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There have been so few Black Democrats elected to the Senate that when Vice President-elect Kamala Harris campaigned for the Rev. Raphael Warnock in Savannah this week the pairing spoke volumes, even if unintentionally, about racial representation in statewide office.
In purely partisan terms, a leader of the Democratic Party was seeking to rally voters in an important Senate runoff election, the results of which will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the chamber. But it was also a rare chance for one Senate barrier breaker to pass the torch to another. Ms. Harris was the first Black woman and woman of color to serve as a senator from California. Mr. Warnock will become the first Black senator from Georgia.
During his speech at the event with Ms. Harris, Mr. Warnock described being arrested by police officers at the U.S. Capitol during protests and political action over the years
“I wasn’t mad at them. They were doing their job and I was doing my job,” Mr. Warnock said. “But in a few days I’m going to meet those Capitol Hill police officers again and this time they will not be taking me to central booking. They can help me find my new office.”
Mr. Warnock’s victory over Senator Kelly Loeffler early Wednesday is a fitting culmination to an election cycle in which, hours after Joseph R. Biden Jr. was declared the president-elect, he told Black voters, “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”
It is also a generational breakthrough for Southern Black Democrats.
Mr. Warnock, 51, the pastor who took the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, spoke on the campaign trail about his life experiences as a Black man born and raised in the South. He ran for office in a state where people in predominantly Black neighborhoods waited in disproportionately long lines to vote last year, and where one study found that more than 80 percent of the residents hospitalized for coronavirus in the state were Black — vestiges of systemic racism in the democratic and health care systems.
Political power in the former Jim Crow South, where few Black Americans have been elected to statewide office, is inextricably linked to race. And Mr. Warnock’s place in the political universe is distinct from the election of Ms. Harris, or Northerners like former President Barack Obama, previously a senator from Illinois, and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Together, Mr. Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the other Democratic candidate, have the chance to expand the legislative agenda of Mr. Biden. But Mr. Warnock alone was seeking to overcome a barrier reinforced in the South over and over again, crystallized in a saying that became popular during the civil rights movement: “The South doesn’t care how close a Negro gets, just so he doesn’t get too high.”
On Tuesday, Black Democrats in Georgia said such history was not lost on them. Neither was how long it took the party to seriously pursue the possibility of success in Georgia.
“It took Democrats forever to invest in Georgia,” said Frazier Lively, a 71-year-old who lives in Macon and attended a recent rally. “Now you would hope what’s happening here is a message to what’s possible going forward.”
Felicia Davis, an organizer who has worked for years in Clayton County, said it was important to think about the coalition that is supporting Democrats as the next iteration of organizers who worked in the civil rights movement. She drew a direct line from their work to the current push to register and turn out Black voters for a Black candidate.
“You have to know the names: Joseph Lowery, Reverend James Orange, Rita Samuels, everybody knows these names,” Ms. Davis said. “All of them are dead now. But people have come together to continue that work. We register. We travel around the state, and we’ve gotten our voices heard.”
Throughout the presidential primary and general election, Democrats have had to wrestle with questions of racial representation, electability and how to balance a rising multicultural coalition with those who are more focused on transformational policy. In the primary, older Black voters balked at Black candidates like Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris in favor of Mr. Biden, on the belief that he was best suited to defeat Mr. Trump. Progressives — and particularly younger voters — supported more liberal candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said all politicians, including Black ones, are in the end judged on policy even if they are barrier-breaking figures.
“Policy, Policy, Policy, that’s the only reason you elect people in the office is to push policy,” he said, repeating the word to emphasize the point. “A Black person is not elected just to hold the position. And the truth of the matter is Black politicians, from the state, to the Congress, to the Senate, they have to ask themselves the question, have we put these issues at the center?”
One urgent issue for all candidates in 2020, especially Democrats, was the summer of racial reckoning. In Georgia, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020 ignited protests, isolated instances of property damage, and put intense pressure on public officials — including Black ones.
Mr. Warnock, then in the early stages of his Senate race, navigated the social justice movement for the first time as a candidate for public office rather than solely from behind the pulpit. The words were more measured, the indictments of White America less stinging, as he and other Democrats tried to channel the anger of the community into an electoral purpose.
He did not mention the killing in his speech, but talked about his own family’s history as sharecroppers and victims of racial injustice.
“That’s why I love America because you always have a path to make a great country even greater,” Mr. Warnock said.
But no amount of careful word choice — or television advertisements with hopeful slogans and puppies — could stop his candidacy from becoming a lightning rod in an era defined by race, racial grievance and those who seek to capitalize on its backlash. After the general election was over, and it was clear there would be a runoff against Ms. Loeffler, Mr. Warnock became the subject of an all-out conservative assault, which sought to define him as an out-of-touch radical who was against Georgia’s values. Ms. Loeffler, a Republican, seized on snippets from his sermons from his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, presenting out-of-context statements on the military and Israel as ammunition.
While Republicans largely ignored Mr. Ossoff’s candidacy at their rallies, they took aim at Mr. Warnock repeatedly.
“Warnock is the most radical and dangerous left-wing candidate ever to seek this office, and certainly in the state of Georgia, and he does not have your values,” Mr. Trump said at his rally in Dalton, Ga., on Monday.
Mr. Trump does not get to define Georgia’s values, however. Voters made that clear in November, when Mr. Biden won the state — a result the president is baselessly continuing to question. Georgia’s population, and with it, perhaps, its values, is changing. The state’s Latino and Asian-American populations are growing, and the suburbs are drawing younger voters and college-educated moderates as well.
That is perhaps why Mr. Warnock the candidate sounded less like Mr. Warnock the preacher and more like Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat whose strategy of voter turnout specifically emphasizes multiculturalism rather than Blackness.
Ms. Abrams, in a recent interview, said she tries not to focus on one group over another when talking about how Georgia became a Democratic bright spot.
“I want us to be really clear that this requires the investment and support of multiple communities,” Ms. Abrams said. “This is a multiracial, multiethnic, multigenerational coalition. And the extent to which we give primacy to one group at the exclusion of the other, I become nervous.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Warnock’s journey from Black pastor to Black senator is an exercise of a different type of faith: It’s a belief that American politics can change from the inside, that the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters can see themselves represented in Congress. That there is room to push the country forward within its institutions, rather than diagnosing its problems from outside.
The latter is something Black pastors, who by tradition often tell uncomfortable truths, have done for centuries. The Black senator is a singular road, occupied by few people in American history, and none from Georgia at all.