Too radical? Too moderate? With Warnock, it depends on whom you ask

In divided Washington, Georgia’s ‘senator-reverend’ tries to navigate a middle course
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock's national profile has soared since he won a state runoff election in January 2021, making him a rising star in the Democratic Party and potentially a presidential candidate in 2028. But he has also faced criticism over the left, with claims that he isn’t doing enough to advocate for liberal causes. (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock's national profile has soared since he won a state runoff election in January 2021, making him a rising star in the Democratic Party and potentially a presidential candidate in 2028. But he has also faced criticism over the left, with claims that he isn’t doing enough to advocate for liberal causes. (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Just hours before yet another mass shooting in America, this one taking the lives of three people on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in December, Raphael Warnock took to the Senate floor to deliver both a lament about the scourge of gun violence and a rebuke of Congress for doing little to prevent it.

He decried the seeming regularity of such armed rampages in America. As a pastor, he said, he had prayed for those touched by other tragedies, including one at an office building in Midtown Atlanta in May. But thoughts and prayers, Georgia’s “senator-reverend” continued, were simply not enough.

He implored his Senate colleagues to resist the partisanship preventing changes to gun laws and to pass legislation that requires universal background checks for gun buyers, a measure he said most Americans support.

“I think the unspoken assumption is that this will not visit me; it will not happen to my family,” he said. “When you consider that there have been 630 mass shootings already this year, sadly, the chances are quite good that this could visit any one of us. And we ought to do our work here in the Congress as if we are protecting our own families.”

That speech by Warnock rang out in a mostly empty Senate chamber. But that didn’t matter. He wasn’t addressing just his fellow senators.

His remarks were a reminder to the people back home that he’s still passionate about the same causes he’s always been fervent about in his 18 years as pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, still fighting for the same social justice that his hero the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and political mentor John Lewis fought for.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, shown speaking at the U.S. Capitol following shootings in Midtown Atlanta in May, has pressed his colleagues to pass gun control measures, such as universal background checks. “I think the unspoken assumption is that this will not visit me; it will not happen to my family,” Warnock said in December. “When you consider that there have been 630 mass shootings already this year, sadly, the chances are quite good that this could visit any one of us. And we ought to do our work here in the Congress as if we are protecting our own families.” (screen grab from Senate livestream)

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Credit: Screen shot

Since he won office in January 2021, Warnock’s inbox has been overflowing with speaking requests. People recognize him on the street and ask for pictures or to shake his hand. He rubs elbows with some of the most powerful people in politics, business and entertainment.

Yet, as he gains a higher profile, the voices of his critics on the left grow. As a Black man who rose from a housing project to occupy King’s pulpit, Warnock is viewed as one of the Democratic Party’s biggest stars. But some of those who supported him say he isn’t doing enough to advocate for their progressive causes.

Before he entered politics, Warnock had a national reputation as a talented preacher who wasn’t afraid to speak out on issues such as access to health care and criminal justice.

But his election as Georgia’s first Black senator — initially to fill the unexpired term of Sen. Johnny Isakson — required a careful balancing act in a purple state. Republicans attacked him, calling him a “radical liberal” whose worldview was “dangerously out of the mainstream.”

When he won a full six-year term in December 2022, garnering 51.4% of the vote to Republican Herschel Walker’s 48.6%, his success in finding the right balance seemed to be confirmed. The narrow victory came courtesy of a strong turnout in Atlanta and liberal-leaning surrounding counties, as well as votes from middle-of-the-road Georgians who worried Walker was unfit for the job.

But some of his supporters worry that he’s too centrist at a time when hard lines need to be drawn. They want to see more of the Raphael Warnock who was arrested in 2014 for staging a sit-in outside the office of Gov. Nathan Deal to protest a decision not to expand Medicaid in Georgia. And the Raphael Warnock who was detained on U.S. Capitol grounds in 2017 for protesting against proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Warnock says he has remained true to who he is by centering a message of unity and compassion over condemnations and flamethrowing. Whether he is in the pulpit at Ebenezer or on the Senate floor, he says, fighting for “things that matter” doesn’t require him to change that.

‘We needed a stronger statement’

When Warnock launched his campaign for the Senate in 2020, a new national audience was introduced to his moving orations and politics steeped in liberation theology, emphasizing the plight of the oppressed and the church’s role in addressing inequity.

Add to that Warnock’s powerful life story, and some want to see more activism from him in the Senate. He grew up with 11 siblings in a Savannah housing project and became the youngest senior pastor ever at a historic church deeply involved in the fight for civil rights.

But Warnock has had to come to terms with the fact he doesn’t always understand or agree with how things work in Washington.

He was frustrated early on by the slow pace of the Senate and the rules and traditions that dictate how things are done. Those rules, such as the 60-vote filibuster, have been used to derail proposals such as the federal elections standards Warnock has championed.

He’s said that he would consider voting to get rid of the filibuster. But not enough Senate Democrats, who might lose the slim majority they have in 2024, feel the same way.

He also has resisted being pulled into local political battles outside the purview of the Senate but which have just as much impact on his constituents. The biggest example: the controversy surrounding the Atlanta public safety training center.

Mayor Andre Dickens and his predecessor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, support the facility’s construction, which is underway. But leftist, environmental justice and criminal justice groups have opposed the facility for a variety of reasons, including its locale and price tag. That coalition put together a petition drive to try to force a referendum, which would allow Atlanta voters to weigh in.

Warnock and other Democrats in Georgia’s congressional delegation stayed out of the debate initially. That changed after the city was accused of holding up referendum efforts. In September, Warnock sent a letter to Dickens outlining his concerns and saying the city needed to be more transparent.

“I urge the city to err on the side of giving people the ability to express their views,” Warnock wrote, “including by establishing clear and transparent deadlines regarding timelines and requirements and by using any discretion available to the city under the law to accept and count all lawfully collected signatures.”

Days later, Dickens responded with a letter to Warnock, assuring him that the city would follow the law.

Activists who oppose the Atlanta public safety training center now under construction have criticized Sen. Raphael Warnock, saying he hasn't done enough to ensure that their efforts to hold a referendum on the project get a fair hearing. His silence following the death of one protester, who police say fired at them first, also drew rebukes. “He’s a great man with a good heart,” said Linda Sarsour, a co-founder of the civil rights group Until Freedom.“But he has to speak up. People sent you to the Senate to be a bold and brave voice. People sent you to the Senate because they believe that you align with people, that you’re going to lift the most downtrodden, marginalized people. And we expect that from you. We wouldn’t be saying the hard things to you if we didn’t believe that you could do better.” (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

For some activists, Warnock’s input was too little and too late. They held a news conference in Washington that coincided with the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual legislative conference, a huge gathering of lobbyists, political staffers at all rungs of government and corporate interests. Two Hollywood actors joined activists in blasting Atlanta’s elected leaders, including Warnock.

Black Voters Matter co-founder Cliff Albright said the senator’s letter left some supporters disappointed.

“It’s good to be troubled and have questions, but we needed a stronger statement on the need for people to be able to vote, especially as he’s been very strong — which we’re happy about — on issues like democracy and voting rights,” Albright said.

He said he was also dismayed that Warnock had not spoken out about the felony racketeering charges that dozens of the activists protesting the public safety center are facing.

Linda Sarsour, a co-founder of the civil rights organization Until Freedom, said she likes Warnock as a person but believes he fell short when he did not speak out after one of the activists protesting at the site of the planned facility was killed by state troopers. Law enforcement officials say Manuel Teran fired at officers first, but his killing helped galvanize the opposition.

“He’s a great man with a good heart,” Sarsour said of Warnock during the news conference. “But he has to speak up. People sent you to the Senate to be a bold and brave voice. People sent you to the Senate because they believe that you align with people, that you’re going to lift the most downtrodden, marginalized people. And we expect that from you. We wouldn’t be saying the hard things to you if we didn’t believe that you could do better.”

In early October, some members of a different segment of Warnock’s constituency soured on him: Jewish voters. Days after the Islamist militant group Hamas carried out a brutal surprise attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip, prompting Israel to launch retaliatory strikes, Warnock was asked by a local rabbi to video record a prayer. It was to be played at a rally expressing support for Israel.

In the recorded prayer, Warnock focused on the need for peace and ensuring the safety of children in Israel and Gaza.

Outside the event, where an overflow audience had gathered for the vigil, there was a scattering of boos from people who wanted Warnock in that moment to be more attuned to the pain of Jewish people and their anger at Hamas.

Warnock said he had already issued a statement on his Senate-connected social media accounts condemning Hamas and pledging support for Israel. But the prayer he offered, he said later, was an example of how being a minister impacts his approach, even in a politically charged moment.

“I only know one way to pray,” he said. “And that’s to pray for everybody, to pray for peace, to pray for humanity.”

Warnock — who often uses the hyphenated job description the senator-reverend — said he heard from some supporters who praised him for delivering a unifying message.

But many didn’t like his prayer and made sure he knew it.

He said he could see how his words were viewed as too conciliatory compared with other speakers that evening, including some political leaders who were much more fiery in their anti-Hamas rhetoric.

Given that, the reaction he got isn’t surprising, he said, “particularly given how sensitive all of this is and how complicated it all is. But I’ll continue to be the senator-reverend.”

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock often refers to himself as a "senator-reverend." Splitting the two would almost be “like asking me is there a moment when I’m a man or a Christian or African American,” he said. “I’m all of those things. I’m a pastor. I’m a senator. I will tell you that my favorite job is father.” (Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

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Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

‘He’s willing to go to both sides of the aisle’

Warnock said he tries to understand all sides of an argument and that it’s impossible for him to separate the roles of senator and reverend. One bleeds into the other, so he’s always looking for common ground.

“That’s almost like asking me is there a moment when I’m a man or a Christian or African American,” he said. “I’m all of those things. I’m a pastor. I’m a senator. I will tell you that my favorite job is father.”

Raising two young children factors heavily into how he approaches both jobs.

“They, in a real sense, are my North Star,” he said. “For me, every morning, it’s about what kind of world do I want them to grow up in?”

Trying to foster that world keeps him busy. His day is often scheduled down to the minute.

On a fall day, he began his morning with staff meetings and a constituent breakfast at the Capitol.

Among those crowded in that small meeting room was the Rev. Cassie Rapko, the pastor-in-charge at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Atlanta. She waited in line to shake Warnock’s hand, introduce herself and talk about a friend they had in common, Isakson, who died in 2021.

Isakson was a frequent guest at Ebenezer’s King Day services, and the Senate seat he held for 14 years is the one Warnock now occupies. Rapko was Isakson’s pastor for several years, and the senator would sometimes request copies of her sermon to share with colleagues in D.C.

“Having known Johnny — and Johnny’s politics were much different than Sen. Warnock’s politics and the sides of the aisle that they’re on — but I think that Johnny would have been really proud that Sen. Warnock is in his seat,” Rapko said.

While some people might want to pull Warnock in one political direction, Rapko believes it’s important that he keeps trying to work with people across the spectrum. Like when he partnered with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to secure funding for highway construction and when he worked with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to create grant programs to reduce maternal mortality.

“I think what Sen. Warnock is doing is he’s taking his faith and he’s living it out in a way that advocates for those who need an advocate. But (he) also sees the importance of bringing people together for the greater good,” she said. “And so he’s willing to go to both sides of the aisle to tell those stories of people that he’s seen, to talk about the needs of his community.”

After breakfast, it was time for Warnock to head to Washington’s convention center, where he had a series of meetings tied to his role as co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual conference.

His staff noticed he was running behind schedule. Every few steps in the massive exhibit hall, someone stopped him, seeking a handshake or a selfie.

“I knew that was him,” one woman exclaimed as he whisked past.

Sen. Raphael Warnock takes a picture with Sally Williams, who was his English teacher at the Sol C. Johnson High School in Savannah, where he grew up with 11 siblings. (Tia Mitchell / Tia.Mitchell@ajc.com)

Credit: Tia MItchell

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Credit: Tia MItchell

The star treatment for Warnock came as a shock to attorney Byron Perkins, one of his closest friends. The two met the summer after Warnock’s junior year in college when he served as a minister intern at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where Perkins today is still a member.

The week of the Black Caucus conference, Perkins tagged along for many of Warnock’s appearances.

“Everywhere he went, people wanted a piece of him,” Perkins said. “I had never experienced that before and I’m like, ‘All right, man, this thing has gotten different now.’”

For one of the conference’s panel discussions, Warnock drew a standing-room-only crowd when he appeared with rapper Quavo to discuss gun violence prevention.

He had prepped for that event by meeting privately with the star who, in 2022, witnessed the fatal shooting of his nephew and bandmate Takeoff. The meeting, attended by Quavo’s family members and a handful of lawmakers, was emotional at times. Warnock was tapped to end it with prayer.

Afterward, Warnock was quiet as he rode in an SUV back to the Capitol. He broke the silence when he opened up his phone and began playing a song Quavo recorded in Takeoff’s memory. “Dark nights, I can’t sleep, so I cry ‘til I close my eyes. I never ask God why (God), I just go where the road designed.”

Later that evening, during yet another ride to the Capitol for a Senate vote, Warnock dialed a number on his phone and waited for the FaceTime call to pick up. “Hey buddy,” he said to his son, who began filling him in on the day at preschool.

Warnock’s staff helps keep him on schedule, but they have also learned to pay attention to the personal time blocked off on his calendar for calls with his kids or family time in Atlanta.

Warnock said he never imagined that his race for the Senate alongside fellow Georgian Jon Ossoff would prove so consequential in the overall scheme of national politics. But now he sees that their success all worked together to give him more prominence and a bigger platform.

While he’s just one year into his first full Senate term, some Democratic Party insiders and pundits are already talking about him as a potential candidate for president, possibly as soon as 2028.

Warnock says that he did not enter politics with any higher office in mind. He said his focus is only on what’s on his plate now, with his dual roles as a senator and a reverend, not on a run for president.

“I‘m always busy running into the next meeting,” he said. “That’s what I’m running for now. And if you haven’t noticed, I got a few jobs.”

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