Government played a key role in Warnock’s early life

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Now he is campaigning for reelection, while emphasizing the role government can play in helping others

In the memoir he published this year, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock emphasizes how the government helped him thrive and ultimately shaped his priorities in Washington.

The 11th of 12 siblings, the Democrat grew up in public housing in Savannah and attended Head Start, a federal education program for youngsters from low-income families. He participated in Upward Bound, another government program that prepares students for higher education. And with the help of Pell Grants and low-interest student loans, he became the first in his family to graduate from college.

Warnock now serves as the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. In a way, Warnock followed in the footsteps of his parents, who served as Pentecostal preachers while scrambling to make a living. His mother picked tobacco and cotton as a teenager in rural Georgia. A U.S. Army veteran, Warnock’s father transported produce and junk cars.

“I grew up watching Dad work to the point of exhaustion every day and still fall short of the ability to provide fully for our family,” Warnock, 53, wrote in “A Way out of No Way: A Memoir of Truth, Transformation, and the New American Story.” “But, thanks to the assistance of the federal government, my family never lived outdoors, we never went hungry, and I never missed out on an opportunity to learn.”

Those early experiences have influenced what Warnock has done in the U.S. Senate and how he is now running for reelection against GOP rival Herschel Walker, who has staked out sharply different positions about the role of government. As a senator, Warnock has pushed to expand Medicaid in Georgia, reduce the cost of prescriptions for seniors on Medicare and forgive student debt. He and Walker are locked in a tight race. Recent polls show a runoff is possible, partly because of the relative strength of a third-party candidate, Libertarian Chase Oliver.

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As he gathered recently with a group of local artists in Summerhill, Warnock mentioned his humble beginnings and how government aid helped him. The senator — flanked by vivid paintings of Marvin Gaye and Pharrell Williams — drew some chuckles when he joked about the size of his family: “My folks read the Bible: ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ ”

“I serve in the Senate, but I haven’t forgotten my roots. I haven’t forgotten the road that got me here,” the senator said. “My job is to make sure there is a ladder that allows other people to get to where they need to go.”

Moments later, Warnock highlighted how he helped pass a sweeping federal law this year that is aimed at cutting the national deficit, greenhouse gas emissions and prescription drug costs. Called the Inflation Reduction Act, it will pay for the extra spending with $300 billion in new taxes, largely from big corporations. Meanwhile, it is expected to reduce the federal budget deficit by that same mount over 10 years.

Walker and other Republicans have blasted the measure, saying it is actually inflationary.

“The problem we got: Why are we continuing to spend money we don’t have?” Walker said after the Senate narrowly passed the legislation on a party-line vote. “You know what having a credit card means when you have no money. Quit spending money. All we’re doing is spending money. They can’t continue tearing things up, not fixing one thing.”

As he met with voters in Summerhill, Warnock underscored his support for canceling student loan debt. He spoke at the headquarters of Good As Burgers, a small but growing fast-food vegan business Talia Jones co-owns with her fiancé. The Georgia State University alumna said she supports Warnock, noting she still has college loan debt. In August, President Joe Biden announced plans to cancel $10,000 in such debt for people earning less than $125,000 a year and $20,000 for those who received Pell Grants for low-income families. That relief, Jones said, could allow her to plow more money into her business, which is expanding into Decatur.

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“I grew up in Riverdale and we didn’t necessarily have the funds, so I was one of those kids who was under Pell Grant,” she said, adding about Biden’s plan: “It is really giving me an opportunity to focus fully on this business of ours.”

Race has also surfaced as an issue in the campaign. Walker has told his supporters that Democrats are using it to divide Georgians.

“Sen. Warnock believes America is a bad country full of racist people; I believe we’re a great country full of generous people,” Walker said in an ad last month.

Yet, Warnock is sounding a unifying theme on the campaign trail. In Summerhill, for example, the senator emphasized diversity and inclusion while recalling the variety of voters who propelled him to victory past Republican Kelly Loeffler in the January 2021 runoff.

“Let’s build once again the kind of multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious mosaic of humanity that made a difference the last time. And let’s do this one more time,” he said.

Meanwhile, Warnock and Walker are clashing over abortion. Walker has endorsed a national proposal from U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks.

Warnock talked about protecting abortion rights while appearing at a campaign rally last month in the parking lot of a skating rink in southwest Atlanta. Dozens of his supporters had gathered in the shade of his campaign bus, cheering, “We’ve got your back!”

“I am going to stand up for the right of women to be in control of their own bodies,” he said. “I have a profound reverence for life. And I also have a deep respect for choice. And I just happen to think that a patient’s room is too narrow and cramped for space for a woman, her doctor and the United States government. That is too many people in the room.”

Loretta Green, a U.S. Air Force veteran from southwest Atlanta, sat in the front row of Warnock’s supporters, intently listening to him.

“You should have the right to make your own choice,” she said after posing for a photo with Warnock. “I would not have an abortion, but that is not my say-so for the next person. I don’t think I should tell you or your wife what you should do.”

Warnock also brought up his support for expanding Medicaid in Georgia. Walker opposes that, saying the costs, which are shared by state and federal governments, “continue to bankrupt us.” Warnock mentioned he was arrested in 2014 while demonstrating in the state Capitol in support of expanding Medicaid. At the time, access to health care was at stake for more than 600,000 low-income Georgians.

“They hauled the pastor of Ebenezer off to jail that day,” he told Green and his other supporters in southwest Atlanta. “But I didn’t mind. That felt like a small price to pay when I thought about the 600,000 Georgians who have a health care gap. I was standing up for them.”

Warnock pointed out the Inflation Reduction Act includes a provision he championed that caps the cost of insulin for those on Medicare to no more than $35 a month. That measure resonates with Dwight Lucas Jr., a highway safety worker from southwest Atlanta. He stood in the parking lot at the skating rink, watching Warnock campaign.

“He is the first candidate I know that did something for medical for Georgia. And that is he allowed the (cost of) insulin to come down,” said Lucas, who canvasses for Warnock’s campaign. “I am a diabetic, so I know. I was paying about $600 a month. When I went to go get it this time, I only had to pay $35. That’s a big difference.”

As he wrapped up at the rally, Warnock slipped into his preacher’s cadence and quoted Scripture, joking: “I’m sorry. It’s Monday. I thought it was Sunday.”

“This election is absolutely critical, and Georgia needs a person in the Senate who is ready,” he said. “Who is ready to stand up for workers! Who is ready to stand up for women! Who is ready to stand up for students! Who is ready to stand up for our seniors!”

He turned to the crowd and asked: “What I need to know is: Are you ready?”

The crowd shouted in response, “Yes!”


About Raphael Warnock

Age: 53

Hometown: Savannah

Job: Senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church

Party: Democrat

Some priorities:

  • Pass a federal Medicaid-like program for Georgians.
  • Continue pushing for student loan forgiveness.
  • Fight for federal voting rights protections.

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