July 18, 2019 Atlanta - Portrait of Rev. Raphael Warnock at the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Thursday, July 18, 2019. The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock has had busy couple of weeks. After co-hosting a conference on ending mass incarceration in the United States, he was off to Baltimore. And less than 24 hours ago, he was back at Ebenezer for the 45th annual scholarship concert honoring the memory of the late Christine Williams King, affectionately known as Mama King, who was assassinated there 45 years ago. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Opinion: Women's History Month and Democratic angst over Raphael Warnock

One suspects that the person who designated March as Women’s History Month had a highly developed sense of irony. Democrats have been through one heck of a first weekend.

On Friday, one day after U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts withdrew from the Democratic presidential contest, state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, was on GPB’s “Political Rewind” to deliver something like a eulogy.

Oliver spoke fondly of Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris, all of whom had dropped away. All faced the same query, Oliver said: Can a woman win?

“That question being raised every single day is defeating to women candidates. We cannot accept that a woman can win. I think gender had a tremendous amount of influence in the defeat of three excellent women candidates,” said Oliver, a lawyer.

Oliver was first elected to the Legislature in 1986. Any Republican on the campus will tell you that she is one of the brightest legal minds in the state Capitol, if not the brightest.

I was at the microphone opposite Oliver and remembered that she had once run for lieutenant governor. In 1998, she led the field in the first round of the Democratic primary with 29% of the vote, but lost in the runoff to Mark Taylor of Albany, a fellow state senator. He went on to win the general election.

I asked Oliver if things had changed. What a good question, she replied. “No woman has ever won a Democratic statewide race.” Not without first being appointed to the office, she added.

Oliver was almost right, but not quite. Cathy Cox was elected to the open office of secretary of state in 1998. “Sadly, I was the last Democratic woman to be elected statewide,” Cox told me.

Now the dean of Mercer University School of Law, Cox won re-election in 2002, then ran for governor in 2006 – but was beaten in the Democratic primary. By the same Mark Taylor who had beaten Oliver in ’98. (Taylor would lose to Republican incumbent Sonny Perdue.)

Republicans actually have the better statewide record. In 1994, Linda Schrenko defeated Democratic incumbent Werner Rogers to become state school superintendent. When she left that post to run for governor, former state lawmaker Kathy Cox – another Republican – was elected to replace her.

In other words, Warren’s withdrawal from the Democratic presidential contest was salt poured on an old wound — which only stung more when news broke Saturday about a dispute between the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, and his estranged wife.

Days before he qualified for the U.S. Senate race against GOP incumbent Kelly Loeffler, Ouleye Ndoye accused her husband of running over her foot with his car, during an argument over whether their children should be allowed to travel to Senegal to visit relatives on her side of the family. The couple is in the midst of a divorce, which has yet to be settled. International travel in such circumstances is a common area of dispute.

Warnock was not charged with any crime. A police report, referring to Grady Memorial Hospital first-responders, noted that an inspection of Ndoye’s foot showed no broken bones, swelling or contusions.

“God looks on the heart. We live on the outside. God knows what’s happening on the inside. And while divorce is not ideal, divorce is not the worst thing that can happen to you. So pray for us,” Warnock told his very quiet congregation the next day. “The second thing I want to say to you — and I hope you will hear me because I’m going to say it once. I’ve been here 15 years, almost 15 years now. I want you to know that I am the man that you have known me to be. The work that we’ve done together in public reflects my values and who I am in private. Same man in public and in private.”

Warnock denies any violence against his wife, who has a grant-funded position at Atlanta City Hall to fight sex trafficking. But this is the #MeToo era, and such accusations aren’t lightly dismissed. The personal is also complicated by the political.

Warnock is one of three prominent Democrats in the contest. Former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver of Augusta, and educator Matt Lieberman of metro Atlanta are also running. But Democratic leaders in Washington and Georgia aren’t looking for intra-party competition. Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate, and the D.C.-based Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Warnock last month.

Both Abrams and the DSCC have expressed continued support for Warnock, but Republicans have signaled their eagerness to use the domestic dispute as a club. The early anointing has become a cause for a hike in local anxiety levels.

Twenty candidates are challenging Loeffler in an all-comers special election on Nov. 3. “We’re very early on in the process of this jungle primary, in which candidates will have an opportunity to introduce themselves. We’re all praying for him, his wife and his kids,” said Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson. "However, politically, I’m sure that this is something that the Warnock campaign is taking very seriously. It’s not ideal to have this during the time that you’re rolling out your campaign.

"I would hope that there was an extensive amount of vetting that occurred before Pastor Warnock was encouraged to enter this U.S. Senate race,” Johnson said.

Melita Easters is the executive director of Georgia’s WIN List, a political action committee devoted to electing to office women who support abortion rights. Lately, the group has emphasized electing more Democratic women to the state Legislature.

“Any sign of domestic violence in a relationship is always troubling. Divorces are not easy, and yet voters have many times been able to look past divorces on both sides of the aisle and focus on the issues of the campaign at hand,” she said. But like Johnson, the timing bothers her. “The proximity of these recent allegations to the launch of the campaign has to be troubling to all women in Georgia,” she said. It’s not an accusation from the distant past.

Here’s why Warnock’s domestic life matters to Georgia Democrats: Let us presume that Joe Biden wins the Democratic nomination for president. Let us further theorize that Biden picks U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota as his running mate, to boost Democratic chances in the Midwest.

Three well-known Democrats are in the race to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga. All are white. Warnock, who can be something of a firebrand in the pulpit, is intended to be a focal point for African-American voters in Georgia – an additional reason to turn out in November.

It’s not unlike the thinking behind Gov. Brian Kemp’s appointment of Loeffler to the U.S. Senate in the first place.

“I do hope for Georgia Democrats that we have a ticket at the top that will complement the high number of very well-qualified and energetic women who are running for legislative seats and will stir up grassroots support at the bottom of the ticket,” Easters said. “I want a ticket at the top for all of those women who have put themselves on the line.”

Meanwhile, it’s worth considering that Aug. 18 will mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote. Perhaps that month would be more hospitable to women’s history.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.