A panel of about 40 University of Georgia students gathered on the fourth floor of the Tate Student Center Tuesday afternoon as Sen. Raphael Warnock visited campus to detail his road to becoming a Senator and his work in Congress.
Warnock, a Democrat who won his seat in a special election last year to fill the remainder of former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, will face reelection next year. Arguably his biggest challenger is Republican Herschel Walker, a UGA graduate and former Bulldogs football player. Gary Black, another Republican and Georgia commissioner of agriculture, is also running for the seat.
Challenge of increasing student loan debt
Susan Haire, the director of UGA’s criminal justice program, moderated the discussion. Warnock began his speech by thanking those students who were politically active.
“If you’ve ever had any doubt about whether voting matters, regardless of your politics … you saw the difference that it makes,” Warnock said. “It’s a real honor to have people in your state say that they want you to represent them at the highest level of the United States government.”
The students in attendance were from a diverse array of UGA’s colleges and schools, and Warnock called the crowd a “beautiful mosaic.” He said he wished the Senate looked more diverse, and noted that he is only the 11th Black senator in U.S. history.
Warnock then dove into his background. He said he grew up in public housing in Savannah, the 11th of his parents’ 12 children, and he became the first in his family to graduate from college when he received a degree from Morehouse College, despite struggling to pay for his education.
He noted that while he managed to graduate, access to higher education has become increasingly expensive over the past few decades.
“I know that while I had grit and determination, somebody gave me some Pell Grants, low-interest student loans,” Warnock said. “And I’m trying to fight for you, because now, 30 years after I graduated from college, our kids now have to take out a mortgage before they get a mortgage.”
Reaching across the aisle
Haire then asked Warnock what it’s been like trying to find common ground with Republicans in Washington. Warnock responded that while the country is undoubtedly divided, he has managed to forge some alliances with those on the other end of the political spectrum.
He noted an amendment to the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill that he worked with Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to create. The amendment focuses on building out Interstate 14 to better connect parts of Georgia and Texas. He said he never thought he’d find himself agreeing with Cruz.
“Push yourself beyond your comfort zone,” Warnock told the crowd. “Engage with people whose experience is very different from yours, because that’s how you grow up. What I try to do in the Senate is create unlikely alliances to do unusual work, necessary work.”
Warnock also emphasized the Senate’s work toward infrastructure to the audience, and said it was vital to the country’s future.
“In Georgia, I think 40% of our bridges are in considerable disrepair,” Warnock said. “Think about that, in the wealthiest country in the history of humankind.”
He said in addition to roads and bridges, infrastructure also includes establishing broadband in rural areas and supporting child care. He said the U.S. can’t treat child care “like we did 60 years ago,” when women were expected to stay home full-time and not have jobs of their own.
During an interview with The Red & Black after his talk, Warnock said that UGA’s research and innovation, along with its rich history, drove him to visit the campus. He visited UGA’s Small Business Innovation Hub, and called the work he saw inspiring.
“These are young people who are pursuing higher education in the midst of a pandemic, with all of the logistical and emotional challenges that are present,” Warnock said. “What I see here is grit, determination and hope, and it inspires me.”
Warnock said he was especially interested in the agricultural science research that takes place on campus, as agriculture is one of the state’s biggest exports.
When asked about COVID-19, Warnock encouraged people to mask up and get vaccinated. For those who are already vaccinated, he said they should encourage others in their network to do the same.
Warnock, who has served for 15 years as senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, said his faith has no quarrel with science.
“Get vaccinated, wear your mask,” Warnock said. “Do it for yourself, do it for the people you care about. It’s the best way to finally be able to fully reopen and strengthen our economy.”