If you speak with people who have long known Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff—the Democratic candidates hoping to flip Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats in tightly contested runoff elections on January 5—you will hear them use words like “destiny” and “providential” to describe the arc of their lives.
Kenneth Rouché, a pastor from Savannah, recalls the Sunday morning about 40 years ago when an 11-year-old Warnock delivered a sermon at Calvary Temple Holiness Church, known for its rousing gospel concerts. It was Rouché’s father’s church; the sermon was titled, “It’s Time I Be About My Father’s Business.”
“He stood up with this calmness, this innocence,” Pastor Rouché said. “People in church would say, ‘You always knew God’s hand was upon him.’”
Rembert Browne, a writer who has known Ossoff since their days in an Atlanta private school, talked to me about an email Ossoff wrote to him in 2006, when they were both college freshmen, concerning a magazine Ossoff wanted to start. “It’s big. It’s like, ‘So how are we going to change the world?’” said Browne, who published part of the email in Atlanta magazine. “You have to have a slight amount of delusion, of belief in yourself” to write such an email, he added. “It’s like, ‘Let’s do the thing that’s going to change everything. If not us, who else?’”
These latter-day paeans come not just because Warnock and Ossoff are the Democrats’ last hope of taking control of the Senate, which would be the difference between success and failure on a host of issues for the incoming Biden administration. They also attest to a sense that, if Georgia is to elect its first Black senator and its first Jewish senator, respectively, Warnock and Ossoff will have delivered a reckoning that has been decades in the making—indeed that began long before both Warnock, 51, and Ossoff, 33, were born.
Twenty Black religious leaders met in Savannah with General William T. Sherman in 1865 and suggested that one response to the injustice of slavery would be to grant tens of thousands of freedmen and women their own land. Days later, this idea was memorialized in Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, which granted around 400,000 acres in lots of up to 40 acres each. When Lincoln was assassinated, the government backed out of the arrangement, bringing to an abrupt end the nation’s most significant step toward reparations to date. Savannah-area elders see Warnock as part of this history and not just the son of two preachers who has become a prominent minister. “He’s caught up in a legacy,” said Otis Johnson, who became Savannah’s second Black mayor in 2004.” It’s almost like it’s his destiny.”
Ossoff, too, is bound by legacy in a state where the Ku Klux Klan took aim at Blacks, Jews, and Catholics. In stump speeches and interviews, Ossoff has taken to referring to “the fact that a young Jewish son of immigrants is running alongside a Black preacher from Ebenezer Baptist Church” as a sign that Georgia has changed. “Both are representing the New South,” said Representative Hank Johnson, who was Ossoff’s boss and one of his mentors in Georgia politics, along with the late civil rights icon John Lewis. “It’s very symbolic. It’s providential. I think Georgia and Georgians have changed quite a lot. There are people with old South ideas—but they’re fewer and fewer.”
If Warnock and Ossoff are to repeat Biden’s surprise victory in Georgia—a first for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton’s narrow win in 1992—they’ll have to hope that Congressman Johnson is right.
“My family story has two threads,” Ossoff told me. One, from his father Richard’s side, belongs to Ashkenazi Jews who came to America at the turn of the 20th century. His mother, Heather, arrived alone in the U.S. from Australia at the age of 23—an act of “courage, confidence and daring,” he said. “Mi madre es inmigrante,” he told a mostly Latino crowd at a rally in late December in Gwinnett County, where 22 percent of its nearly one million residents are Latino.
His parents were the first in their families to graduate from college. They became active in Atlanta community affairs and politics, taking part in a decade-long fight to stop the state from plowing a highway through an Atlanta park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, sending young Jon to work at a summer camp for refugees in nearby Clarkston, and campaigning on behalf of Maynard Jackson, who became the city’s first Black mayor in 1974 and was elected to a third term in 1990. “There’s a photo of me campaigning at four years old!” Ossoff said.
Ossoff’s parents enrolled him at Paideia, a private school that Browne called a “liberal smarts factory,” with fellow graduates now working alongside LeBron James on voting rights, practicing civil rights law, and playing drums in the band Imagine Dragons. “There were a lot of Black kids, a lot of Jewish kids; these networks all feel like second nature,” Browne said. “There were Black kids going to bar mitzvahs, Jewish kids going to South Atlanta.” Ossoff celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Temple, Atlanta’s oldest synagogue and the target of a bombing in 1958, carried out in response to then Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s public stance against Jim Crow.
Browne noted that Paideia, unlike other less diverse private schools in the Atlanta metro area, was “in the middle of the city.” It was the early 2000s when “Atlanta was becoming one of the most culturally important places” in the country. In 1995, Atlanta rapper Andre 3000, half of the duo Outkast, famously declared that “the South got somethin’ to say” when they were booed after being named Best New Artist at The Source awards; in 2004, Outkast won Album of the Year at the Grammys.
At Paideia, Ossoff said, “I took an interest in history—long before, and more intensely than [in] government. It was my keen interest in history that led me to study the civil rights movement.” It was at Paideia that Ossoff read a book he credits with changing his life: Walking with the Wind by Congressman John Lewis, who died earlier this summer.
“Two things really floored me” about the memoir, he said. “One, the courage of the Freedom Riders—recognizing there was no press, no one to witness if John Lewis had been killed in one of those freedom rides. It was something borne of intense moral conviction. And, the fact of his youth. John Lewis was twenty-three when he took over SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], a highly organized, covert group, under the eye of a brutal, segregationist regime.
“I felt at that moment—I want to learn from this man,” he said.
Ossoff wrote Lewis a letter and wound up interning for the congressman. In their very first meeting, Lewis spoke to Ossoff about the Jews who marched with him and other civil rights leaders decades earlier.
In that 2006 email to Browne, Ossoff wrote, “Our generation has a unique cultural viewpoint and a unique ability to discuss how we view culture, politics, and their interaction.” He continued, “[I]dealism can be brought back to the forefront of public discourse as a legitimate goal and not just a pretty dream...”
Browne told me, “The reality is, I’m not surprised he’s doing this,” meaning, running for Senate. “The line from then to now is right there.”
While Warnock was in high school, he attended Upward Bound programs in the summer at Savannah State, a federally funded program that prepares children from low-income families for college. “That’s where he began to take shape,” said Otis Johnson, who spoke to Upward Bound students during those years and educated teenagers about the civil rights movement. Around the same time, Johnson also hosted a local radio program called “Message from the Grass Roots,” where activists and others talked about economic and social justice. For Warnock, Johnson represented “intellect and integrity, all committed to pulling folk up from the grassroots,” as he told a group of Savannah leaders back in October.
As teenagers in Savannah, Pastor Rouché recalls, “The mindset of most people was, get out of here, at least to Atlanta, which was more progressive and where there were many more successful African-Americans.” After earning an undergraduate degree from Morehouse College, Warnock pursued postgraduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York and eventually became assistant pastor at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church—a post once held by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who went on to become the first Black member of Congress from New York. In 2005, Warnock was named as the fifth—and youngest—senior pastor in the 134-year history of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had also preached. “It was like every piece fit together for the next move,” Rouché said. “It was like, he’s making his mark.”
Once back in Georgia, Warnock would return to Savannah and preach as a guest at the church of one of his sisters, Reverend Joyce Hall. “The thing that was eye-opening, was to see him talk about the struggle,” Rouché said. “That Jesus was for people in the struggle. His ministry was there for the disenfranchised.” Warnock recommended a book to Rouché: The God of the Oppressed by James H. Cone. Deemed by some to be “the father of Black theology,” Cone’s central message is that liberation from oppression is the true message of the cross. Warnock, said Otis Johnson, “comes out of the school of Black theology. That’s why I enjoy his sermons.” The Ebenezer Baptist minister speaks to him as “a Matthew 25 Christian,” he added, referring to the notion of caring for those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, or in prison. “He would take his theology to the Senate.”
Warnock has also made a point in his campaign speeches to mention “disaffected rural communities” across Georgia, whose lack of accessible health care and economic opportunities have been exposed by the current pandemic. In other words, his is a message about race and class.
Warnock’s message taps into a long tradition of activism in Savannah’s Black church, which includes crossing over from the pulpit to politics. Seventy-one-year-old Rev. Chester Ellis, himself recently elected chair of the Chatham County Commission, noted how his own church, St. Paul Missionary Baptist, was one of several that recommended names when Savannah sought in 1947 to bring Black officers into the police department, becoming one of the first integrated law enforcement agencies in the South. The group became known as “the Original Nine.” During the civil rights movement, NAACP meetings were often held at local churches. Ralph Mark Gilbert, another Savannah pastor, organized dozens of chapters of the civil rights organization across the state while leading the city’s branch.
“Historically, most Black leaders and politicians through the South—especially where [Warnock is] from—have been reverends,” said Keri Leigh Merritt, a historian and author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. “They are the learned elders, entrusted with history.” For the church to put one of its own in the U.S. Senate—only the 11th Black senator in history—would take this tradition to new heights.
John Lewis recommended Ossoff to Hank Johnson’s office in Decatur, Georgia, in 2006, when the candidate’s campaign against incumbent Cynthia McKinney was “in the doldrums,” Johnson recalled. Not quite out of his teens, Ossoff became the campaign’s fourth employee, helping the Johnson campaign use Facebook to draw attention to the candidate—an innovative tactic at the time.
Ossoff’s ideas worked. After Johnson won, Ossoff stayed on, soon moving into hands-on work as a legislative aide. He would work for Johnson for five years in Congress, eventually going on to run himself in 2017 to replace Tom Price in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, after the Republican left office to join the Trump administration. “His knowledge base is expansive; he has maturity beyond his years,” Johnson said, citing Ossoff’s deep policy background and work on issues ranging from the NSA’s involvement in domestic surveillance plans to installing tactical weapons in South Korea.
Between leaving Johnson’s office and running for Congress, in 2013, Ossoff used an inheritance to buy an ownership stake in a London-based documentary film company that investigates corruption, renaming it Insight TWI. Corruption remains an abiding interest of Ossoff the candidate; he has consistently drawn attention to the insider trading scandals that have dogged his opponent, Senator David Perdue, as well as Warnock’s opponent, Senator Kelly Loeffler, labeling the two “the Bonnie and Clyde of political corruption.”
At an outdoor rally on a crisp, clear Saturday afternoon in early December in Conyers, about 25 miles southeast of Atlanta, Warnock referred to Ossoff, who was waiting offstage, as his “brother from another mother.”
“The Jewish experience and the Black experience have great similarities—similarities in our own existence as humans which have drawn the two peoples together,” Representative Hank Johnson told me. “I think of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. [James] Chaney was a Black man. [Andrew] Goodman and [Michael] Schwerner were Jews. They came to the South to help Black folks register to vote.... And were found killed in a ditch.”
“Then you’ve had places like the Temple,” he added. “There’s a history of connections between our two communities.” The Temple is about four miles north of Ebenezer Baptist Church. On MLK weekend each year, for more than a decade, Warnock has spoken at the Temple, while the Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg has spoken at Ebenezer. When a gunman opened fire in 2018 at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, Warnock was the first person to call Rabbi Berg with words of comfort.
The alliance between these two communities was highlighted in a November article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in response to Loeffler calling Warnock “anti-Israel,” linking him to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and citing an occasion in which Warnock criticized Israel for violence against Palestinians. Ossoff defended Warnock, calling him “a beloved friend and ally of Georgia’s Jewish community.”
Voices from the Jewish community showing support for Warnock is one thing. The reverse also holds true for Ossoff, who Browne described as “being culturally informed by Black folks—whether by John Lewis, or friends like me.”
Lewis links the two candidates as well; the civil rights leader was a parishioner at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was married in 1968. Warnock presided over Lewis’s funeral at the church this summer, which was attended by several former presidents.
At the same time, a Black candidate and a white candidate tying so much of their political fortunes to their relationship is new in the South, Merritt said. “There’s no historical precedent of white and Black candidates allied like this,” she said. “It’s unprecedented.”
Congressman Johnson repurposed the term “New South”—usually attributed to 19th-century newspaperman Henry Grady’s notion of a less agrarian, more industrial region—to describe a state that has seen an influx of Latinos, Asians, and college-educated white voters in Georgia’s metropolitan regions. Along with the Black vote, this was the coalition that gave Joe Biden his victory here in November.
Still, Warnock has found himself having to address the “old South” frequently, whether on the campaign trail or in his ads. He has released two ads featuring his beagle—a deliberate choice that Stanford’s Hakeem Jefferson said was meant to communicate, “How can I be the scary [Black] guy she’s depicting … with this cute ‘white people friendly’ doggy”?
The “she” here is Loeffler, picked late last year by Governor Brian Kemp to finish Senator Johnny Isakson’s term after he retired due to health concerns. Loeffler has used Warnock’s years of sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church to find material for attacks that include questioning his support for police. In a 2015 sermon, Warnock said a Justice Department report on policing practices in Ferguson, Missouri, showed that law enforcement behaved with a “kind of gangster and thug mentality.” Loeffler released an ad claiming that Warnock “called police thugs and gangsters.”
Loeffler has also called Warnock a socialist and a “radical liberal.” At the rally in Conyers, a local reporter afterward told Warnock that some voters “think you’re a socialist.” Warnock responded with an oft-mentioned reference to his father running a small business when he was growing up, fixing abandoned cars. He went on to describe the many small businesses he has helped over the years through training provided at Ebenezer Baptist Church. “I believe in the system of capitalism,” he concluded. “I’ve spent my whole career trying to include more people in it.”
In truth, Warnock’s economic platform is less Marx than kitchen table liberalism mixed with a dash of social justice. At a rally in Midway, near Savannah, he reminded voters that Democrat Daniel Blackman was running for Public Service Commission, a little-known agency that regulates utility rates. “As a pastor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helped people pay electric bills,” he said.
“But there’s a difference between charity and justice. Charity pays the electric bill when you can’t. Justice asks why the bill is so high in the first place. How is it that people are hungry and homeless in the richest nation on the planet?” he asked the crowd, to a rising chorus of approval.
On that particular day, Warnock was loose. “It’s Sunday and they put a preacher behind a microphone!” he began, to hometown huzzahs. “It’s wrong to go to Sunday school on Sunday and get rid of health care on Monday,” he said, drawing on the crowd’s common experience with the pandemic and pointing to the Trump administration’s attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. He also reminded the crowd that Georgia was one of 12 states that “refuse to expand Medicaid”—a popular rallying cry for Democrats in a state where nearly one in seven people don’t have health insurance, the third-highest rate in the nation. “I think it’s time the U.S. Senate has somebody representing ordinary people,” he concluded.
Ossoff also puts health care and the pandemic first in his stump speeches. “We got bigger and better things to talk about than David and Kelly, y’all,” he told the crowd in Conyers. “We need stimulus for people, economic relief. We need resources for doctors, clinics, and nursing homes. We have good work to do y’all.”
Ossoff also talks about passing a new Civil Rights Act “so there’s accountability for police brutality and racial profiling,” as he told students in Kennesaw. His platform includes support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore federal oversight of state-level changes to voting that disenfranchise Black and brown voters, stripped by a notorious 2013 Supreme Court decision.
The Perdue campaign has consistently tried to claim that Ossoff’s investigative journalism company receiving funding from the Middle East or China is evidence that voters “can’t trust him”—a historical ingredient in what social psychologist Amy Cuddy called “the psychology of anti-Semitism.”
The Old South has pulled Ossoff in other directions, too. In a rapid-fire, yes-or-no interview, he said he is against a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, likely because these proposals are seen as too extreme for centrist voters whose support he may need.
In the end, the two candidates born and raised in Georgia will have to reach enough Black, brown, and what Otis Johnson called “well-meaning white folks” if they are to win. Johnson reminded me that there are still a number of “old white folks baked in their ways.” He added, “These racist white folks are highly motivated. For many people, race trumps everything. A lotta white folks vote against their own self-interest. They ain’t about to let the Senate be flipped by ‘socialist, communist, anti-Americans.’”
Johnson said these terms are “the same adjectives used about Dr. King. I’ve heard the same rhetoric used fifty years ago! Their language is the same, their views are the same.
“They feel a sense of loss—they’re losing the America they know.”