats helped put Biden in the White House and sent two Democrats – Warnock and Jon Ossoff – to the Senate. A growing number of diverse, college-educated voters helped transform the once-solidly Republican state into one of the nation’s key political battlegrounds.

“Georgia’s one of the nation’s newest toss-up states,” said long-term Georgia political observer Charles Bullock III, who has tracked Georgia politics for more than half a century.

“You don’t have a lot of space for mistakes,” said Hicks. “Nowadays, to use a football analogy, statewide politics in Georgia is a game of inches, not yards. If you lose an inch here and you lose an inch there, that impacts you.”

 “Walker’s at risk of alienating Republican voters. If he loses half a percent in Buckhead and 1% in Alpharetta and a quarter percent here and there of people who just don’t vote for him but would otherwise vote Republican, then he loses. That’s what we saw in last year’s runoff. Republicans stayed home,” added Hicks.

At a recent Rotary event where most of the audience was Republican, Bullock said the tenor of the room was that the crowd, while in line with Brian Kemp, is a little more reticent about Walker. “The challenge is that he’s got to show he’s ready for this job he is seeking,” said Bullock. “So far, for some of those individuals in that room, he hasn’t made that case yet. They’d like to vote for him but if  they think he would not be prepared, if he would say things which would sound silly or embarrassing, they don’t want that.”

As for Warnock, his prior activism may not be so impressive these days for voters struggling to pay rent, buy a house, put gas in their car and food on their table, say political observers, who believe those realities will push broader national issues like abortion, the environment and social justice to the back burner for Georgians.

Republican strategist Julianne Thompson says Georgia’s senate race will be decided around the kitchen table. And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s July poll of voters appears to agree. Inflation and the economy topped voters’ lists of concerns along with guns and abortion.

“People cannot afford to fill their tanks up with gas,” said Thompson, president of Main Street Network Strategies in Roswell.  “People cannot afford to go to the grocery store because groceries are astronomically expensive and people cannot afford to buy a home because inflation has driven housing prices through the roof. It’s been unfortunate for the people of Georgia that the senator has been focused on issues that are not a big concern right now in Georgia.” 

Warnock, Thompson said, has hitched himself to many of the Biden administration policies that focus on increasing taxes. 

“Reverend Warnock is focused on what Congress can do,” Meredith Brasher, Warnock’s communications director, wrote in a statement to State Affairs, sticking close to the team’s campaign platform. “In the Senate, he led the bipartisan effort to pass the jobs and competition bill — crucial legislation that will grow Georgia manufacturing jobs, lower costs, help us better compete with China and prevent shortages, like the shortage that shut down the Kia plant in West Point on more than one occasion. He is also fighting to suspend the federal gas tax, lower the cost of prescription drugs, and hold corporations accountable for price-gouging.”

Walker’s recent political and personal gaffes and inexperience on the issues have proved to be embarrassing, political observers say.

Bruising campaign ads accuse Walker of having taken advantage of military veterans despite his pro-military stance. His campaign deleted a post on his website claiming he graduated from the University of Georgia. He didn’t. He has inflated the number of workers he employs and undercounted the number of children he has fathered.

The former football legend was a big critic of absentee Black fathers. Yet he neglected to mention his own parental indiscretions. He has two sons and a daughter from previous relationships, in addition to his 22-year-old son Christian with his ex-wife Cindy DeAngelis Grossman. He does not have children with his current wife, Julie Blanchard.

Going the distance

In the second quarter of this year, Warnock’s re-election campaign raked in  $17.2 million, nearly three times more than the $6.2 million Walker raised. The race is among the most costly in the country. 

In many ways, Warnock has taken his campaign national.

These days, he is juggling a national book tour to promote his latest work, “A Way Out of No Way: A Memoir of Truth, Transformation, and the New American Story.” He has had book signings in Washington, D.C., on Martha’s Vineyard and New York, to name a few. In between, he is making campaign stops throughout Georgia, flying home most Sundays to preach at Ebenezer.

Walker has stayed close to home. His handlers keep a tight rein on his schedule and appearances, limiting his meetings to farmers and everyday folk in settings where he can talk one-on-one, take pictures with voters and sign autographs.

 “If you listen to him in a non-critical environment, he can share why he believes what he believes and he does a great job of that through storytelling,” said Republican strategist Cory Ruth. “He is a really captivating storyteller.”

Walker, said Ruth, “understands the issues and complexities.”

“Now he has to translate that by communicating in a way that he knows his competition and understands these issues. Like a lot of former athletes that participated in contact sports, he has some communication challenges but he understands those issues; but he’s going to have to demonstrate that,” Ruth, chief executive of Mergence Global, a management consulting firm in Atlanta, said.

Ruth said Warnock is so adept in his oratory skills that it sometimes makes it hard to pin him down on issues. Like the time the Baptist minister was asked whether he supported gay marriage. “He said ‘I believe in rights, r-i-g-h-t-s and I believe in rites, r-i-t-e-s.’ I thought that was a brilliant answer that protected both sides,” Ruth said. “So he has that ability. He’s very artful.”

But some Black voters are asking where they fit into Warnock’s narrative, says Ruth, adding that the senator seems “concerned about a whole lot of stuff, but where do we fit in?” Case in point: Warnock did not address last year’s U.S. border trouble faced by Haitian refugees.

“We have a Black senator and we didn’t hear anything. I don’t think he had any malice. I just think that’s not immediately his inclination as a progressive; whereas, in the 1990s every Black elected official would have been saying, ‘Why are [the Haitians] being treated differently?’ ” said Ruth.

The debate

The political differences between the candidates can best be displayed in front of podiums, on a shared stage.

While Warnock has agreed to three debates, none of which have materialized, Walker just last week finally agreed to debate Warnock on Oct. 14 in Savannah – three days before early voting begins in Georgia for the Nov. 8 general election.

Both candidates have to figure out how to handle a raft of issues before they face each other in a debate, political strategists say. 

“Senator Warnock has to contend with the adverse national political climate for Democrats,” Gillespie, Emory’s political scientist said. 

“The problem with Herschel Walker is that he’s a novice candidate who has made lots of mistakes so far and that might not inspire confidence amongst Republicans,” Gillespie said, adding, “Senator Warnock will have almost two years of experience on Capitol Hill by the time the elections are held. He’s sponsored legislation. He’s negotiating and speaking out on issues and Walker still has to demonstrate he has a command of the issues. There have been stories about how he’s being tutored by senators. He’s going to have to demonstrate that  he really grasps the policy issues at stake and actually be able to articulate proposals that will resonate with voters.”

Retired Irwin County farmer Walter Hudson, who is white, has met and talked with Walker twice in the last three months, telling Walker how the high cost of fuel and fertilizer is affecting the farming community of 10,000. 

Those talks with Walker leave no doubt in the 67-year-old’s mind about who he’ll vote for in November. “You’re talking to a closed door here because I’ve already made my mind up,” Hudson said. 

“Warlock, Warnock or whatever his name is, he’s been our senator for (nearly) two years and never even bothered to come here. We’re not no metropolitan area but we do know a lot of people in lots of different places in the state. Herschel was really humble and asked me for my vote. I firmly believe  if he goes to Washington, he will be in the farmers’ best interest.” 

If Walker goes to Washington and Sen. Tim Scott wins his reelection bid in South Carolina, there will be two Black Republican senators – the highest number ever.

Walker’s folksy approach doesn’t impress Aaron Thompson, a retired federal civil service employee in Covington, about 170 miles north of Atlanta. “I’m not going to waste my energy voting for somebody who doesn’t even know who he is,” Thompson said. 

Warnock has a track record of activism and social justice in Georgia, Thompson said and he’s already “done good things” in his 18 months in Congress. 

“It shouldn’t even be a challenge but it probably will end up being a challenge,” Thompson said. “Walker shouldn’t even be a candidate. The only reason he’s running is because the Republicans put him up to it.”

 While everyone has their opinion about the two men from south-central and coastal Georgia, activist Boazman is settling in for what promises to be a down-to-the-wire finish. “It’s the race to watch,” he said. “You have two very different contrasting philosophies. The question for Georgia is: Whose side are you on?”

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