With U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in the background, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock speaks during the Martin Luther King, Jr. annual commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp
Photo: Branden Camp

The Jolt: Did Raphael Warnock just welcome Kelly Loeffler to a U.S. Senate fight?

We had been assured that the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, wouldn’t be presiding over the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony on Monday. That he would only be there to give the official greeting.

And his stemwinder may very well have been a greeting -- welcoming U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who sat behind him, to a 2020 campaign that will determine whether she’ll keep her seat. His language couldn’t have signaled more strongly that he would be in the running.

Our AJC colleague Tamar Hallerman captures the details here. Or watch the entire event here.

The MLK Day service is a marathon tradition that, as usual, stretched nearly four hours. But the political messaging on display was crowded into the space of 30 or 40 minutes. Loeffler was the first in that category to go to the pulpit. The impeachment of President Donald Trump, which she condemns in her current TV spot, had no place in her remarks, which included this:

“I know I am blessed to live in a world where a giant, a world-changer, and a trailblazer lived. A city where a man of great faith and resolve called home.

“I seek to live in a way that honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, and the entire King Family - not just on this special occasion, but every day - in public service, in community, and in Washington. Like those gathered here, my aim is to love God, to serve others, and to make a difference inspired by Dr. King.”

Loeffler sat down to light applause. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, who was seated next to Loeffler on the stage, followed. Impeachment was his wheelhouse.

“In 2020, our political freedom, our democracy itself is threatened in a way we have never experienced before,” he said, describing his experience on the House Judiciary Committee, which drew up the articles of impeachment. Said Johnson:

“The most powerful people in the land are willing to go to unprecedented lengths to maintain their grip on power and to cover up their crimes when they get caught. These are perilous times. And the history of the country is that when white folks catch a cold, black folks and brown folks catch pneumonia.”

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the only statewide elected Republican to speak at the event, was next. His chief topic was the “verifiable paper voting machine system” that he’s in charge of putting in place by March 24, which is presidential primary day in Georgia.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore followed. And then came Warnock, who declared King to be the greatest American in history:

“He is the only non-president with a monument on the mall. And that’s why it makes sense that his monument is situated right across from Thomas Jefferson’s monument. On the other side of the Tidal Basin stands a towering descendant of slaves, standing there, facing Jefferson with his arms folded. As if to say to Jefferson, ‘Did you mean what you said when you said what you said?’”

That drew more than a few laughs. But this is the line that got the congregation on its feet, and one couldn’t help but think that it was aimed at Loeffler:

“As pastor of this church, I always find this day very interesting. I love this day, because folk will line up today in churches and auditoriums all across the land. Leaders, people and politicians of every stripe, falling all over themselves to pay tribute, to offer platitudes, to give lip service to Dr. King.

“It’s MLK weekend, and everybody wants to be seen standing where Dr. King stood. That’s fine. You’re welcome. But if today you would stand in this holy place, where Dr. King stood, make sure that come tomorrow, we’ll find you standing where Dr. King stood.”

To her credit, Loeffler was among those who stood and applauded that line.

***

Posted earlier this morning:

-- Over half of female voters and three-fourth of African-Americans who participated in a statewide AJC poll said they strongly disapprove of the way President Donald Trump is handling his job as president. When combined with those who say they somewhat disapprove of Trump, that accounted for 57% of the women polled and 87% of blacks.

-- Gov. Brian Kemp won’t say whether Georgia will keep the door open to refugees days after a federal judge temporarily blocked a Trump administration order that gave state and local officials discretion over their resettlement.

-- Republican Ben Bullock has dropped out of the crowded race for Georgia’s suburban Seventh District race, one of the most competitive in the nation, and instead joined a wide-open contest for a solidly conservative seat in northwest Georgia being given up by U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger.

***

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, is one of eight Republican congressmen who will assist President Donald Trump during the Senate impeachment trial that starts this morning. But that assistance won’t be on the Senate floor.

Once senses that Collins and his House fellows will be in charge of the public campaign that will parallel happenings inside the chamber. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece by Collins in which he described the impeachment case as weak. Collins singled out House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in particular. He ended with a plea to the Senate to clear Trump of all charges:

There is only one path that will uphold the Founders’ vision and safeguard the will of the American people: Reject the temptation of partisan impeachment and expeditiously acquit the president.

***

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., also served as a Trump surrogate over the weekend, occupying a hot seat on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” 

Like Doug Collins, Perdue said Sunday he preferred for the charges against Trump to be dismissed without a Senate trial but seemed to acknowledge that was unlikely to happen. He also said House Democrats’ attempt to introduce new evidence in hopes of strengthening their case against the president is indicative their initial rationale for impeachment was weak.

Things got a little tense when host Chuck Todd probed the Georgia Republican on whether he and his GOP colleauges would be as eager to dismiss the conduct Trump is accused of -- asking a foreign government to investigate a political rival -- if it had happened under President Barack Obama.

***

Something to keep in mind during these impeachment proceedings, courtesy of the Gallup organization:

Eighty-two percentage points separated Republicans' (89%) and Democrats' (7%) average job approval ratings of President Donald Trump during his third year in office. This is the largest degree of political polarization in any presidential year measured by Gallup, surpassing the 79-point party gap in Trump's second year in office.

***

Not for the first time, the political climate has leached into NFL doings. From Raw Story: 

Looking for someone to blame after the Green Bay Packers failed to make it to the Super Bowl, suffering a crushing defeat by the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night, fans of the midwestern team turned their ire on Vice President Mike Pence because he jumped on the Packer bandwagon last week at a rally saying they would beat “Nancy Pelosi’s 49ers.”

***

One of your Insiders has already posted a story on that U.S. Senate forum in which Democrat contenders took a velvet-glove approach with each other -- and brought out the mallet for Republican incumbent David Perdue. But another wrinkle was this from Jon Ossoff:

Ossoff said, for the first time, that he would seek an investigation and criminal prosecution of Georgia officials who erased election data or destroyed evidence. It’s a reference to a recent claim by a cybersecurity analyst who said a state election server could have potentially been hacked in 2014.

Four Democrats shared the spotlight Sunday at that forum. On Monday, organizers were under fire for not including a fifth contender: Maya Dillard Smith, a former ACLU leader. 

Smith filed paperwork to run for the Senate late last year, but is now ramping up her campaign. She unveiled a debut video over the weekend with the slogan: “The time is now.” She also has launched a website, though it remains in early stages of development. 

Dillard Smith is perhaps best known for stepping down in 2016 as head of the state ACLU chapter in protest of the group’s support for controversial efforts to let transgender people use the restroom that matches their gender identity.

***

U.S. Senate candidate Teresa Tomlinson reports that she has picked up the endorsement of Leah Ward Sears, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia -- and the first African-American woman to hold that position.

***

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a piece on a giant art project in Newnan that featured the growing diversity of the community. The effort was intended to counter a 2018 white supremacy rally in the city, but has discomforted some:

A portrait of Aatika and Zahraw Shah wearing hijabs was displayed on the side of an empty building in downtown Newnan. The sisters were born in Georgia and had lived in Newnan since 2012, after they moved from Athens, Ga. They attended a local high school in the county. Their father, an engineer, moved to the United States from Pakistan, as did their mother.

The reaction to their portrait was fast and intense. James Shelnutt was driving through downtown when he saw it. “I feel like Islam is a threat to the American way of life,” he said. “There should be no positive portrayals of it.” Mr. Shelnutt turned to Facebook, encouraging residents to complain. The thread quickly devolved into anti-Muslim attacks and name-calling. Some posters referred to Sept. 11 and argued that believers of Islam were violent.

***

While we’re on the topic of Newnan, the Times-Herald newspaper has this:

The Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is eager to test wells around Georgia Power Plant Yates in Coweta and Plant Wansley just down the river in Heard County to see if there is any contamination from coal ash stored on the power plant properties – they just need people with wells to contact them.

***

Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia and New York City have filed a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s upcoming rule change that could kick hundreds of thousands of unemployed people off food stamp rolls.

The department, led by former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, has proposed limits on states’ ability to waive rules that require able-bodied adults who don’t have children to either be working or attending job training or education courses in order to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP.

The Washington Post reported that the suit alleges the rule change would save money by making up to 700,000 people ineligible for food stamps.

In the lawsuit, attorneys general from the District, Maryland, Virginia, New York, California and other states, warned that “drastic” cuts would affect 688,000 to 850,000 adults without children. They asserted the justification for the cuts were based on no evidence and ignored local labor market conditions.

“States are in the best position to evaluate local economic circumstances and to determine where there are insufficient job opportunities such that work requirements would be ineffective,” they said in a 99-page lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court in Washington. The new rule “eliminates State discretion and criteria” and will terminate “essential food assistance for benefits recipients who live in areas with insufficient jobs.”

The AJC previously reported that up to 54,000 Georgians could be affected by the change. Georgia is not a party to the lawsuit, which is led by Democratic attorneys general.

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