June 17, 2022

Raphael Warnock

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D), Georgia’s first Black US senator and a minister, discusses the economy, Jan. 6, and other key midterm issues. Warnock is up against ex-football star Herschel Walker, a Trump-backed candidate, in a closely watched 2022 race.

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A test of faith … This Week on Firing Line. 

 

Warnock: God is up to something in the world. 

 

He’s the pastor at the same Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Junior once preached, and was elected the first Black senator from Georgia in a victory that helped Democrats reclaim the Senate.

 

Warnock: We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve ever seen since the Jim Crow era. 

 

But Senator Raphael Warnock arrived on Capitol Hill in a moment of deep division, and democracy tested, he’s staked out positions on voting rights, abortion… 

 

Protesters: “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!”

 

Warnock: I think that a patient’s room is too narrow and cramped a space for a woman, her doctor, and the United States government.

 

…and what he believes will help Americans facing skyrocketing inflation. And already he’s facing a political test from Georgia football legend Herschel Walker, who has the backing of former President Trump. So can faith hold Americans together when polarization is tearing us apart? What does Senator and Reverend Raphael Warnock say now? 

 

Firing Line with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation, The Tepper Foundation, The Fairweather Foundation, The Asness Family Foundation and by, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, Damon Button, The Marc Haas Foundation, The Simmons Family Foundation. Corporate Funding is provided by Stevens Inc. and Pfizer inc. 

 

HOOVER: Senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock, welcome to Firing Line.

WARNOCK: Great to be here. Thank you. 

HOOVER: You have a new book out, “A Way Out Of No Way.” And in it you speak about two Americas, one America that historically voted for the first black senator from Georgia on January 5th, and another America that, the very next day, took part in a riot on the Capitol of the United States. As you watch the January 6th hearings, along with millions of Americans this week, which America is prevailing? 

WARNOCK: Hmm. Well, thank you so much. It’s great to be here. First of all, let me say the title for the book, “A Way Out of No Way,” comes from the culture and tradition of the black church. And when we say the black church, let me hasten to say we’ve never meant anything racially exclusive about that. We’re talking about the antislavery church, the church that was literally born fighting for freedom. It is that tradition that has animated my ministry, that informs the work that I do. And eventually it got me to do something as crazy as run for the United States Senate. 

HOOVER: In a historic run. 

WARNOCK: Yeah. And as you point out, Georgia did an amazing thing. A former state of the Confederacy elected its first African-American senator. Only the 11th African-American senator in the whole history of the country. It also elected its first Jewish senator, in one fell swoop. And I think somewhere in glory Martin Luther King Jr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel are smiling because they marched alongside one another. And so I’m very proud of my state. I was born in Georgia, raised there, went to college there. And now I serve as pastor of Ebenezer Church, where Dr. King served. Georgia sent me and Jon Ossoff to the Senate on January 5th. January 6th, we saw a violent assault on the Capitol. And all of it was driven by the big lie, this idea that certain people’s votes and therefore their voices don’t count in our democracy. And so for me, this is an American moment. January 6th does tell us something about our country because it happened. We don’t get to deny it. But here’s the great thing, January 5th also happened, and we’ve got to decide which America we’re going to be. 

HOOVER: Which side is prevailing right now? 

WARNOCK: Oh, I think that– look, I have a great faith in our country. And maybe it’s because, you know, when I was born in 1969, Georgia was represented by two arch segregationist senators. I now sit in the seat held by segregationists. And so I’ve seen enough of the arc of American history to remain hopeful, to know that we can push closer to our ideals. But it takes hard work. My mom grew up in Waycross Georgia in the 1950s. She used to pick somebody else’s tobacco and cotton. But in the last election, she helped pick her youngest son to be a United States senator. Only in America is my story possible, and that’s why I get up every morning trying to fight for that American dream.

HOOVER: You’re from Georgia, a state that, as you well know, factored into President Trump’s big lie and has come up in the January 6th hearings this week. It was the subject, of course, of the phone call that then President Trump made to Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, when he asked him to help him find enough votes to overturn the election results. Are the hearings helping to move this country forward? 

WARNOCK: Some truths are inconvenient and they’re painful. And I think it’s, it’s so important in this moment for all of us to stand up. This is not about any single person. The democracy doesn’t belong to the politicians. And in a sense, I see January 6th as an extreme and radical expression of a problem that I see every day in our politics and that is politics too often becomes about the politicians. It’s about their power. And when you’re focused on your own power, rather than the sanctity of the democracy itself, then I think you’re given to a kind of cynical politics that makes the politician their own biggest cause. So that when we encounter something that most Americans believe we ought to get some progress on, like common sense gun laws, it becomes very hard to do anything, even when nearly 90% of the country believes in it, because the politicians are thinking about themselves. 

GUNS

HOOVER: And yet this week it was announced that there is a bipartisan framework arrived at that includes ten Republican senators, Democratic senators. And the gun reform framework would include incentives for states to pass red flag laws, increase mental health resources, school safety money, enhancements to background checks for people under 21. Narrower, of course, than what many Democrats wanted and than what President Biden asked for. But it appears to have enough support to become a law. You have expressed, I’ve heard you over the course of the last couple days, express support for the framework. If it becomes a bill, will you vote for it? 

WARNOCK: Here’s what I said. After we witnessed this awful slaughter of children, of innocents, 19 babies killed in a school along with their teachers. What’s really clear to me is that for the Senate to do nothing, that is clearly the wrong answer. And I was worried because we saw after Sandy Hook, no movement. And so we won’t agree on everything that needs to be done, but we have to have movement. And so I was very much encouraged by the framework as it’s been laid out, and I look forward to supporting a bill that will make a difference and save some lives. 

HOOVER: So that’s a yes. You’re a yes vote?

WARNOCK: I support the framework as I’ve seen it.

ABORTION

HOOVER: You voted last month on the Women’s Health Protection Act.

WARNOCK: Absolutely. 

HOOVER: This is a bill– you’ve talked about, how you’re a pro-choice preacher, and this is a bill that would codify the right of women to have an abortion. And, you know, the critics, including two Republican pro-choice senators, say that the bill went too far, it was too broad. They support a narrower version of the bill that would also codify the right for women to have an abortion. But their argument is that in their bill, it doesn’t undercut the rights of health care providers who have religious objections to abortion. Are there circumstances under which you could support a bill like that drafted by Republicans who are pro-choice?

WARNOCK: I support a woman’s right to choose. And I’ve been very clear about this. Look, I have a profound reverence for life. I also have a deep and abiding respect for choice. And I think that a patient’s room is too narrow and cramped a space for a woman, her doctor, and the United States government. I just think that’s too many people in the room. We should spend more time thinking about the things that we actually can work on. And often the public is closer, the American public is closer on these issues sometimes than what’s reflected in our politics. So we’ve been at a kind of stalemate on this issue, at least in the politics, for a long time. But I think about our maternal mortality rate in this country, which is abysmally high, especially in a state like Georgia. And black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth or as a result of labor than their white sisters, even when they have the income, even when they have the insurance. Think about that. They’re still dying at a much higher rate. And so I got together with Senator Marco Rubio. We don’t agree on Roe, but he and I have put forward a maternal mortality bill that looks at this issue and tries to provide resources. So I think if we can find the places where we can work together and not focus on the politicians, but focus on the people, we can make progress. 

HOOVER: So do you think you would support or could support– would you consider supporting a bill that Republican pro-choice senators have put forward in order to codify Roe? 

WARNOCK: For me, it’s not about Republican, Democrat–

HOOVER: What about this distinction that it protects religious workers, or people of religious conscience who don’t–

WARNOCK: I would need to see the text of the bill. I mean, that’s part of what it means to be a good legislator. I take it very seriously. But I absolutely affirm a woman’s right to choose. And, you know, I think the range of circumstances under which people find themselves is complicated in ways that I don’t– that doesn’t fit in the narrow kind of politics that we see played out in Washington. 

VOTING RIGHTS

HOOVER: In your book, A Way Out of No Way, you’re really clear, actually, about what you call the racist  overtones that you see in Trump’s claim that the election was stolen after black Americans voted in unprecedented numbers in 2020. And, you know, you’ve worked, and you write about this in your book, on voting rights for many, many years, long before you got to the Senate. 

WARNOCK: Sure. 

HOOVER: And there have been several Senate votes on legislation for voting rights. Only one Republican by my count has voted for any one of those bills, that’s Lisa Murkowski. But there’s also been a dearth of substantial Democratic support that can break the logjam and get over 60. There have been missing Democratic votes in voting rights as well. So it occurs to me that seven Republicans voted to convict President Trump and they might be a good starting point for refuting the big lie and creating new voting rights legislation. Do you think there’s a path for bipartisan voting reform? 

WARNOCK: Well voting rights used to be bipartisan. It ought to be bipartisan. The last time the voting rights law passed the United States Senate the vote was 96 to zero and George W. Bush was the president of the United States. And so now we’ve seen a major shift. Some of the folks who voted for that bill are in the House or in the Senate right now. So, look, there’s nothing more precious, nothing more important than the right to vote. I often say that a vote is a kind of prayer for the kind of world we desire for ourselves and for our children. Democracy is, for me, the political enactment of a spiritual idea, this notion that all of us have within ourselves a spark of the divine, that we have value, and therefore we ought to have a voice and the direction of the country and our destiny within it. This assault on voting rights flies in the face of what it means to be a country that is knit together on the basis of an idea, a democratic idea. And it is something that I’ve been fighting for long before I came to the United States Senate. And in this moment it is so important that we get the people, their voices back and their democracy. 

HOOVER: You’ve worked with Stacey Abrams in Georgia, in her new Georgia project to build a coalition that turned out Democrats in 2020. And she’s back on the ballot this year in a rematch against Governor Brian Kemp. She says voter suppression is why she lost. Has the work been done in Georgia to ensure that everyone who wants to vote will get to vote in the upcoming election? 

WARNOCK: The work of democracy is ongoing and we have to keep doing that work. You know, I started out registering voters and then I ended up running for office. You know, I didn’t set out to do this. I’m a pastor and I enjoy being a pastor. I came a few years ago to the Capitol, not as a senator, but as an activist. There was a bill that provided a huge tax cut to the top 1% in our country, a tax cut to those who don’t need it by taking resources from those who need support. And so I and a group of ministers came to the Capitol and began to protest. And the Capitol Police said, you know, if you don’t disperse – we were praying in the rotunda – if you don’t disperse, we’ll have to arrest you. 

News Anchor: “Warnock and several others were taken away in handcuffs…”

WARNOCK: And so I was arrested that day, standing up for Medicaid expansion, standing up for healthcare in 2017. My office is now down the hall from that rotunda. I’ve moved from protest to public policy, from agitator to legislator. And so the work of democracy is an ongoing project. The meaning of a democracy that embraces all of us, and our diversity requires a lot of different voices, and that’s the project that I intend to spend my life working on. 

GEORGIA SENATE RACE

HOOVER: You are one of the Democrats in the Senate who is up this year. You have to run again for your seat after two years. And the issue on Georgians’ minds and Americans’ minds is the economy. Inflation is up at historic highs. Gas prices are at $5 a gallon in many, many places. And your opponents are going to spend millions of dollars trying to tether you to what they call Biden’s failed economic agenda. So what is your message? How are you going to make the case that you should be returned to Washington in a year that cyclically is disinclined to be a positive year for Democrats? 

WARNOCK: Well, representing the people of Georgia is a great honor. And right now I’m very much focused on the pressures that ordinary people are feeling in this moment in which we are witnessing global inflation. We saw a pandemic – we’re in the throes of it still – unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime. It created economic turndown. And as the economy has opened up, we’re seeing these forces at work coupled with clear price gouging by certain corporate bad actors, which is why I put forward a bill that passed the House which has made its way to the president’s desk. My bill would deal with these international ocean carriers who are clearly engaged in price gouging because they can, as much as a 2,000% increase in profits. Georgians are paying high prices at the pump. Oil and gas companies are experiencing record profits. So I don’t wake up every morning focused on my concerns. You know, I’m focused on the concerns of the people that I preach to on Sunday morning, the folks I run into at the grocery store, the seniors that I know who for a very long time have had to decide between buying prescription drugs and buying groceries as Big Pharma engages in price gouging. I have a bill that would cap the cost of insulin to $35 per person per month. When I do this work, you know, it’s not theoretical for me. I’m a pastor. And so I’ve been with families who have a loved one who has diabetes. I know what happens. I’ve seen, I’ve been there when folks have gotten the news that they’ve got to get an amputation because the diabetes is out of control or they’ve got to go on dialysis. And so when we cap the costs, when we deal with the cost of insulin in a world where people are rationing insulin, I think we go a long way with also addressing some of these inequities in our total health care system. 

HOOVER: Republicans have nominated University of Georgia and NFL legend Herschel Walker to be your opponent in this upcoming November election. Walker was, of course, has been endorsed by President Trump and Mitch McConnell. And, as I said earlier, millions of dollars are going to go into this Senate race. It is going to be a highly watched and very expensive contest for your seat. Since his retirement from the NFL, Herschel Walker has run a company that distributes chicken products and launched companies that have been plagued by debts and lawsuits. He appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice, he has promoted conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and even cast doubt on whether President Trump’s supporters were truly responsible for January 6th. Is Herschel Walker right for Georgia? 

WARNOCK: The great thing about America is that’s not up to me. It’s up to the people of Georgia. But I will say that the people of Georgia have a real choice in front of them. And this is going to be a long campaign, but the question is, who’s ready to represent the people of Georgia at a very serious time. I’ve spent my whole life focused on service, focused on trying to make people’s lives better. And so I’m deeply honored that I get to do this work for the people of Georgia, and I look forward to having this conversation. 

HOOVER: You’re saying Herschel Walker is not ready?

WARNOCK: I intend to talk to the people of Georgia about their problems and their issues and their hopes and their dreams for their children. And I think that if we stay focused on that, we have a chance at getting the public policy right. 

HOOVER: Well, you ran an ad earlier in this campaign that really calls out Walker for comments he made in 2020 about killing COVID-19 with a dry mist. 

WARNOCK AD, WALKER: “…as you walk through the door it will kill any Covid on your body.”

HOOVER: Basically the ad suggests that he’s not ready. What are you going to say about Herschel Walker?

WARNOCK: I’m focused on the work that I’m trying to do. Here is what I’m focused on. You know, I’m the first college graduate in my family. I got through college on Pell Grants, low interest student loans. And in the years since, things have changed and student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt in this country. It has surpassed auto loans. Our children have a mortgage before they have a mortgage. And so I’m focused on them.

HOOVER: I can tell you’re uncomfortable saying anything negative about your opponent. But how are you going to draw a contrast? 

WARNOCK: Look, I am going to continue to do the work. The people of Georgia hired me to do a job, and I wake up every morning– You know, it may sound corny, but I still pinch myself most mornings. I can’t believe I get to do this work. This is a dream job for somebody like me who has spent my whole life working on criminal justice reform, working on voting rights, working on health care.

HOOVER: You were very close to the late Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights icon whose funeral, in fact, you presided over at Ebenezer Baptist Church. John Lewis appeared on the original version of Firing Line. Take a look at this. 

LEWIS: What we are trying to do is take some of the ethics, some of the morality hopefully existed during the early days of the Civil Rights movement and inject it into the political arena.

BUCKLEY: How does that translate itself from what it was that inspired it in the mid-60s to what it is that, now approaching the mid-70s, you want it to do?

LEWIS: Our whole point now I think is to consolidate the gains that we have made, to build on those gains, to use the people, use the force, use the energy that we created during the 60s for good. Some of the same people, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, housewives and maids that were very much involved in the sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides, the whole right to vote, these people are running for office. And they’re not just going to be another group of elected officials, but they’re going to represent a different and a new breed. 

HOOVER: What would John Lewis say right now about the progress we’re making in this country?

WARNOCK: He would tell us to keep moving. You know, he often talked about good trouble. I was his pastor, but he was my mentor. And, you know, I had the honor, as you point out, of presiding over this funeral. And as I was preparing to do that while running for the Senate, I asked myself what was John Lewis thinking that day when he crossed that Edmund Pettus Bridge, police officers with billy clubs just on the other side of the bridge. Here’s what I know. He was not thinking that one day at the end of his life at his funeral there would be three American presidents on both sides of the aisle. They’re paying tribute to him. He was not thinking that one day he’d be the recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom. I think that he was probably just trying to stay alive that day so that he could fight the next day. And so I think he would tell us to keep the faith and keep working. It’s dark. The days are difficult. But who are we to give up? People like him faced improbable odds. I think we look back at moments like the civil rights movement and we speak as if those gains were inevitable. They were actually quite improbable. They didn’t always know what their next steps would be, but they kept moving. They kept moving in the direction of progress. We say in the black church, God makes a way out of no way. And that’s the title of my book. And I think the unspoken part of that is, as we make our way, as we do the work, God makes a way out of no way. 

HOOVER: Senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock, thank you so much for being here on Firing Line. 

WARNOCK: Great to be with you.