Obama stumps for Warnock – again

ATLANTA – Former President Barack Obama returned to Atlanta Thursday for the second time in a month to press Georgians to turn out and vote for Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock one more time.  

Warnock is running against Republican challenger Herschel Walker in a closely fought runoff race for Georgia’s Senate seat. Though Warnock earned more votes than Walker during the general election last month, neither candidate passed the 50% threshold necessary to win outright. 

Democrats have pulled out all the stops to ensure that Warnock retains his Senate seat, including bringing Obama back to Atlanta to urge Georgians to turn out.  

“I know it feels like we just did this, and that’s because we did,” Obama joked with the crowd, referring to his recent appearance in Atlanta before the November general election. Back then, Obama admonished supporters not to “boo” at the mention of Walker’s name but to vote. He emphasized the same message Thursday. 

The former president also touted Democratic successes in Washington over the past two years as reasons Georgians should turn out for Warnock, arguing the incumbent Democrat would continue to fight for middle-class Americans. 

“Democrats took office [in 2021] … and they were eventually able to translate that into people’s lives being better in concrete ways,” Obama said, pointing to low unemployment rates despite the COVID pandemic, the 2021 infrastructure bill, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act that capped some health-care costs, and a recently passed gun safety law. 

“An extra senator gives the Democrats more breathing room on important bills.  It prevents one person from holding up everything,” Obama said about the stakes in next week’s runoff. “You [Georgians] have the power to determine the course of this country.”  

Beyond policy, Obama reinforced Warnock’s message that the incumbent Democrat is better suited in terms of character and competence to represent Georgia. Obama tied Warnock’s work in the Senate to the career of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, a civil rights icon.  

Warnock, who introduced the former president, also adopted a jocular tone with his assembled supporters.  

“You must know that I want to work for you. … This is the fifth time my name has been on the ballot in less than two years for the same doggone job,” Warnock said to explosive cheers of “one more time” from the crowd. 

Warnock also criticized Walker’s ethics and honesty.  

“This is not about Republican and Democrat. This is not about left and right. This is about the difference between right and wrong,” Warnock said. “I believe in my soul that Georgians, Republican and Democrats … know that Georgia is better than Herschel Walker.” 

Obama isn’t the only celebrity the Democrats have called upon to give Warnock a boost.

Earlier this week, rock superstars Dave Matthews Band played at an event for Warnock supporters in Cobb County. Warnock also has made it a point to visit college campuses across the state to energize the student vote. 

Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have campaigned with Walker. Last month, GOP Gov. Brian Kemp shared a platform with Walker in Cobb County after keeping his distance during the general election campaign.

Georgians have turned out in record-setting numbers to vote in the nationally watched Senate runoff. The early voting period began last Saturday. 

So far, more than 1 million Georgians have cast ballots during the early voting period. Tuesday is Election Day.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

New dirty dozen report highlights how Georgians have acted to protect state’s waterways 

River
The Chattahoochee River (photo: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – Growing up, Linda Smith enjoyed swimming in the Canoochee River and resting on one of its white sandbars near her family home.

But by the 1990s, she and her family could no longer swim there because the water was covered with a thick, dark algal bloom – the product of runoff from Claxton Poultry, a chicken processing facility located upstream.  

Smith and her sister became amateur environmental sleuths, documenting the violations and, in 2000, filing a lawsuit against the chicken company for its violations of the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit forced the company to pay for environmental clean-up in the region. 

Smith described how the pollution of her family’s beloved swimming spot led her to become an environmental advocate this week during a press conference held to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a landmark piece of federal legislation that, among other things, empowered American citizens to help enforce environmental laws.  

“It’s difficult for two old women who didn’t have education on this kind of thing to provide the evidence,” Smith said. She and her sister received assistance from scientists at Georgia Southern University. But they had to do much of the legwork themselves because they could not afford to hire experts.  

“[We] crept around and … took videos of what we knew were violations. … It was quite a challenge,” Smith said, noting they often had to film at night to get the evidence they needed.  

To mark the Clean Water Act’s anniversary and celebrate the efforts of everyday environmentalists like Smith, the Georgia Water Coalition this week issued a special version of its annual Dirty Dozen Report.  

While the “dirty dozen” usually refers to the worst cases of pollution in the past year in Georgia, this year the report looks at how ordinary citizens like Smith pushed forward water protection using a provision of the Clean Water Act that allows citizens to sue polluters.  

“There are so many stories like Linda’s where the Clean Water Act has given citizens a powerful tool to set things right,” said Joe Cook, who wrote the report for the Athens-based Georgia River Nework. “In Linda’s case and in so many other cases … citizen groups have stepped in to force state and federal agencies to actually enforce the law.”

Cook said the state has seen a flourishing of citizen-led environmental groups since the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act. There are at least 30 citizen-driven water protection groups around the state, whereas there were no such groups prior to the Clean Water Act. For example, Claxton Poultry provided funding for Ogeechee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit group devoted to protecting the Canoochee and Ogeechee Rivers, as a result of the Smiths’ lawsuit. 

“The progress that has been made since then … has been remarkable,” said Cook.  “But we still have a lot to do to make all the state’s water bodies swimmable and fishable.”  

Industrial pollution of waterways is one major concern. Some wastewater facilities use a system called the “land application system” to get rid of their pollutants. In this system, wastewater is sprayed into fields and forests so that it can soak into the ground instead of being discharged directly into a river or being sent to a wastewater treatment plan. While the land application system can be an improvement over wastewater handling systems, it still has flaws and can lead to pollution of groundwater and rivers.  

After Dalton Utilities built such a system along the Conasauga River, state and federal regulators found that the wastewater spraying was polluting groundwater and the river and sued the company. Much of the polluted wastewater came from the area’s famous carpet factories. The lawsuit resulted in a $6 million penalty in 1998 that was, at that time, the largest in the history of the Clean Water Act. Dalton Utilities also had to finance the upgrading of its sewer system.  

Despite the success of the lawsuit, the problem has not been solved in North Georgia, said Rena Peck, executive director of the Georgia River Network. A group of chemicals known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” because of their staying power have also been sprayed on the fields along the rivers for decades.  

“Today, these forever chemicals that have been linked to human health impacts can be found in the drinking water supplies downstream from Dalton,” Peck said. The city of Rome and other cities, including Gadsden, Ala., are suing Dalton Utilities and carpet companies to recoup the millions of dollars the municipalities have spent to make their drinking water safe.  

“We need to get ahold of these emerging pollutants and keep them out of our drinking water sources,” Cook said.  

This year’s Dirty Dozen report calls on Georgia policymakers to focus on protecting the Okefenokee Swamp. Alabama-based mining company Twin Pines Minerals has applied for permits to set up a mine just to the east of the swamp. Currently, the application is before Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD).  

“EPD must deny permits for this risky project, and state legislators should act to permanently protect the Okefenokee,” Cook said.  

Cook also called on Georgia Power to dig up coal ash that is currently stored in unlined pits that allow for groundwater pollution. Georgia Power should move the ash to dry, lined pits that are away from water, he said. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

First bill of next year’s General Assembly session targets Georgia’s abortion ban  

Democratic State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, filed the first bill of the 2023 legislative session.

ATLANTA – The first bill prefiled for the 2023 legislative session takes aim at one of the hottest political topics in Georgia, a law that bans abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy. 

House Bill 1 (HB 1) would require the state to pay for many of the costs of having and caring for a child for mothers who would like to have had an abortion but were prohibited from doing so by the Georgia law that prohibits the procedure after fetal cardiac activity can be detected. 

Democratic state Rep. Dar’Shun Kendrick of Lithonia filed the proposal last week, gaining the coveted “HB 1” designation. The bill is officially titled The Georgia Pro-Birth Accountability Act. 

Georgia’s abortion ban dates back to 2019, when the Republican-led General Assembly approved – and GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed – a law that bans most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. The law, alternatively known as the Heartbeat Bill or The LIFE Act, was blocked from taking immediate effect by federal courts. 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade last summer opened the door for the Georgia ban to take effect. Pro-choice groups challenged the law in the state courts, and the matter is currently before the Georgia Supreme Court. 

Last week, the high court said the law could remain in effect while the case is pending.  

House Bill 1 is based on the assumption that the abortion ban will remain in effect. The proposal requires the state to cover a wide range of expenses for mothers who otherwise would have had abortions if not for the ban. 

Those expenses include medical, legal, and psychological expenses related to the pregnancy and postpartum period. The bill also requires the state to provide financial and food assistance to the woman as well as her child until the child is 18. If the mother is disabled due to the pregnancy, or if the child is born with a disability, the state would also cover those costs. 

The legislation would require the state to pay child support to an unmarried woman if the father cannot or will not pay child support. It also would require the state to fund an IRS 529 savings trust that would help pay for the child’s higher education.  

Women would be able to qualify for the program by filing an affidavit with the state’s Department of Human Services stating that they would have had an abortion if not for the Georgia ban on abortions.  

Kendrick said she filed the bill to make a point, although she is aware it has little chance of success in the state House next year. 

“If we want to say we are a pro-life state, then we need to put our money where our mouth is, that means childcare, that means the mother’s expenses. That means helping raise the child from birth to age 18 and not just caring about the nine months that they’re in the womb,” Kendrick said. “We’ll see where the priorities lie, because if we do have a surplus, if we continue to have one, there’s no reason that we can’t fund this.”  

Kendrick said she requested a fiscal analysis of how much the proposal would cost and will make that information public when she receives it.

“This is essentially a bill to see who is going to stand up on those principles and … who is, as I suspect, really just trying to control women’s reproductive rights.”  

Republicans, including Kemp, have argued the legislature has taken steps to create a pro-life culture in the state, such as passing measures that make it easier for Georgians to adopt and expanding postpartum Medicaid for new mothers for up to a year after delivery.

“[We] are committed to continuing Georgia’s reputation of being a state that protects life at all stages,” Kemp said in May when he signed a law that allows nonprofits and religious institutions to set up free maternity homes for pregnant women and new mothers.

Republican Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth, who sponsored the 2019 abortion law, criticized Kendrick’s bill. (Setzler was recently elected to the state Senate and will begin his term in January after 17 years in the state House.)  

“Upon cursory review, it’s obvious that Representative Kendrick is putting forth a cynical, non-serious bill candidly trivializing the value of human life,” said Setzler.

The state legislature is set to begin the 2023 session Jan. 9.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

Walker, Warnock clash over character and competence in final stretch of long campaign 

ATLANTA – Georgians get one more chance to decide whether they want to return Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock to Washington or replace him with Republican Herschel Walker in the upcoming Senate runoff.  

After neither candidate earned more than 50% of the vote in the November election – due to Libertarian Chase Oliver drawing 2% of the vote – the contest was pushed to a December rematch under Georgia’s unique runoff election law.  

In the general election, Warnock won 49.5% of vote while Walker won 48.5%. But it’s unclear how many voters of either party will turn out, yet again, for the final vote Dec. 6.

With each candidate’s policy positions already established as the race enters the final stretch, the candidates are trying to best each other on character and competence. They are crisscrossing the state to encourage voters to return to the polls – “one more time,” as Warnock’s campaign slogan puts it. And they are blitzing state airwaves with campaign ads.  

One thing they are not doing is holding a traditional pre-Election Day debate. The two men debated each other just once in the run-up to the November election. Walker declined to attend any other debate, leaving Warnock to debate an empty podium. For the runoff, both candidates have eschewed the opportunity and a previously planned debate has been canceled.   

Warnock has staked his claim for re-election in the populist steps he has taken in Washington to help Georgians. For example, he frequently touts his votes for caps on Medicare out-of-pocket costs and insulin in the Inflation Reduction Act Congress passed earlier this year. Warnock continues to call for full Medicaid expansion in Georgia which, he argues, would help bolster the state’s hospital infrastructure and improve rural health care.

Warnock also points to his ability to work across the aisle as evidence of his bipartisanship. At a recent campaign stop in Macon, he noted his work with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on getting an expansion of the Interstate 14 corridor in Middle Georgia priority status in last year’s infrastructure bill. (That has not, however, stopped Cruz from attacking Warnock on Twitter recently.)  

“I have been very focused on Middle Georgia,” Warnock said. “Smaller rural communities and small businesses are the strength of the Georgia economy.”  

Walker has sought to tie Warnock to President Joe Biden and blame the Democratic duo for high inflation and crime rates. 

“Y’all seen the drugs coming into this country because they want to leave the border wide open?” Walker said recently to a crowd in Cobb County.   

Walker often emphasizes what he considers the problems with “woke” social policies. A recent ad features Walker sitting next to Riley Gaines, a female college swimming champion.  

“I was forced to compete against a biological male. … A man won a swimming title that belonged to a woman and Senator Warnock voted to let it happen,” Gaines says. 

GLAAD, a national LGBTQ advocacy organization, called for Walker to remove the ad when it started running just one day after a shooting at an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs, Colo. that killed five people.

Walker also opposes abortion. While he indicated earlier that he opposes all abortions, with no exceptions for the life of the mother or in the case of rape or incest, during the debate this fall, Walker said he supports Georgia’s “heartbeat law,” which bans most abortions after about six weeks but includes exceptions for rape and incest. 

He has denied media reports that he paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion and encouraged her to have a second abortion.   

Warnock made his strong pro-choice position clear during the fall campaign, saying that “a patient’s room is too narrow and small and cramped a space for a woman, her doctor and the United States government,” and that abortion rights are protected by the fundamental right to privacy.  

The Walker camp has continued a steady stream of anti-Warnock ads. One criticizes the alleged eviction of tenants in a building formerly owned by a nonprofit affiliated with Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Warnock is the pastor.  

Warnock’s campaign has denied those claims, pointing out that neither Warnock nor Ebenezer is involved in the building’s management and no one in the apartment building has been evicted or kicked out since before the pandemic began.

Independent ads on behalf of Warnock take aim at Walker’s alleged history of violence against women as well as his ex-girlfriend’s abortion.  

“Decades of violence against women,” intones a narrator as a timeline of Walker’s alleged violent incidents rolls across the screen. “Now, an ex-girlfriend says Herschel Walker used the threat of violence to force her to have an abortion” the ad continues, showing footage from an interview with the ex-girlfriend, whose name has not been revealed. 

But ads funded directly by Warnock’s campaign take a more light-hearted approach . One shows Warnock walking Alvin, a beagle who was made famous by a 2020 campaign ad, and asking “Is it just me or does it feel like we’ve been here before”?  

“You’d think Herschel Walker would want to explain what he’d do in the Senate. … Instead, he repeats the same lies, trying to distract from what we all know is true about him,” Warnock says. “But I think Georgians will see his ads for what they are,” Warnock continues, as he throws a symbolic bag of dog poop away.  

Both candidates are campaigning with high profile figures. Though Republican Gov. Brian Kemp kept his distance from Walker during the general election campaign, he stumped for Walker last weekend in Cobb County. And Florida Sen. Rick Scott is also continuing to campaign for Walker.  

Former President Barack Obama will return to Atlanta Dec. 1 to urge Democrats to turn out for Warnock. The campaign also is sponsoring an event with rock superstars The Dave Matthews Band at a Get Out the Vote Rally in Cobb County on Monday, Nov. 28.  

Early voting in some Georgia counties will begin as early as Saturday, Nov. 26. Election Day is Dec. 6.  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.  

Georgia Supreme Court reinstates abortion ban

ATLANTA – The Georgia Supreme Court reinstated Georgia’s law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy Wednesday just over a week after a lower court judge had blocked the law from taking effect. 

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney had ruled last week that the Georgia abortion ban was unconstitutional and blocked state officials from enforcing it.  

The so-called “heartbeat” law, initially passed in 2019, prohibits abortions in Georgia after a fetal heartbeat is detected. It has faced legal challenges since its inception, first in federal courts and now in Georgia state courts. 

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning the 1973 landmark abortion-rights case Roe v. Wade, a federal appeals court allowed the Georgia law to take effect in July. 

Pro-choice groups then took their fight to state court, where McBurney enjoined the law. Soon after, lawyers for the state filed notice of their intent to appeal to the state Supreme Court. They also filed an emergency petition asking the court to reinstitute the abortion law while the case is pending.  

The court agreed to do so Wednesday in a one-page ruling representing a unanimous 7-0 decision. Two justices – Nels S.D. Peterson and Andrew Pinson – did not participate in the case.  

“We are pleased with the court’s action today,” said Kara Richardson, spokesperson for Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. “However, we are unable to provide further comment due to the pending appeal.”

The plaintiffs in the case – led by reproductive rights group SisterSong — argued that reinstituting the ban while the legal battle continues could harm women.   

They also asked the Supreme Court to provide one day’s advance notice of the re-institution of the law so that providers and patients are not taken by surprise ahead of scheduled procedures. However, the court declined to provide the advance notice.  

“It is cruel that our patients’ ability to access the reproductive health care they need has been taken away yet again,” said Kwajelyn Jackson, executive director of Feminist Women’s Health Center, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

“For the second time this year, we are being forced to turn away those in need of abortion care beyond six weeks of pregnancy. This ban has wreaked havoc on Georgians’ lives, and our patients deserve better. We will keep fighting to protect our patients and their health.” 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.