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With Senate wins, Warnock and Ossoff illustrate the changing face of Georgia

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 1/15/2021 Victoria McGrane
a man holding a sign: Democrats Raphael Warnock (right) and Jon Ossoff bumped elbows during a rally in December. © Jessica McGowan Democrats Raphael Warnock (right) and Jon Ossoff bumped elbows during a rally in December.

Throughout their high-stakes campaign for Georgia’s twin Senate runoff elections, the two Democrats made an unlikely pair: One, a Black pastor who grew up in public housing, the other a slim-suited millennial and investigative journalist known mostly for having narrowly lost an audacious bid for Newt Gingrich’s old congressional seat.

But when each found himself facing a Jan. 5 runoff that would determine the balance of power in the Senate, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff threw in together and campaigned as running mates.

Having emerged victorious, they together represent the profound change that has taken place in the Deep South state they call home.

“A new South is rising,” said LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Georgia-based Black Voters Matter Fund, a grass-roots voting rights group.

“We’ve got a Jewish young man, in his early 30s, from the South,” she said of Ossoff, the son of an immigrant who was born and raised in Atlanta. “And you’ve got a Black minister who comes out of the social justice movement in the Deep South. . . . The political landscape has changed in the South.”

Warnock’s election is particularly historic: He will be Georgia’s first Black senator, only the second Black senator elected from the South since Reconstruction, and the first Black Democratic senator elected from the South.

Throughout his campaign, Warnock spoke proudly of his humble roots. He is the second youngest of 12 children who grew up in Kayton Homes public housing in Savannah. His father was a preacher who spent the weekdays making money by hauling old cars for scrap metal.

His mother was a teacher who, as a teenager, picked tobacco and cotton during the summer — an experience Warnock highlighted in remarks to supporters the morning after his victory last week.

“The other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” Warnock said.

The first member of his family to graduate from college, Warnock attended Morehouse College, an elite historically Black university. He went on to earn two master’s degrees and a doctorate in theology. He became a preacher, and 15 years ago became the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Warnock has used the famous pulpit to advocate for social justice causes, and to criticize police brutality and voter suppression. During the campaign, Warnock’s opponent, incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, and other Republicans used some of his past statements on those issues to try to paint him as a dangerous left-wing radical. Loeffler ran an attack ad accusing Warnock of “celebrating anti-American hatred.”

More than 100 religious leaders, including many from Georgia, wrote an open letter condemning Loeffler’s attacks as a “broader attack against the Black Church and faith traditions for which we stand.”

Warnock, who kept his position during the campaign, has said he plans to continue preaching from his pulpit on Sunday mornings after he is sworn in to the Senate.

“One of the things I learned from being a pastor is it’s really the people who teach you how to be a good pastor, an effective pastor,” he said in an interview on CNN. ”The last thing I want to do is become disconnected from the community and just spend all of my time talking to the politicians. . . . I might accidentally become one, and I have no intentions of becoming a politician. I intended to be a public servant.”

His victory drew public praise from former President Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president.

“Georgia’s first Black senator will make the [Senate] chamber more reflective of our country as a whole and open the door for a Congress that can forgo gridlock for gridlock’s sake to focus instead on the many crises facing our nation,” Obama said.

Ossoff, 33, has only slightly more political experience than Warnock. The son of a publishing executive and a management consultant, Ossoff at the age of 16 wrote to civil rights icon John Lewis asking if he could work for the Georgia congressman, inspired to reach out after reading Lewis’s memoir. Lewis gave him a summer internship.

The relationship endured. Lewis endorsed Ossoff in his 2017 bid to fill the seat once held by Gingrich. The seat was left open when President Trump tapped Republican Tom Price to be his first health secretary.

“You remind me of another time in my own life,” Lewis told Ossoff in a campaign video posted in April, months before Lewis died of cancer in July. “When I was 17 years old growing up in rural Alabama, I wrote a letter to Dr. King, and he wrote me back and sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket and invited me to come to Montgomery and meet with him. And it changed my life.”

Ossoff recently called the late Georgia Democrat “one of the most important people in my life.”

When Ossoff was 19 and attending Georgetown University, Lewis connected his former intern with another Georgia Democrat, Hank Johnson, who was running for Congress. Ossoff worked on the 2006 campaign, then took a job as his legislative aide when Johnson won, even though Ossoff was still in college.

From politics, Ossoff moved on to documentary filmmaking, rising to become chief executive of a small London-based investigative film company, Insight TWI.

Ossoff became a household name — at least in intensely Democratic households — when he ran in the 2017 special election for Price’s seat. A 30-year-old nobody, Ossoff launched his campaign with an appeal to Democrats to “Make Trump Furious.” Progressives around the country, bereft at Trump’s recent win, rallied to him as a way to fight back against the new president. Money poured in, leading Ossoff to shatter fund-raising records.

Still, Ossoff fell short, losing to Republican Karen Handel. But the 48 percent of the vote he won in what had long been a fiercely conservative district hinted at the changing politics of the Atlanta suburbs, driven by an increasingly diverse population and young, liberal, college-educated transplants from outside the South attracted by Atlanta’s relatively low cost of living and mild weather.

That changing electorate helped another Democrat, Lucy McBath, a gun control and racial justice activist, defeat Handel and win the same seat a year later.

Since the 2017 race, Ossoff married his high school sweetheart, OB-GYN resident Alisha Kramer, and continued his filmmaking work. Political analysts say he ran a much more confident campaign this time as he took on incumbent GOP Senator David Perdue.

Perdue and other Republicans largely ignored Ossoff during the runoff, training their sights on Warnock instead. But Ossoff hammered Perdue relentlessly, casting him as an out-of-touch member of the elite, more concerned with lining his own pockets than helping constituents. And Ossoff once against showed himself to be a remarkable fund-raiser, again breaking previous records.

Georgia’s first Jewish senator, Ossoff will join the Senate as its youngest member. He is the youngest Democrat to serve in the body since President-elect Joe Biden assumed office in 1973, at age 30.

Younger supporters and journalists greeted his win by digging up lighthearted tweets Ossoff posted when he was in his 20s about everything from the band Imagine Dragons to his awesome new MacBook to celebrate his status as a true, very online millennial. (For further reading check out Buzzfeed’s list of “13 Times Jon Ossof Was Such a Millennial On Twitter.”)

The success of both Warnock and Ossoff reflects not only Georgia’s shifting electorate, but also a transformation in the conventional wisdom of what candidates need to be to win as a Democrat in the state. Both ran on an unapologetic liberal policy agenda of expanding health care, voting rights, and civil rights.

That is a notable break from a generation of Democrats who felt they needed to run as moderates in order to win back the white voters they had lost to the Republican Party, said Charles S. Bullock III, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

“Stacey Abrams plots a different course,” he said of her 2018 campaign for governor, in which she ran as a progressive and focused on building a multicultural coalition. She lost, but narrowly.

Warnock and Ossoff, similarly, won with a coalition of Black voters, young voters, and residents who’ve been in the state fewer than five years, according to AP polling data. Black voters cast nearly one-third of all ballots in the Jan. 5 runoff, a slight increase from the November presidential election — and nearly all those votes, 94 percent, went to the Democratic candidates, according to the AP survey of 3,700 voters in the runoff elections.

In a series of tweets, Ossoff said that early in their relationship, Lewis spoked to him “about the importance of the alliance between Blacks and Jews in the American South. And now a Jewish man he mentored and a Black man who was his pastor have been elected to represent the State of Georgia in the US Senate. I know Congressman Lewis is looking down on us today beaming with optimism.”

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