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How Harlem Shaped Warnock’s Faith and Politics

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Senator Raphael Warnock’s time in New York City as a seminary student and pastor helped set him on a path to politics, forging how he operates in the Senate and on the campaign trail.

Four days before the November midterm elections, Senator Raphael Warnock slipped away from the campaign trail in Georgia to deliver a eulogy in Harlem.

His mentor — the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, a powerful and politically astute preacher who led Harlem’s storied Abyssinian Baptist Church — had died at the age of 73. At the memorial service, Mr. Warnock told the crowd of mourners about the intersections of faith and public life that had shaped Mr. Butts’s work, and his own.

“Calvin Butts taught me how to take my ministry to the streets,” Mr. Warnock said at a service that drew former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “He understood that the church’s work doesn’t end at the church door. That’s where it starts.”

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Mr. Warnock now finds himself locked in one of the last and most closely watched elections of the 2022 midterms — a Georgia runoff on Tuesday against a Trump-backed Republican rival, Herschel Walker.

The hallmark of Mr. Warnock’s political persona has been firmly rooted in the present, through his position as senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had preached. But a lesser-known chapter from Mr. Warnock’s past — his time spent in New York City starting in the 1990s, as a student at the Union Theological Seminary and as a pastor at Mr. Butts’s church — in many ways set him on a path to politics, shaping how he operates in the Senate and on the campaign trail as he runs for re-election.

According to nearly a dozen seminary classmates and elected officials who knew him at the time, Mr. Warnock’s New York experience helped cement his instincts to channel the teachings of his faith into social justice activism. It’s an approach that propelled him to Washington, where he was one of seven ordained ministers when he arrived in Congress last year.

“In the beginning it was really watching him straddling the church and the academy,” said the Rev. Cathlin Baker, a friend who attended Union Theological Seminary with Mr. Warnock. “Expressing his faith in the public square emerged through his time in New York.”

One of the young men Mr. Warnock worked with as a youth pastor at Abyssinian went on to become the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg.

Mr. Bragg got to know Mr. Warnock during visits home from college and described a “remarkable consistency” in his dual emphasis on pastoral duties and “what that means for greater Harlem, and the social issues, and the things we see him advocating for in Congress now.”

“There’s an indelible imprint of the church and Rev. Butts on him,” Mr. Bragg said, “and certainly of him on the church.”

The New York Times

Mr. Warnock was 22 when he arrived in New York in the fall of 1991, and he stayed for about a decade. The city was in the throes of a social and civic upheaval that would mold the next generation of Black political power, locally and nationally, serving as a proving ground for activists, pastors and elected officials.

There was Mayor David N. Dinkins, New York’s first Black mayor who confronted the Crown Heights riots the year Mr. Warnock came to town. And there was Eric Adams, a police officer who challenged police brutality and would become the city’s second Black mayor. The Rev. Al Sharpton made waves with his civil rights activism, while against that backdrop Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklynite and future Democratic House leader, was beginning his career.

Mr. Warnock found work at Abyssinian, the spiritual home of the late Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. that has long been associated with Black civic engagement. It was during that time, as he absorbed the influences of Mr. Powell and Mr. Butts, that he believes running for Congress first crossed his mind, he wrote in his 2022 memoir, “A Way Out of No Way.”

He was living in New York when his brother was sentenced to life in prison in a nonviolent drug-related offense involving an F.B.I. informant, a seismic event in Mr. Warnock’s life that profoundly shaped his views of the criminal justice system. (His brother was released from a federal prison in Georgia in 2020.) And as episodes of police violence convulsed the city, Mr. Warnock came to believe that “it didn’t make much sense for us to be talking about justice in the classroom and singing about it in church if we weren’t willing to get in the struggle in the streets.”

He was arrested at a protest against police brutality as he honed his activism, the first of a few civil disobedience arrests in later years.

Mr. Warnock, who declined an interview request, grew up in Savannah, Ga., giving his first sermon at age 11, and headed to New York soon after graduating from Morehouse College. He struck his peers at the progressive Union Theological Seminary, in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, as notably driven.

“He had a kind of seriousness of purpose and kind of like a clarity of career path that at that age I almost couldn’t imagine,” said Beth Stroud, a classmate who is now a lecturer at Princeton.

She and other classmates also described Mr. Warnock’s sense of humor. One night, she recalled, a group tried on each other’s eyeglasses — and one participant noticed no discernible difference upon trying on Mr. Warnock’s.

“After saying he wore them so he wouldn’t look so young and people would take him more seriously,” she added in an email, Mr. Warnock humorously demonstrated how the glasses could punch up a reading. “He said something like, ‘Our Scripture reading this morning is …’ and put them on with a flourish, as if to see the Bible more clearly.”

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Asked about that anecdote, Michael J. Brewer, a spokesman for Mr. Warnock, replied, “Reverend Warnock wears prescription eyeglasses.”

Dr. Stroud and Mr. Warnock studied under the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, a founder of Black liberation theology, which emphasizes the experiences of the oppressed. “We were all thinking about politics all the time, not necessarily in the sense of electoral politics,” she said, but, “if we believe in liberation, if we believe in God’s love for all people, how do we realize that in our work?”

At Union — and through his friendships with Dr. Stroud, who is a lesbian, and with other gay people — Mr. Warnock reconsidered church teachings opposing homosexuality, he wrote in his memoir. And at Abyssinian, Mr. Warnock plunged more directly into the world of New York politics and activism as he rose from intern minister and youth pastor to assistant pastor.

Abyssinian has long occupied a prominent place on the New York political landscape, propelled by leaders like Mr. Powell and Mr. Butts, the preacher who was deeply involved in civic issues and navigated relationships with a diverse array of politicians.

As an assistant pastor, Mr. Warnock publicly criticized the Giuliani administration’s implementation of a workfare program — which required welfare recipients to work for benefits — and made an impression on a number of elected officials himself, as well as on Mr. Butts.

“He could laugh easily, he could smile,” Mr. Butts told NY1 in 2021. “That made it possible for him to impress upon people the importance of an issue.”

C. Virginia Fields, the former Manhattan borough president and a member of Abyssinian, said that Mr. Warnock was regarded as part of a “bench” of future leaders.

“I don’t think he ever expressed it that way — that ‘I’m interested in running for office,’” she said. But “those of us in the political arena certainly saw him as someone one day running.”

Ruby Washington/The New York Times
Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Republicans, especially in his previous campaign, have used Mr. Warnock’s career and past sermons to try to paint him as radically left wing, characterizations that drew criticism from Black pastors.

This year, the Walker campaign has also slammed him over the housing allowance he receives from Ebenezer and over alleged conditions and eviction threats at an apartment complex with ties to that church. Mr. Warnock has called the allegations a “desperate” effort to attack Ebenezer. A representative for the complex told The New York Times that no evictions had been carried out since 2020.

His previous Republican opponent, then-Senator Kelly Loeffler, noted that Abyssinian had hosted Fidel Castro in 1995, and claimed that Mr. Warnock had “celebrated” and “welcomed” Castro to the church.

Mr. Warnock’s team did not respond directly when asked whether he attended the Castro event but pointed to fact-checks disputing Ms. Loeffler’s statement. A spokesman previously told PolitiFact that Mr. Warnock “doesn’t agree with the dictator’s beliefs and actions” and that Mr. Warnock was not making decisions at the time about who spoke at the church. The fact-checking outlet determined there was no evidence to Ms. Loeffler’s claims.

Stephen Lawson, who served as a top Loeffler campaign aide and advises a pro-Walker super PAC, said that Mr. Warnock’s time at Abyssinian was “part of a larger life story for him that helps kind of illustrate his beliefs.” Mr. Lawson cast those beliefs as left-wing and relevant to independent voters. “Part of me wishes that Herschel’s campaign would try to tell that story a little bit more,” Mr. Lawson said.

David A. Paterson, who was New York’s first Black governor and who met Mr. Warnock while representing Harlem in the State Senate, noted that Republicans have struggled before to define Mr. Warnock as outside the mainstream.

He is not “demanding that we turn the whole system upside down,” Mr. Paterson said. “I think he really seeks equality.”

Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1988.Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

A series of stunning incidents of police brutality galvanized him to protest injustice more forcefully. In 1999, Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, was killed by officers who fired 41 shots, less than two years after another Black man, a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima, was brutalized at a Brooklyn police precinct.

“Those real awful examples of police brutality that were happening in the city at the time kind of called a group of us into the public square,” Ms. Baker said.

After the Diallo shooting, Mr. Warnock went to a protest where, he wrote, he was arrested for the first time, shared a police van with then-Representative Eliot Engel and was quickly released. In his memoir, he described a scene in which groups of protesters “crossed the line of demarcation” and were arrested.

“He was not a activist that would do it every day like I would, but he would take a moral stand,” said Mr. Sharpton, who was heavily involved in organizing major protests after the Diallo shooting.

Mr. Sharpton described Mr. Warnock as “the guy that wanted to be a bridge between those of us that were active” and those who did not engage in civil disobedience. “He understood both worlds,” Mr. Sharpton added.

Just over two decades after that arrest, Mr. Warnock returned to Abyssinian for the eulogy.

“So much of who I am, and what I’ve become and what I’ve managed to do — and, as we say in Georgia, what I’m fixing to do again” — he owed to working with Mr. Butts, he said.

“I got a few things happening down in Georgia,” he told the New York audience. But, he added, “I had to be here.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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Parliament returns — with a lot of ‘unfinished business’ on its plate

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When I spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December, he said “there’s a lot of unfinished business.” He was speaking about his decision to stay on as leader of the Liberal Party. But that statement also describes the parliamentary year that begins on Monday when MPs convene for the first time in 2023.

Last year was a reasonably productive one for Parliament. But those 12 months also left behind a sizeable pile of work that remains to be completed. And while the Liberal government has much left to do if it hopes to be re-elected, the major opposition parties can’t quite claim yet that they’ve done all they can to make their own pitches to voters.

For those reasons, an election in 2023 seems unlikely. But it should still be a consequential year — and it will start with the legislation that was still in progress when MPs and senators broke for the holidays.

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What’s old is new again

Before the break, the government’s newest firearms legislation (C-21) was stuck at the public safety committee as critics accused it of overreach. In the face of that criticism, Liberals said they were willing to consider feedback; it remains to be seen what kind of changes will be necessary to move the bill forward.

Bill C-11, the government’s contested attempt to bring major Internet platforms under Canadian broadcast regulations, was still in the Senate in December. The upper chamber seems poised to send it back to the House with amendments — the Senate committee that studied the bill recommended a dozen changes.

Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez prepares to appear before the Senate committee on transport and communications to discuss Bill C-11 on Nov. 22, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

If senators agree to some or all of those amendments, C-11 would become the 24th government bill the Senate has amended since Justin Trudeau began appointing independent members to the chamber in 2016.

Legislation to create a new disability benefit, meanwhile, is nearly through the House and there are three other pieces of government legislation before House committees — bills that would enact new environmental protections, reform the Official Languages Act and create a new public complaints and review commission to oversee the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency.

The Senate, meanwhile, is in possession of bills to create a new national council on reconciliation (which would report to Parliament on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples) and establish the Online News Act, which would facilitate payments from major Internet platforms for the use of content from Canadian media outlets.

What’s new is significant

Another dozen government bills are at second reading in the House — but perhaps the most interesting of those items was only just tabled in December.

Bill C-35 sets out how and under what conditions the federal government would fund child care and early learning programs at the provincial level. In effect, it would put into law what the Liberal government started when it negotiated a series of bilateral child-care funding agreements with each province. If C-35 passes Parliament, it will make it much harder for some future government to abandon the program.

But if C-35 isn’t the most closely watched legislation of the spring, it will be because of what Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is expected to table in the next several weeks: the government’s “just transition” (or “sustainable jobs”) legislation.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks behind a lectern bearing the provincial logo.
The phrase ‘just transition’ signals that the Trudeau government intends to phase out oil and gas jobs, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith claimed in a Jan. 10 news conference. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Nothing the Trudeau government does on the question of energy and the future of the oil and gas industry in Canada is ever allowed to pass quietly. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has tried to start a fight with the federal government already over the mere name of the bill. But beyond the partisan politics, Wilkinson’s bill should serve as a jumping-off point for a very real discussion about where the Canadian and global economies are headed and how Canada will get there.

The opposition agenda

With each of these bills, the Liberals will be putting some pressure on Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to either support the government’s agenda or explain what he would do differently. But the Conservatives will have their own moves to make, particularly at various House committees.

The government operations committee was already investigating the creation of the government’s ArriveCan app and it will begin hearings Monday on the federal government’s use of private contractors and consultants like McKinsey. Conservative members of the ethics committee are also pushing for hearings into Trade Minister Mary Ng’s breach of conflict-of-interest rules.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh needs to demonstrate that his party got something out of its deal with the Trudeau Liberals. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The NDP has shown little, if any, reluctance to go along with such investigations — and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has rivalled Poilievre lately in his willingness to denounce the Liberal government. But the New Democrats also have other things to play for lately — namely, that confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals.

Singh surely wants to be seen holding the government to account. He also no doubt wants to show that the NDP was able to achieve something with that deal. And he may need at least another year to do that.

The new dental benefit the government promised the NDP is still a work in progress and New Democrats have given the government until the end of this year to table pharmacare legislation, which would at least set out broad parameters for what eventually could be a national program.

Beyond Parliament Hill

And then there is merely everything else on the agenda.

Justice Paul Rouleau has until February 6 to present cabinet with a final report from the public commission probing the government’s use of the Emergencies Act to end the convoy protests that snarled downtown Ottawa and multiple border crossings a year ago. (Cabinet will then have until February 20 to release that report.) On Feb. 7, the prime minister is scheduled to meet the premiers to discuss a grand bargain on health-care funding.

Even if Trudeau and the premiers broadly agree on what to do with health care, the prime minister is signalling an increasing willingness to engage in the fight over the notwithstanding clause. And even when Trudeau’s not looking for a fight, Danielle Smith will be trying to start one ahead of what could be a very consequential election in Alberta sometime this spring.

Even if that’s the biggest election in Canada this year (Manitoba and Prince Edward Island are also due to go to the polls), the next 12 months will be full of the sorts of debates and challenges that leave a mark and will shape the next national vote.

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Election unlikely in 2023 despite recent political posturing, pundits say

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Even though federal political leaders have been using some heated, election-style language to snipe at each other in recent weeks, pundits say it’s unlikely Canadians will go to the polls in 2023.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was active during the six-week parliamentary break, making stops in Saskatoon, Windsor, Ont. and Trois-Rivieres, Que. to talk up his government’s accomplishments. He also occasionally took shots at Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his recent assertion that “everything seems broken” in Canada.

“Crossing your arms and saying ‘Canada is broken’ is not the way to build a better future for Canadians,” Trudeau said.

Poilievre, meanwhile, toured Quebec in an attempt to boost his poll numbers in that province. He also met with Indigenous leaders in Vancouver to discuss a proposed opt-in policy for First Nations to share the revenue generated by resource development on their lands.

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The Conservative leader also hit back at Trudeau on Friday during an address to his caucus prior to the House of Commons’ return. He blamed the prime minister for inflation, the recent travel chaos and deficit spending while appearing to goad Trudeau into an election battle.

“If you’re not responsible for any of these things, if you can’t do anything about it, then why don’t you get out of the way and let someone lead who can?” Poilievre said as his MPs cheered and applauded.

 

Addressing his Conservative caucus, Poilievre says ‘everything is worse’ under Trudeau

Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre addresses his Conservative caucus and highlights crime rates during Justin Trudeau’s time as prime minister.

Speaking to his own caucus earlier this month, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh touted his party’s confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals, saying that the deal was “delivering for Canadians.”

But Singh also indicated that he had his eyes set higher.

“We’re going to fight for every bit of help and hope we can win for Canadians and then I’m going to run for prime minister of Canada,” he said.

But Tim Powers of Summa Strategies said he doesn’t think any of the leaders are itching for an election right now, despite their recent posturing.

“The conditions don’t exist for an election this year,” he told CBC. “I don’t think anybody’s really going to have a breakaway moment.”

Shachi Kurl, president at the Angus Reid Institute, and Éric Grenier, writer and publisher of TheWrit.ca, joined Power & Politics Friday to discuss the latest polling data.

Powers said the Liberals are unlikely to seek a new mandate with the threat of an economic slowdown this year hanging over the government’s head.

“We will only have an election this year if Justin Trudeau sees the winning conditions exist for him,” Powers said. “I don’t think the Liberals are yet ready to manufacture an election.”

Sharan Kaur of SK Consulting agreed that an election is unlikely this year. She suggested the Conservatives will still use the economy to needle the Liberals and position themselves as a government-in-waiting.

“I would say the biggest looming issue of 2023 is going to be cost of living, a potential recession, and that will probably be the main pivot point for the Conservatives,” she said, adding that she thinks the Conservative Party is the only one that wants an election this year.

But Powers said Poilievre might be happy to wait and give himself more time to pitch himself to Canadians.

“I think Poilievre is content to have the time to let the Liberals age and build a brand and a platform that can be useful to him,” he said.

If the Liberal-NDP deal holds for its intended duration, the next election won’t happen until 2025.

But the agreement may face a tougher test in 2023 than it did in 2022 because it includes more benchmarks for progress — including a commitment to table pharmacare legislation. Singh also threatened to pull out of the deal if the Liberals don’t address the health-care crisis.

“The confidence-and-supply agreement gets a little bit more muscular [this year],” said Brad Lavigne of Consul Public Affairs.

Snow covers a fence surrounding Parliament Hill, Friday, January 20, 2023 in Ottawa.
Snow covers a fence surrounding Parliament Hill on January 20, 2023. MPs are set to return to the House of Commons on Monday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie told CBC News this month that the 2023 federal budget will be a key factor in deciding whether the Liberals are holding up their end of the deal.

But even if the deal falls apart this year, Lavigne said, it wouldn’t necessarily trigger an election.

“If you look back at recent history, [former prime minister Stephen] Harper had minority Parliaments in which he had no such supply agreement with any one opposition party, yet he maintained the confidence of the House for many years,” he said. “That is an option that is open to Mr. Trudeau as well.”

Even if an election doesn’t happen this year, Kaur said she doesn’t expect the political posturing to stop.

“We’re going to see a lot of pandering in the next year, especially around economic challenges, cost of living for people — just like the bread-and-butter issues,” she said.

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Jacinda Ardern’s resignation underscores the rising violence in our politics

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For as long as they’ve both been in office, Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau have been kindred political spirits. Both bring the kind of youthful glamour to public office that only seems to come around once in a generation. Both share the same progressive values on issues like climate change, diversity and social inclusion. And both have seen their popularity at home decline in the face of proactive pandemic policies and the vocal opposition to them.

But while Trudeau has been adamant about sticking around to fight the next election, Ardern shocked everyone with her recent announcement that she would be stepping aside after just over five years in power. “I am human, politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time,” she said.

It’s been tempting for Canadian pundits to draw a line between Ardern’s decision to leave and Trudeau’s insistence on staying, especially since both have faced similarly underwhelming poll numbers of late. But there’s another line they should be drawing, one that points to the spike in abuse and violent threats these leaders have contended with.

For Trudeau, that abuse has become part of the background noise of his political life over the last couple of years. Sometimes, as with the ugly protest in Hamilton the other day that saw an angry crowd surge toward the prime minister and his police protection, it gets a bit scary. But Trudeau, who has yet to back away from a fight in his political career, wasn’t about to let it cow him. “We’re not going to let a handful of angry people interfere with the democratic processes that Canadians have always taken pride in,” he said.

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But in some respects, they already are interfering in the democratic process.

Anti-vaccine activists routinely consume far more of the political oxygen than their numbers would suggest is appropriate, and they often pride themselves on directing vitriol and abuse at elected officials. That makes it more difficult for those officials to meet with constituents, interact with the public and otherwise do their job. “Those kinds of things suck your energy,” Liberal MP Hedy Fry told the Toronto Star. “I can understand the concept of burnout but I also think contributing to that is all the threats [Ardern] got online.”

And make no mistake: there’s a different kind of vitriol that gets directed at women in public life right now. Ardern refused to blame the threats she faced for her surprise departure from politics. But as Michelle Rempel Garner, the Conservative MP for Calgary Nose-Hill, pointed out in a post on her Substack, it’s hard to ignore the correlation there. “While both Trudeau and Ardern have had to contend with increased threats of violence, Ardern has battled a higher degree of sexualized violence,” she wrote. “Indeed, unlike Ardern, Trudeau hasn’t had to deal with things like being asked if he was going to have babies as a qualifier for his suitability for serving as prime minister or being asked if he met with another world leader because of his age and gender.”

Ardern’s departure may represent a victory for the anti-vaccine movement and the misogynists in their midst, but make no mistake: it’s a loss for almost everyone else. We’re facing a tragedy of the political commons, one that is rapidly eroding the public’s trust in both elected officials and the offices they hold.

And the more our political commons are polluted with things like rage-farming, conspiracy theories and toxic partisanship, the less attractive it becomes for anyone of standing or substance to run for public office.

This is not a new problem, and it didn’t just start when Trudeau was elected prime minister. As Harper-era cabinet minister James Moore noted on Twitter, “I, and many other cabinet colleagues, had multiple death threats and elevated security at work and at home. It was frequent.”

If people like Jacinda Ardern are finding the cost of public service to be prohibitively high, it’ll be the rest of us who end up paying the price in the end, writes columnist @maxfawcett for @NatObserver. #JacindaArdern

There should be an incentive, then, for everyone involved to reduce the temperature and restore at least a modicum of civility to our politics.

If they don’t, they’re painting themselves — and us — into a pretty dangerous corner. Who, other than the political lifer (hello, Pierre Poileivre!) or the hereditary torch-bearer (that’s you, Justin Trudeau!), would want the job of prime minister right now? If you’re an accomplished doctor, lawyer, business person, social worker or teacher, do you really want to give up your livelihood, move to Ottawa and get abused on social media 24/7? And how are we supposed to attract more women and other underrepresented groups to public life when they’re the ones who tend to receive the brunt of this abuse?

The answer, if we stay on this path, is that we won’t. That probably suits some people just fine. But if people like Jacinda Ardern are finding the cost of public service to be prohibitively high, it’ll be the rest of us who end up paying the price in the end.

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