Politics

‘She’s going to lose’: Dems brag redistricting dooms conservative Illinois freshman


Illinois Democrats have GOP Rep. Mary Miller right where they want her.

The freshman Republican — who caused a frenzy during her first week in Congress earlier this year, when she gave a speech in which she said Adolf Hitler “was right about one thing” — doesn’t have a clear path back in 2023.

Miller told POLITICO this week she plans to seek reelection, but Illinois’ new congressional map splits her downstate district in two, leaving her in the undesirable spot of choosing between challenging GOP Reps. Mike Bost or Rodney Davis, two well-funded and popular incumbents who have both declared 2022 bids.

And while she squirms to decide her next move, her Democratic colleagues seem to be basking in her predicament.

“I do not feel sorry for Mary Miller,” said Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), who represents Chicago and also chairs the state Democratic Party.

“I think Mike Bost is a decent human being. I think Rodney Davis is a decent human being. And I don’t recall them ever speaking lovingly of Adolf Hitler,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.).

Democrats in Springfield had total control over the redistricting process in the state and used their power to roil the GOP delegation. They shredded the district of Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a rare anti-Trump Republican, forcing him to decide between an early retirement or challenging fellow GOP. Darin LaHood in a primary. (He chose retirement.)

They created a new deep blue seat by uniting parts of Bost’s and Davis’s district into a snake that runs from East St. Louis north and east through Springfield, Decatur and Champaign, and created two other artfully drawn red-leaning seats downstate.

Davis is the only incumbent in the new 15th District, a sprawling centrally placed seat that includes of some Miller’s old turf. But the rest of her former seat — and Miller’s hometown of Oakland — is in Bost’s 12th District to the south. Miller appears to be shoved in with Bost: A skinny thumb jumps up above the northern border of the seat to include her house.

Bost moved quickly, declaring a run in the southern district in October and later rolling out endorsements from dozens of local mayors and elected officials and former GOP Rep. John Shimkus, who held Miller’s current district for 12 terms.

Bost said he called Miller a month ago, before he announced his campaign. “I asked her to get back with me. She had never got back to me,” he said in a brief interview Thursday on the Capitol steps, where Miller passed by her potential opponent soon after, on her way inside to vote.

Davis, meanwhile, announced earlier this week that he would seek reelection in the central district rather than run for governor.

Miller remains undecided but undeterred.

“I’m running for Congress,” Miller told POLITICO in a brief interview earlier this week. But she said she had not yet figured out where she would run. She said previously she wouldn’t be intimidated by the new maps, remarking in October: “I can say I laughed when I read that they think they’re terrorizing me. Because I am not scared.”

Illinois’s candidate filing deadline is in mid-March of next year, and the primary is scheduled for June 28.

In a primary against Bost or Davis, Miller would likely try to run to the right. Both of their newly drawn districts would’ve backed former President Donald Trump by around 40 points in 2020, so the GOP nomination is tantamount to a win in November.

Throughout her first term, Miller has formed alliances with members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, at times putting herself at odds with the House GOP conference.

Miller, a farmer and a homeschool teacher and wife of a state representative, was elected in 2020 to fill the seat of the retiring Shimkus. Her most high-profile moment came at the start of her term, when she attended a rally for a right-leaning group and said conservatives would lose unless “we win the hearts and minds of our children. This is the battle. Hitler was right on one thing. He said, ‘Whoever has the youth has the future.’”

(Miller later apologized for her comments, while lambasting critics for “intentionally trying to twist my words.”)

She’s also leaned into some tension within her own party.

Earlier this year, she participated in a press conference with the caucus advocating for a resolution that would’ve removed Kinzinger and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from their committee assignments after they separately accepted appointments by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to serve on the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Bost and Davis, elected in 2014 and 2012, respectively, have more seniority and could be in line for committee leadership roles. (Davis is the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, and Bost is the ranking member of the House Veteran Affairs Committee.)

Yet it might be somewhat easy for her to draw a contrast with Davis, who voted to certify the 2020 presidential election and to establish an independent Jan. 6 commission, unlike Miller.

Asked if he fears a challenge from Miller in the new 15th District, Davis pushed back: “I don’t know if I’ve ever given the impression when I’ve been out here in the last nine years that I’m really afraid of much, so you take on all challenges.”

“We didn’t ask for the gerrymandered mess that is the Illinois map,” Davis added. “But I’m going to run in the district that I live in, which is always where I will run. And my job is to make sure that we hold that seat for Republicans.”

Bost also did not seem to fear a matchup against Miller, touting endorsements and geographic edge. “If you look at the largest cities,” he said, referring to the 12th District, “the first five largest cities are in my old district,”

Wherever Miller chooses to run, she will ensure the state’s second member-on-member matchup. Democratic Reps. Sean Casten and Marie Newman are facing off for the same Chicagoland district. Georgia and West Virginia are also hosting battles incumbent-vs.-incumbent primary battles.

In Illinois, Bustos, who is retiring after this term, said she feels confident she already knows the outcome.

“If she chooses to run against Bost, he’s going to beat her. If she chooses to run against Davis, Davis is going to beat her,” she said. “Literally, whatever she picks, she’s going to lose.”

Biden’s free at-home test promise could come with added costs


The Biden administration is selling a key part of its pandemic strategy as free at-home Covid-19 tests for all. The reality may be far different, adding hurdles for Americans who buy over-the-counter tests and potentially increasing test costs to the health care system.

The administration wants to require private health insurers to reimburse customers who buy rapid tests that have been in short supply in many parts of the U.S. and cost more than they’re sold for abroad. One popular test, by Abbott, costs about $24 for a box of two tests, but many other countries subsidize at-home tests or provide them for free.

It’s unclear how consumers with private insurance will get reimbursed for tests, how long they’ll have to wait — and how often payment claims will be denied. And those who are uninsured or who have Medicare or Medicaid won’t be able to access the new insurance reimbursement program, though administration officials say they’ll have free access through local health care clinics.

“We should not think for a minute that this is some sort of magic bullet that is going to get us to universally free and accessible testing,” said Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

Many specifics hinge on guidance the Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury departments are due to publish by Jan. 15.

Jeff Zients, the White House Covid-19 coordinator, said Friday that the Biden strategy is “making at-home tests free to Americans.”

“More than 150 million Americans on private health insurance will be able to submit receipts for at home tests directly to their health insurance plans,” he said. “They can go to their local pharmacy, they can order online and then get reimbursed.”

Spokespeople for major health insurers including Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield say their companies are awaiting guidance and will work with the administration on implementation.

Michael Bagel, director of public policy at the Alliance of Community Health Plans, told POLITICO that insurance companies support increasing access to medically necessary Covid-19 testing, but warned setting up a system for consumers to get reimbursed for at-home tests they buy will be operationally challenging for many payers.

Nirav Shah, the director of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the reimbursement model has the potential to work well as long as home tests are readily available and have their insurance charged immediately. But that is not likely to happen — the White House says most people will have to submit receipts to health plans.

“It’s going to have to work its way through that manual submission process, which could take weeks or a couple of months depending on volume,” Bagel said.

Involving insurance companies may also cause the price of tests to rise.

Michael Mina, chief science officer at eMed and a longtime proponent of at-home tests, said the effort to expand access to rapid tests is a step in the right direction, but questioned why the federal government is not directly contracting with diagnostic companies and distributing home tests directly to the public at low or no cost.

And Georgetown’s Corlette said the new rule, while laudable, may make the tests more expensive because of how pandemic relief bills were written. Some experts also are concerned consumers will become less price sensitive if they know their health insurance will cover the cost of at-home tests.

“We know that health insurance in our normal health care system makes pricing just kind of exceptional, it enables prices to just be out of control,” Mina said. “This runs the risk of preventing the pressure for economic competition among the companies.”

Bagel, the insurer policy executive, cautioned that the Biden strategy will mitigate the cost of at-home tests in the short term, but will likely lead to higher health insurance premiums in the future.

But Mara Aspinall, an adviser to the Rockefeller Foundation and member of testmaker OraSure Technologies’ board of directors, said Biden’s plan is an effort to “pull every lever” to make tests more accessible to Americans. The Biden administration already invested billions into the testing supply chain and firms are working to ramp up supply, she said.

“We’re at a precarious point. We need manufacturers to make good on the supply expectations, which means manufacturing the tests, kitting them and getting them ready for distribution,” Aspinall said. “I think that if there are hiccups, we have disruption.”

Ellume CEO Sean Parsons — whose company was the first to receive emergency use authorization for an over-the-counter test last year — also said Biden’s plan will help manage outbreaks and alleviate pressure on health care systems.

Demand for the popular tests shows no sign of cresting. More than 96,000 positive cases are being recorded per day and more cases of the new Omicron variant are being detected.

Rachael Fleurence, special assistant to the NIH director for Covid-19 diagnostics, told POLITICO the 800,000 free home tests allotted for New Hampshire through a study researching the effect of distributing free at-home tests were ordered through Amazon within 24 hours earlier this week.

“We’re pretty positive that the administration’s efforts are bearing fruit, it just does take time because [manufacturers] are ramping up production lines,” Fleurance said. “It was highly successful and rapid in New Hampshire, but if we were across the country we would be seeing varying rates of response.”

Another challenge for insurers will be determining if at-home tests being submitted for repayment are for workplace screening, which they are not required to cover under Biden’s plan.

“We may be able to identify patterns eventually, but it would put a significant operational burden on health plans, and also a financial burden,” Bagel said.

The decision to involve private health insurers may expand access to tests for some, but Americans on public insurance and the uninsured will have to seek out free home tests that the government is distributing to community sites and health clinics.

“This is like the most American way to deal with this pandemic,” Mina said. “It’s not efficient, it runs major risks of creating inequities in access when there are just much more simple solutions.”

Biden embraces his one-time foe: Walmart


Not long before he joined the 2008 campaign trail, then-Sen. Joe Biden traveled to Iowa to deliver a blistering speech attacking the nation’s largest private employer, Walmart.

“My problem with Walmart is that I don’t see any indication that they care about the fate of middle-class people,” he told the crowd that day.

Biden went on to enter the race and lose that primary. But 15 years later, he finds himself in the White House. And over the first year of his presidency, the retail giant he once lambasted has become a key ally of his administration.

“Thank you. You’ve been really — really cooperative,” he told Walmart CEO Doug McMillon on Monday, during a meeting with CEOs on problems with the supply chain and concerns heading into the holiday shopping season. “I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.”

The sight of a Democratic president embracing Walmart would have sent shockwaves through the political ecosystem not too long ago. But times have changed since those days when Biden and others were holding out the company as a corporate force of evil. Over the past few years, Walmart has adopted internal policies that have softened its image among Democrats. It has also donated to Democratic lawmakers and their causes, right as the party was forging common ground with corporate America during the Trump years. In turn, the company has won an audience with top Democratic officials, including the president himself.


On Monday, Biden joked with the company’s CEO that he had “spent more time walking through the aisles of Walmart than I want to admit.” On Wednesday, he cited his administration’s collaboration with the company on issues related to the supply chain. And on two occasions, White House chief of staff Ron Klain has tweeted out McMillon’s remarks or praise as evidence of the administration’s success.

The administration has also promoted Walmart’s efforts to support Afghan refugees. Press secretary Jen Psaki noted that she ordered her Covid at-home tests from Walmart. And in selling the Build Back Better agenda, the White House has at least three times sent out Walmart’s lukewarm endorsement of the climate provisions before Congress, including those in the budget reconciliation and infrastructure bills.

Beyond the administration, the embrace of Walmart has been disorienting, especially for those in the labor community who fear the message it sends.

“It’s telling that in the White House statement touting its collaboration with CEOs to solve supply chain challenges, not one mention is made of the workers who drive the profits and keep the supply chains moving,” said Bianca Agustin, corporate accountability director at United for Respect, an advocacy group for Walmart and Amazon employees. “We need our elected officials to stand with the essential workers that are keeping our country running… We need regulations and laws in place to make McMillon, who leads the largest private workforce in the country, implement the changes that Walmart associates have been demanding.”

Walmart’s newfound status within Democratic political circles is, to a degree, a reflection of how the modern economy has shifted political considerations. Once laser-focused on how retail giants were impacting small businesses and exacerbating low wages, Congress has placed Amazon, Facebook, and other tech behemoths under its microscope in recent years.

But the friendly rapport with Democrats is also the result of Walmart’s attempt to use corporate initiatives to make inroads with the party, according to four people close to the company. A small fleet of lobbyists has been doing the company’s bidding in Washington, and at least the past two lead in-house lobbyists have both been Democrats.

“As the nation’s largest private employer and a bellwether for the U.S. economy, with deep roots in communities across the country, we’re used to working with policymakers from across the political spectrum,” said Brian Besanceney, Walmart senior vice president, chief communications officer, in a statement. “We’re glad policymakers view Walmart as part of the solution to national issues like climate change, pandemic response, and workforce development and training.”


Political giving from Walmart’s PAC has evened out over the years, according to data from the money-in-politics watchdog group Open Secrets. The PAC gave $1.32 million to Republicans compared to just $358,500 to Democrats in the 2004 cycle. In the 2020 cycle, the PAC gave $596,000 to both parties. While Democrats had once refused to accept the company’s donations, lawmakers have become far more willing in recent cycles, according to an individual close to the company.

In 2018, Walmart announced that it would give $2 million in grants to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute to help provide internship opportunities to diverse young candidates. Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) praised the company’s support for increasing access to opportunities on the Hill.

Members of the family behind the company, the Waltons, have also doled out cash to Democrats and their allies too. As recently as May, Christy Walton gave $50,000 to the anti-Trump super PAC the Lincoln Project, and in October 2020, Alice Walton gave $300,000 to Unite the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC.

“When you have the kind of influence that they do, it came as no surprise to start seeing their CEO being a friendly fixture in the White House,” said Tracy Sefl, a longtime Democratic operative, who once worked for Walmart Watch, a group funded largely by organized labor to go after the retail giant.

When asked about Biden’s shift on Walmart and presented with the administration’s embrace of the company, White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates maintained that the President was working with companies of all sizes, as well as union leaders too.

“When it comes to making historic infrastructure investments, ensuring our ports operate around the clock, or pushing to increase our trucking capacity, the President will continue fighting with a large coalition to improve our supply chains, lower costs for families and create good-paying jobs,” he said.

For years, Walmart has tried to dispel its boogeyman image among Democrats. In 2006, the company brought on board Leslie Dach, a veteran Democratic aide, to improve its reputation as executive vice president of corporate affairs.

The work was difficult. Biden wasn’t the only Democrat around that time to rail on the retail giant. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, who had been on Walmart’s board during her years in Arkansas, returned a campaign contribution from the company. Then-Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign, nevertheless, criticized her heavily for her time with Walmart. Even former Sen. Evan Bayh, a moderate from Indiana, appeared at an anti-Walmart rally, lamenting the “middle-class squeeze” the company facilitated.

Dach, who was brought into the Biden administration recently to help with Covid messaging, told POLITICO that the approach to improving relationships with Democrats was two-pronged. The first prong, he said, was creating some parity in campaign contributions. The second and more important prong, he added, was establishing trust with politicians through a series of initiatives that aligned with Democratic priorities.

Those initiatives included nutrition programs in partnership with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, sustainability efforts, and a pledge to hire veterans in conjunction with then-Second Lady Jill Biden’s Joining Forces campaign, he said.

Walmart’s efforts had some success in drawing Democrats into their corner. Michelle Obama visited a Walmart in Springfield, Mo. to celebrate the anniversary of Let’s Move and then-President Obama visited a Walmart in Mountain View, Calif. There, he praised the company for its efforts to employ renewable energy — “and Walmart’s pretty good at counting its pennies,” he joked.


On some bigger policy matters, the company continued to take heavy criticism for its labor practices and poor wages. But it began moving on those fronts too. In 2015, it hiked its wages for its employees to $9 an hour. More recently, it announced it would hike its minimum wage to $12 an hour.

Walmart has continued to lean heavily on the federal government to subsidize the health care costs of its workforce, including when it dropped coverage for tens of thousands of them. But it also, unlike other corporate entities, embraced Obamacare. Andrew Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, recalled a meeting to discuss Obamacare with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and then-Walmart CEO Lee Scott. Kennedy noted that until that day he had refused to meet with the company’s representatives.

“Meeting with them was like meeting with the right to work committee, they were persona non grata in many Democratic circles,” Stern said.

Critics of the company say that much of what it is doing is window dressing. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has charged Walmart with paying starvation wages while its executives profit handsomely. Other critics have noted that some of Walmart’s ballyhooed progressive movement has come in fits and starts. The company took guns and ammo off its shelves in the fall of 2020, only to quickly reverse course amid unrest. It has announced ambitious efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, though skeptics are waiting to see if it will actually follow through on their proposals. And while McMillon has sung Biden’s praises on issues related to the supply chain, he is also chair of Business Roundtable, an association of CEO’s fighting aggressively to stop the tax provisions in the Build Back Better bill.

But the universe of Walmart critics has also grown smaller over the years. Walmart Watch was absorbed by WakeUpWalmart.com, a group formed by the United Food and Commercial Workers, in 2009. The latter now appears to be defunct. WakeUpWalmart.com, which redirects to changewalmart.org, showed no press releases issued by the group since August 2019. And the online form to send an inquiry to the organization did not appear to work.

Sefl said that the absence of anti-Walmart institutions on the left did not mean that the company was or should be blessed for its current policies. And while she recognized the need for Biden to tout Walmart’s success as a reflection of his own, she encouraged him to push the company further.

“I would hope that such a pro labor president, that Biden is, that he knows that there is both a messaging and a policy opportunity to talk about improving Walmart’s purchasing practices,” she said. “I think Walmart has done an excellent job of elevating their changes while also tamping down the once loud criticisms of their core business model, and to me, that’s the inflection point that we’re at when we look at economic recovery and as we look at empty shelves because of an over reliance on imported goods there’s an opportunity for the administration to leverage its relationship with the company.”

The Origins of Herschel Walker’s Complicated Views on Race


WRIGHTSVILLE, Ga. — In the spring of 1980, in this little, isolated place in rural, middle Georgia, Black people clamored for equality and white people beat them with fists and sticks and chains. Bigots called Black protesters soulless animals and cannibals, brandished Confederate battle flags and sent shotgun blasts into Black families’ homes. Pastors and activists registered voters, and sued the sheriff and other local lawmen, and they marched. “Fired up!” hundreds chanted, walking four abreast from a Black church to the courthouse in the central square. “Can’t take no more!”

For days, then weeks, then months, so many people in a town of 2,500 were swept up in the unrest, with one particularly notable exception — the area’s most prominent Black resident, almost certainly its most prominent citizen, period.

Herschel Walker.

Walker, of course, is the famous former football player who is the top Republican candidate running for the United States Senate in this politically pivotal terrain. The polling and fundraising leader, Walker, 59, is endorsed by both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.


Back then, though, he was the most celebrated, most hotly recruited high school athlete in the whole of America — not just an all-everything running back but the president of the Johnson County High School chapter of the Beta Club of academic achievers and one of only two seniors to receive a “Citizen-Leadership Award.” In a county of not quite 8,000 that was approaching 40 percent Black but had no Black elected officials and no Black sheriff’s deputies but one Black superstar, Walker had become something like a folk hero — a favorite son who just days before had decided to great fanfare to stay in-state and attend the University of Georgia. And here he was asked, at the very outset of his life as such a public figure, by Black leaders, classmates and peers, by Jesse Jackson, by the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., to say something, to do something — to join them.

He was barely 18, but his response to those entreaties speaks clearly to who he was then and says just as much about who he is now, according to interviews with more than 40 people, including some of his closest, most important teachers, coaches, mentors and friends. An obviously promising football prospect, an uncommon combination of big and strong and fast, Walker was a budding world-class track talent, too — but he talked about wanting to be an FBI agent or perhaps a Marine. He was, thought the people who watched him and helped guide him, not exactly shy but often impenetrably withdrawn, an odd mixture of exceptionally focused and strangely disengaged. By his senior year, his athletic exploits couldn’t help but bring a brighter and brighter spotlight, but even the way he ran was telling — marked by efficiency and brutality more than artistry or flexibility. Walker ran through people and ran over people. He ran away from people. He was a reluctant celebrity.


And so that spring, as the escalating turmoil closed factories and schools and people were asked to take sides and stands, Walker could have marched. He could have played peacemaker. He could have said something or simply made a statement to one of the reporters to whom he had grown accustomed over the previous heady couple of years. He did none of those things.

“He said his Black friends were fussin’ because he wouldn’t march and the white people were calling him the N-word,” Tom Jordan, the white head coach of the track team, an assistant coach for the football team and one of Walker’s main advisers at the time, told me. “He said, ‘Coach, I don’t know what to do.’”

Jordan’s advice?

“I told him,” he said with a laugh, “to stay out of politics.”

It’s what Walker did, even as some Black students took to calling him “honky-lover” and “Uncle Tom,” while a white teammate said it “helped” that he “stayed neutral.” And it’s what he kept doing, from his standout stint in college in Athens 100 miles north to his more uneven time as a pro that included playing for a team owned by Trump to his life as an entrepreneur after that. Walker believed, he said, not in “Black and white” but in “right and wrong,” according to a biography published in 1983. “I never really liked,” he wrote in his memoir in 2009, “the idea that I was to represent my people. My parents raised me to believe that I represented humanity — people — and not black people, white people, yellow people, or any other color …”

But after a lifetime of mainly steering clear of making head-on comments on matters of racial conflict, Walker only relatively recently began to more overtly engage in the political arena — and did so on behalf of a polarizing white celebrity-politician who had earned a reputation for stoking the very racial divisions Walker says he was taught and inclined to evade. In 2015, in the initial stages of the presidential bid of his former employer, Walker made known his support for Trump. And in only the last couple years, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd in Minnesota and Ahmaud Arbery a few hours away here in Georgia, as Black Lives Matter and critical race theory and the fight for voting rights have come to define the rifts in the nation’s discordant political discourse, Walker has talked more and more about race — and in ways that echo if not outright reiterate the worldview he began to express when his out-of-the-way hometown more than 40 years back became an unlikely capital of the perpetual struggle for racial justice.


“It ain’t about African American. It ain’t about white,” Walker said in a post on his Instagram in the midst of the coast-to-coast furor in the aftermath of the police killing of Floyd. “It’s about justice.” Earlier this year he argued in congressional testimony against reparations for slavery. “Slavery,” he said, “ended over 130 years ago.” And this fall he made his first major appearance as a candidate for the Senate at a Trump rally — in a small dot on the Georgia map not that different from the one he’s from. “Don’t let the left try to fool you,” Walker told the cheering, predominantly white crowd in Perry, “with this racism thing.”

Walker’s first challenge is winning a GOP primary. Should he win, though, as expected, he will face in the general election not merely another Black man — incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock — but a Black man who is the first Black senator from Georgia, a Black man who is an heir of sorts of Martin Luther King, the senior pastor of King’s spiritual home of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Walker is a political novice — and also, by any conventional measure, an imperfect candidate, with a documented history of erratic behavior and alleged threats of violence against women that he’s partly chalked up to a rare mental health condition about which he has been eyeopeningly candid. Given, though, the salience of Black voters in this state and the looming matchup with Warnock, the way Walker has engaged with race and race-related matters, and the way he has not, could be an equally or even more important facet of the coming contest, say Georgia-experienced political analysts and strategists from both parties.

“It will matter,” Democratic consultant Rich McDaniel told me. “In rural counties, places where UGA flags fly year-round, places where Grandpa might’ve been a Klansman but I’m not, he’ll get their vote if for no other reason than they get to wear it as a I’m-not-a-racist badge,” said Republican pundit Mike Hassinger. “Herschel Walker’s race will be a good test case,” added Democratic operative Kevin Harris, “where even if you are a candidate of color, can you run a race-neutral campaign in the South?”

Walker, who since announcing his candidacy in late August mostly has kept a sparse public schedule and granted friendly, limited interviews to right-wing outlets, declined to comment for this story. Talking recently, though, with one of Walker’s favorite teachers and his Beta Club adviser, I suggested that Walker at the very least would do quite well with voters in Wrightsville.

Not necessarily, Jeanette Caneega told me.

“Probably the vast majority of whites will vote for him. He has some, some Black enemies here, going back to him becoming” — she paused to think about how she wanted to put it — “a white person.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“Him not taking a stand,” she said. “You know, memories, memories — people remember things. And there’s still some resentment from even some of his classmates — Black classmates, I will say.”

The Black leaders of the protests and other Black luminaries wanted Walker to do something or say something because he was famous. He was famous because of football.

“In modern American history,” the sportswriter Jeff Pearlman once wrote, “few sports figures have possessed the mythological aura of young Herschel Walker.” He did thousands of pushups and sit-ups and wind sprints in bare feet on dirt roads while dragging truck tires lashed to his waist. In high school, unleashed, he was 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds and ran for 86 touchdowns and more than 6,000 yards and did roughly half of that in just his senior year, when he led Johnson County to a state title and was the top pick on the Parade All-America team — an all-time phenom in this nowhere burg. “Everybody here is living off what Herschel does,” a local businessperson said in a story in the Atlanta Constitution in 1979. “A hero,” said Gary Phillips, the head football coach. “Already a legend.”

The way he was raised, though, and the way he was wired, made Walker a hesitant legend, and an unlikely spokesperson, especially on the topic of race. The fifth of seven children of parents who met while picking cotton on a white man’s land, he minded his mother and father, and took after them. “He was,” the wife of the white farmer once told a reporter, “a real humble, polite colored boy.” Walker recalls in his memoir watching the Ku Klux Klan march through nearby Dublin. He tells a harrowing tale of helplessly witnessing a “fake lynching,” by jeering Klansmen with a real rickety stool and a real noose in a tree, of a “sobbing” Black child his age. “To whom could we go?” Walker wrote. “The police were white men.” Walker’s parents “did tell us stories of African-Americans who had been lynched, beaten, etc.,” as he put it, but they held no grudge, he said. “My mother and father had no ax to grind against white people.”


By the time he was in high school, Walker’s father was working at a chalk factory and his mother was working at a clothing factory owned by the same white man who owned the farm where his parents had met. Increasingly, he looked to as mentors two of the more prominent white men in town — Ralph Jackson, a farmer, and Bob Newsome, the owner of the Ford dealership. Walker as a teenager worked for Newsome, which was in step with his family’s M.O. “They endeared themselves to many old-line white families,” wrote the late Jeff Prugh, then the Atlanta-based southern correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. “If you looked at the people that were constantly invited, not only by him but his family, to functions,” Caneega told me, “they would basically be his white coaches and a few white people.”

In yearbooks from that time that I reviewed in the local library, I counted 110 students in Walker’s graduating class — 55 of them Black. Racial parity, though, did not mean placidity. “Racial tensions,” Walker wrote in his memoir nearly 30 years on, “were always present.”

When he was a junior he got one of his first lessons in what would be asked of him.

A Black classmate was horsing around in a hallway. The white principal told him to stop. “It ain’t no big thang,” the Black student said. It was indeed a “big thang,” the principal shot back, in what Black students interpreted as a racist pantomime.

“As one of the most visible African-American students at the school, and one of the student body’s leaders, I was put in a tough position. Almost all the African-American students at the school expected me to side with them in their belief that the principal, in imitating the student, had crossed a line,” Walker said in the memoir. “According to them, while the principal hadn’t used the N-word, he might as well have. The white students cited this as just another example of the overly sensitive African-American students looking for ghosts where there were none. I didn’t agree with that position, but I also didn’t want to look at this as a racial issue at all.”

It’s unclear to what extent Walker expressed to his classmates his true feelings as he tried at the time to stay out of the fray, but in the pages of the memoir he made it plain he picked a side: “In my mind, if you took out the issue of race, then the student was in the wrong. He was the one who was being disrespectful. He was running in the hallway and messing around, and if the principal, the highest authority figure at the school, asked him to knock it off and to just go about his business, then that’s what he should have done. To me, everything that happened after that was a result of the student’s lack of respect. I couldn’t get many people to see my line of reasoning, and when I didn’t come out and publicly support the allegations that the principal was bigoted, a lot of African-American students were upset with me and felt like I’d turned my back on my people.”

As a boy, Walker had stuttered and been chubby and felt teased, and so he possessed, still and in spite of his mounting renown, a disposition that tended toward isolation. Nobody knew then, including Walker himself, that he had as well the makings of Dissociative Identity Disorder, or what used to be called multiple personality disorder — but those around him the most did know Walker was taciturn and hard to read. “I always say I know him, but I always say I never knew him,” Phillips once said in a kind of odd but spot-on koan. And for all of his accomplishment and activity, Walker often retreated, seeking refuge and counsel in the homes and classrooms of his favorite coaches and teachers — the majority of them white. “By not taking sides in that dispute my junior year, I was further isolated,” he wrote. “I could never really be fully accepted by white students and the African-American students either resented me or distrusted me for what they perceived as my failure to stand united with them — regardless of whether they were right or wrong.”

It’s one of the reasons his recruitment was as protracted as it was, stretching into the spring — the 29th and last freshman of that Bulldog class to sign on. It wasn’t because Walker wanted all the attention that came with his high-profile wooing — it was the opposite. “Herschel had trouble telling anyone no,” said Jordan. “It was difficult for him to finally say where he was going,” Vince Dooley, then the Georgia head coach, told me, “because he knew that would disappoint a lot of people.”

Walker made his announcement on the evening of April 6, 1980 — Easter Sunday — picking Georgia over Clemson, Southern Cal and many other suitors. He had promised two local reporters, from the Wrightsville Headlight and the Dublin Courier Herald, they would be the first to know, and he kept his word. The reporters joined his coaches, his family and other guests at the Walkers’ house out in the country, some five miles from the courthouse in the central square.

“It will be hard to live up to the expectations of everybody,” Walker said. “I can only promise that I will do my best.”

Not 48 hours after Walker committed to play football in Athens, the Rev. E.J. Wilson, the Black pastor of the Neeler Chapel A.M.E. Church in the Black part of town, along with John Martin, a local leader for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, plus a hundred or so additional Black demonstrators, convened at the courthouse — angling for better-kept roads in Black neighborhoods, public cemeteries, parks and pools, more jobs for Black people in stores and in the town and county governments, and in law enforcement, too.

A focus of their ire was Roland Attaway — the white sheriff, by then, for nearly 20 years, widely regarded as the county’s most powerful pol. They wanted him to come out of his office to talk, and he refused, and so they shouted that he was a coward. The epithet enraged the growing group of white people that had mustered to keep watch, and they surged forward, according to the coverage of local and regional reporters on hand. Close-quarters pushing and shoving quickly became an out-and-out free-for-all.

“Attaway and his deputies were calling the protesters ‘n—–s.’ At one point, he huddled briefly with his chief deputy, then he led his deputies into the crowd,” David Lucas, a Black Democratic state representative from the area who’s still in the state senate, said at the time. “They were swinging their sticks and beating people over the head.”

Attaway called Lucas “a damned liar.” He said Black people were calling him “scum” and his deputies “trash.” Attaway dismissed the protesters as “outside agitators.”

Wrightsville was a powder keg.

“Herschel Walker notwithstanding,” Wilson said, “this is one of the most racist places in Georgia.”

A few days later, back in the square, Black demonstrators assembled, and the Klan mobilized — all of it monitored by riot-ready state troopers dispatched by the governor, the Democrat George Busbee. The Black group, led by the SCLC president, sang civil rights hymns. “White power!” the white group yelled back. J.B. Stoner, the notorious white supremacist and segregationist, reveled in his racist taunts. “We’re going to get all the civil rights laws repealed and get those jungle animals shipped back to Africa,” he said. “You can’t have law and order and n—–s too.” Stoner, who was months from being found guilty of bombing a Black church in Alabama, said he had come from his home in north Georgia to see “what the Black mob is going to try and take away from the whites.”


The menace and violence continued. In mid-April, two Klansmen sprayed shotgun shells at a Black family’s mobile home, wounding a 9-year-old girl. One especially contentious night in May, Attaway and his deputies raided churches and homes and arrested largely without warrants or charges more than three dozen people — among them Wilson, Martin and another SCLC staffer. “Somebody’s going to get killed,” a young Black person told a reporter from the Associated Press. “I’ll tell you how it’s going to end,” predicted a middle-aged man who was white. “One day, 15 of these Blacks are going to get killed, and it will be over.”

Throughout these tense, terrifying weeks and months, according to subsequent reporting in national newspapers and magazines, Black schoolmates, demonstrators, organizers and more leaned on Walker. “Demanded he join,” said the New York Times. “Pleaded,” as the Atlanta Constitution put it. “Coretta King and Jesse Jackson were calling Herschel,” Gary Smith wrote in the fall of 1981 in Inside Sports, “trying to get him to take a stand.” (A spokesperson for Jackson confirmed this to me.)

Others his age had. That spring, Jordan told me, half a dozen Black athletes on the track team quit as a form of protest. Not Herschel Walker. He didn’t do or say anything else, either — just like, it should be said, the vast majority of the 3,000 or so Black residents of Johnson County. None of all those others, though, of course, was a Georgia-bound football star. Walker reeled. He told Phillips and Jordan, his football and track coaches, he wanted to all but disappear by joining the Marines, according to the reporting of Prugh, who wrote the biography of Walker from 1983. “Tom and I told him, ‘Hey, there’s no way you’ll do that!’” Phillips said. “We said, ‘We’ll help you get through this. We’ll do something to get these people to leave you alone. Remember, we can do certain things with whites, anyway.’”

“One day he told me, ‘My friends won’t even talk to me because I won’t get involved in the protests,” Jordan told Gary Smith in 1981. “He said there were blacks threatening to kill him because he wouldn’t march and whites threatening to kill him because he was black.” When we talked last month, Jordan recalled how much that had hurt Walker. “Hurt him bad,” he said.

Hurt as he was, Walker’s stance came as a comfort to many in the white community who lauded his choice.

“Why can’t they all be like Herschel Walker?” That’s what some white people here said about Black people here, Prugh wrote. “We followed him. We looked up to him,” Buck Evinger, a white football teammate, told the biographer. “The fact that he stayed neutral helped the situation a lot.”

Not to his Black peers it didn’t. “Kids were calling him honky-lover, saying he hung around with more white people than Black,” Milt Moorman, a Black football teammate, told Smith. “If you hang around a lot of white people,” Moorman told me last month, “they start saying things.”

“He was a smart kid,” Jimmy Moore, who was a white assistant football coach, told me, “and he saw through some of the stuff that was going on. That was — I mean, I don’t know how to phrase this — manufactured maybe a little, exaggerated just a little bit. There was some strife — I mean, there’s strife everywhere — but there’s no need to go about that in that particular way.”

“He had a future, a bright future,” Curtis Dixon, who was a black assistant football coach, told me, “and he didn’t want to mess it up.”

“The family was focused on other things,” Phillips said of the Walkers. “They were not going to get embroiled in that.”

“He had a lot of pressure as a Black man from a lot of fairly powerful people in the community there, wanting him to kind of take a position,” Evinger told me. “But his position was kind of common sense: ‘I don’t really know what I think about the situation, and I’m not a spokesperson for anybody, so I’m not sure what you want me to do other than lend my name to your cause …’”

“He was all about the hate,” Caneega, who taught Walker geometry, said of E.J. Wilson, the Black pastor who was one of the leaders of the protests. “And I can’t see that he would have ever been interested in Herschel other than using him.”

She added: “I don’t think he backed away. I think he just navigated it in a very wise and thoughtful way.”

And on May 30, the most famous person ever to attend Johnson County High School graduated, one of only 12 seniors to have maintained an “A” average all four years, according to the coverage of the ceremony in the Courier Herald. Walker was one of two Black students on the 10-person Honor Guard — sort of school spirit reps. He was the only Black student among the five officers of the Beta Club. Part of the Walker lore that has hardened over the years is that he was the valedictorian, but Dixon, one of the assistant football coaches, who also taught Walker social studies, expressed to me some amusement at that, pointing out that the school didn’t name valedictorians until 1994. But Walker was, Dixon and others agreed, a very capable student — not necessarily brilliant but without a doubt diligent. And the “Citizen-Leadership Award” Walker won, the newspaper said, was given to a student who not only earned good grades but “exhibits character and leadership qualities” and participates in “social and community activities.”

The local push for racial justice, though, raged on without him. Wilson, Martin and others organized voter registration drives. They prepared a class-action lawsuit against Attaway and other local lawmen. They kept marching in and around Wrightsville.

During a march through Dublin the first week of June, Hosea Williams, the veteran civil rights activist and state senator from Atlanta, mentioned Walker. Many of the white people who knew Walker the best had seen his decision as one of pragmatic and prudent neutrality, but that’s not what some Black people saw.

White people in Wrightsville, Williams said, had made Walker an “Uncle Tom.”

“What Herschel Walker doesn’t understand is that when he stops carrying that football,” Williams said, “he has to return to the Black community.”

He was so good so fast in college it almost beggared belief.

Walker scored two touchdowns in his first game and three more in his second. “My God,” said Larry Munson, Georgia’s revered radio play-by-play man. “A freshman!” Over the course of the 1980 season, Walker, who had turned 18 that March, rushed for 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns, a debut that was so stunning Walker got a few votes that fall in Georgia’s election — for president of the United States — and that was before he led the undefeated team to a win against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl and the national championship. “He was a legend before he ever arrived in college,” former National Football League player and sports agent Ralph Cindrich once wrote, “but he somehow became even bigger there, the Paul Bunyan of the peach trees …”

And yet Walker remained Walker.

A criminology major, he didn’t drink alcohol and ate one meal a day, slept only four or five hours a night, and in addition to being on the football and track teams took classes for tae kwon do. “People think I’m a strange guy,” he told Smith from Inside Sports. “I have friends but no best friend. You can never totally open yourself.”


He started dating Cindy DeAngelis, a white woman on the Georgia track team. Her parents didn’t like it. His parents didn’t care. Other people talked. “There has been a lot of discussion by black women,” a Black track teammate told the New York Times, “that Herschel is white-oriented.”

And as much as that attracted attention, and as much as Walker continued to try to shun the limelight, even as that became harder and harder, he still managed to typically sidestep controversy. Even when he veered toward borderline subversiveness — his openness, for instance, to the notion of leaving college early to play pro sports — he broached it in broadly palatable terms.

When a team from the Canadian Football League floated an offer after only his freshman year, Walker cast his choice to decline in practically patriotic terms. “I was born in America, and it does not seem right to leave the country to play professional football,” Walker said. “Americans should feel proud,” said Dooley, the Georgia coach. Walker later considered suing the National Football League to let him play before his graduation, contrary to convention. He invoked themes of the free market, the constitution and self-determination — but not to the point of issuing ultimatums. “I don’t think it’s right for anyone to deny me that chance,” he said in 1981. “I still feel the rule is basically unconstitutional. However, I don’t want to interfere with the system that’s designed to be the best for the majority of people involved,” he said in 1982.

“Herschel shouldn’t be underestimated,” a Black assistant vice president for academic affairs at Georgia told Sports Illustrated in 1981. “There is a kind of genius there that has enabled him to synthesize things at a much quicker rate than most adults. He’s not the kind to put an umbilical cord anywhere — even where race is concerned. He gets close to some people … at a distance. In the same way, he will never be directly offensive or affrontive.”

“He just had an ability to say the right thing,” Dooley told me recently, “so he never got into any controversy.”


“He presented himself as an extremely moderate, buttoned-down figure who was respectful of both Black and white,” Jim Cobb, a former Georgia history professor and former president of the Southern Historical Association, told me. “He was really the first Black athlete in the Deep South,” Cobb said, “to sort of achieve superstar, iconic status — and of course that process was not hindered by his demeanor.”

“His humbleness and how he carried himself and what he did for the University of Georgia — I think it changed a lot of people’s minds,” Frank Ros, a white Georgia teammate and one of his best friends, told me.

He was, in other words, a Black athlete white fans cheered and liked — in that era, more O.J. Simpson, say, than Muhammad Ali. While Walker “kept close track” of Ali, Wrightsville mentors said in 1981, he was impressed by Simpson’s “stature” and “class.”

“Herschel Walker,” Harry Edwards, the Black sociologist and longtime advocate for activism among Black athletes, once told the Atlanta Constitution, “was in good shape in Georgia as long as he was ‘the right kind of n—–.’ It’s as simple as that. That’s something Black people recognize universally in this society. As long as he restricted himself to activities and comments about what was happening on the football field, he was OK. They were demonstrating against racial injustice in his hometown, and he couldn’t come out and make a statement about it because he was eminently concerned about being above reproach as far as his credentials relative to being ‘the right kind of n—–.’”

“Down in Georgia at that time they didn’t call you Black. They called you a n—–,” Edwards told me recently. “He was simply saying, ‘I’m not going to get involved with activism, because it’s not about Black folks, it’s not about the state of Georgia — it’s about me. And as long as they think that I’m a good n—–, I got a chance.’”

More than a chance. After finishing third in the running for the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, then second as a sophomore, he won the award as a junior — officially the nation’s best player. Wrightsville held “Herschel Walker Appreciation Day.” Walker rode through town in the back of a convertible, seated next to DeAngelis, his white girlfriend whom he would marry the following year. There in the central square, Walker was feted — by the governor, by the mayor, and by Sheriff Roland Attaway.

Two months later, in early 1983, at the federal courthouse in Dublin, an all-white jury found Attaway not guilty — saying he had not violated the civil rights of the protesters in 1980. Walker had come up in the trial. During testimony, Attaway’s attorney had invoked his name — to imply a state of racial harmony. “Was not Sheriff Attaway named Man of the Year,” he said, “at the same time Herschel Walker was named Youth of the Year in Wrightsville, Georgia?”

“Herschel,” Willis Wombles, the mayor of Wrightsville, said that March in the Chicago Tribune, “took the heat off when everybody was talking about racial trouble here.”

“Herschel,” said Attaway, “did not get involved in that trouble. He’s a fine young man. And he’s welcome here any time.”

“It’s so strange,” said Herschel Walker.

It was the middle of 1986. Walker was with a reporter from Atlanta sitting poolside at his high-rise condominium in New Jersey. He was in New Jersey because he had played his first three seasons of professional football for the New Jersey Generals, owned for the last two of those years by Donald Trump — whom Walker had added to his line of white advisers, coming to consider Trump, he would say in his memoir, “a family-oriented man” and “a mentor to me,” “and I modeled myself and my business practices after him.” He even saw, he said, a potential president. Here, though, at his condo, he was with the reporter because the reporter was working on a series of stories for the Atlanta Constitution. “Run For Respect,” it was called. “A Study of Black Football Players and the South.”

“Some people have said,” Walker said, “they thought Herschel hasn’t overstepped his boundaries in the Black-white issue — ‘he’s a good n—–.’”

He smiled. He looked at his wife.

“They always say the worst thing a Black person can do is marry a white,” Walker said to the reporter. “Did I pay attention to that?”


It had been at that point more than five years since the racial tumult in Wrightsville. Walker had not talked about it much. He said a little to Smith, and it ended up in the 1981 story in Inside Sports: “I guess it’s easier to give me a hard time than anybody else.” And he said a little more the same year to a reporter from the New York Times: “I didn’t want to get involved in something I didn’t know much about.”

But now here in New Jersey he said more.

“I am not,” he told the reporter from Atlanta, “a speaker. I am a doer. When I was in high school, people wanted me to take a stand on the racial problems. But as young as I was, how could I take a stand when I didn’t understand what they were demonstrating for? I felt I could hurt the cause a lot worse by not understanding, if I’d made a statement that was wrong.”

This, though, proved to be not so much simply a question of youth. Even as he got older, as he moved after the Trumpcaused demise of the USFL to the National Football League, to the Dallas Cowboys and then to the Minnesota Vikings and then to the Philadelphia Eagles and then to the New York Giants and then back to Dallas, even as he dabbled in ballet and bobsled and mixed martial arts and founded a chicken and food business, Walker throughout and again and again made the same essential decision he had made back in the tempestuous spring of his senior year of high school. When it came to controversial social and political topics? He steered clear.

Then came Trump.

Walker backed Trump the summer he started running for president — “he is a good man,” he said — and he did his part in the 2020 reelection effort by insisting at the Republican National Convention Trump was no racist. “Growing up in Deep South, I’ve seen racism up close. I know what it is. And it isn’t Donald Trump,” Walker said. “Uncle Tom” trended on Twitter.

And in the last year and a half, as he’s waded more and more into the political fray, in particular on the topic of race, Walker often has sounded the way he sounded more than 40 years back. “We use Black power to create white guilt,” Walker said in his congressional testimony on the issue of reparations. “My approach is Biblical. How can I ask my heavenly father to forgive me if I can’t forgive my brother?” He said he had talked to his mother. “Her words,” Walker said. “‘I do not believe in reparations. Who is the money going to go to? Has anyone thought about paying the families who lost someone in the Civil War who fought for their freedom?’”


So far, it’s how he’s sounded as a Senate candidate, too. He said what he said in Perry — “don’t let the left try to fool you with this racism thing” — and he struck the same note last month at a well-attended event in Marietta. “I’m getting tired of it, because that’s how they try to separate people,” he said. “We got to get out of this racism.”

On paper as a candidate Walker is vulnerable. He’s been divorced for almost 20 years from DeAngelis, who got a protective order against him, accusing him of violent, controlling behavior. When Walker published his memoir, Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, she told ABC News that he had pointed a pistol at her head and said, “I’m going to blow your f-ing brains out.” (He’s remarried.)

In Breaking Free, Walker says he used to sit at his kitchen table in Dallas and play “Russian roulette,” putting a bullet in a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, “an old police-issue double-fire center-action nickel-and-steel beauty,” spinning the chamber, putting the barrel to his temple, putting it into his mouth — pulling the trigger. “I certainly came close to believing that I was nearly invincible. My alters and I had survived so much and attained such a high level of achievement the only thing left for me to do was to take on death.” Walker’s alters: He details some dozen different personalities he says he used to get through different situations — the Hero, the Consoler, the Judge, the Enforcer, the Sentry, the Watch Dog, the Daredevil, the Warrior and so on, “the essential Herschel and other satellite Herschels.”

Republican strategists and even Democrats I’ve talked to say it’s hard to use the disorder against him, given the heightened awareness of and empathy for mental health struggles — and Walker continues to be a public advocate for the importance of being open and getting help. And that’s true. Still, reading Walker’s book at times can feel like he himself provided in 2009 the first couple hundred pages of the opposition research on him in 2021 and 2022. He all but starts his story, after all, talking about the time in 2001 he considered killing a man, “how satisfying it would feel,” because this man was late with a delivery of a car that Walker had bought — Walker expressing on the page “the visceral enjoyment I’d get from seeing the small entry wound and the spray of brain tissue and blood.”

Perhaps no less important than these admissions, his past transgressions or mental health, though, is just hard electoral and demographic math. “When he stops carrying that football, he has to return to the Black community.” That’s what Hosea Williams, the civil rights activist and state rep, said back in 1980, and now, headed into 2022, Black people make up nearly a third of the registered voters in Georgia — a state in which the share of the white vote is shrinking, a state that currently has a Black man as one of its two U.S. senators, a state that came within a whisp of electing a Black woman to be governor in 2018 and will have another chance next year now that Stacey Abrams is running again.

Walker’s candidacy is prepared to highlight a fundamental and age-old conundrum in this country. What’s the most effective way to address the scourge of racial bias? Confront it out loud? Or stay mostly mum? Say it’s over and it’s time to move on in a stated stance of neutrality some find noxious or at least naïve? To whom will Walker’s positioning appeal? To which slices of which voters that could decide the winner in diversifying and tick-tight Georgia?

“It doesn’t look like the old South anymore. It’s changing. And so if you continue to run that old playbook, your math doesn’t add up. The imperative used to be to just not talk about it because the votes aren’t there — gotta be a little race-neutral,” said Kevin Harris, the Democratic operative and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus who has been a frequent adviser on civil rights and criminal justice. “Now it’s sort of flipped on its head, where if you aren’t race-explicit, you might have a hard time winning.”

“Herschel’s never been an outspoken person on racial matters,” a Republican former state rep told me. “And when you’ve got a guy like Raphael Warnock, who’s been on the front lines of all that for his whole public life, as pastor and now as a senator, I think that helps keep most African Americans on Warnock’s side.”

“You also have to remember how many new Black residents we have in the state of Georgia,” a former GOP member of the state’s congressional delegation told me. “And they may not even know that background,” this person said, meaning Wrightsville, 1980 and beyond. Until now.


But Mike Hassinger pointed to “probably a large, wide strain” of white Trump voters, from rich to poor. “If they have one thing in common,” said the Republican consultant and analyst, “they are f—ing sick to death of being called racists. That aggravates the snot out of them because they’re not. And they’ve never defined themselves that way. ‘I thought we were all supposed to look past each other’s skin. Black people are being racist. Why aren’t they just people?’ And they really believe that.” Those voters? “They’ll put a Herschel bumper sticker on their truck,” Hassinger said. “No question.”

Regardless, said Rich McDaniel, the Democratic strategist who led Barack Obama’s reelection efforts as that campaign’s field director here in Georgia, Walker’s stance on race, past and present, will matter. “It will matter,” McDaniel told me, “particularly if it becomes a debate about Black men and police brutality or the criminal justice system, or even voting rights. Where were you 40 years ago, or 30 years ago, on this issue, and why are you stepping up now? Why did you remain silent? Are you going to remain silent while you’re in office?”

It’s about right and wrong?

It’s not about Black and white?

“He’s going to have to explain that to voters of color if he wants to convince them that he’s going to be their advocate,” Harris told me. “That’s like ‘All Lives Matter, and that’s not gonna get it anymore,” he said. “It just makes us ask more questions. OK, well, who are your folks?”

Senate GOP open to taking Dr. Oz’s miracle cure in Pa.


Senate Republicans are open to Dr. Oz as the miracle cure for their headaches in Pennsylvania.

With the Keystone State’s GOP Senate primary uncertain, Senate Republicans suggested this week that they might embrace the celebrity doctor’s nascent campaign to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey. GOP senators conceded in interviews that they didn’t know much about Oz. But if he’s the best prescription for reclaiming the Senate majority, they’ll take it.

“It’s a good sign for the Republican Party that somebody of his standing and stature would want to run under the Republican banner,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of former President Donald Trump. “He’s got an incredible background and personal story. It’s good news for the Republican Party, and I think he’d be very competitive.”

The surgeon-turned-talk-show-host Mehmet Oz made his Senate bid official this week, rolling out a campaign video in which he declared that the coronavirus pandemic “showed us our system is broken” and vowed to “put America first.” His Republican candidacy comes after Trump-endorsed candidate Sean Parnell ended his Senate bid after losing custody of his children.

Pennsylvania is widely viewed as a bellwether in next year’s fight for the Senate majority, and though Toomey is a Republican, the GOP knows there’s no guarantee the seat will stay red. The state is a perennial battleground: In 2020, President Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by about one point. And while it’s not clear yet how competitive Oz will be in the GOP primary, Republican senators certainly aren’t counting him out.


Oz, his potential future colleagues noted, brings two important assets to the race: name recognition and cash.

“It’s great to have someone who certainly is a game-changer the very first moment,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “Who doesn’t love a guy that’s got 100 percent name ID and a whole bunch of money?”

Cramer and other Republicans added that it was too early to assess what Oz’s weaknesses would be. But his campaign will be steered by veteran GOP operatives — managed by Casey Contres, who helmed former Sen. Cory Gardner’s campaign last year. Former National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Chris Hansen and Erin Perrine, a campaign spokesperson for Trump, are also assisting with Oz’s run. And Michael McCollum Adams is his national finance director. She holds the same role for Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

Going from celebrity to political candidate isn’t unheard of, especially after Trump swapped reality TV for the White House in 2016. But as a first-time candidate, Oz hasn’t undergone the grueling vetting process that comes with running for public office. His TV show amounts to hours of potential opposition research for his rivals.

And the heart surgeon has faced plenty of past scrutiny for his medical advice, particularly his promotion of weight-loss supplements despite questionable evidence of their efficacy. During a 2014 Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) accused Oz of giving viewers misleading information about weight loss by advocating for “miracle” products. Oz has also encouraged the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus. The Food and Drug Administration said last year that hydroxychloroquine wasn’t likely to be effective for Covid treatment and could carry potential risk.

In addition to his controversial medical advice, questions about Oz’s residency could become a focal point for his opponents. He previously lived in New Jersey, having resided in Pennsylvania since 2020; however, he grew up in the greater Philadelphia region, currently votes there and has his medical license in the state. He also attended the University of Pennsylvania for medical and business school, and there married his wife, who also has Pennsylvania roots.

“Can he win?” asked Cornyn, a top deputy to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It’s always an adventure for somebody who’s never run for public office before. I don’t think most people realize what sort of scrutiny you go through when you run for office. And frankly, it’s not always fun.”

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) described Oz as “obviously intelligent” and said he “seems to have a clean grasp of the issues,” noting that although Oz has never ran for office before, “many first-time candidates succeed.”

Contres said in a statement to POLITICO that “the overwhelmingly positive feedback [Oz has] heard from Republican Senators is encouraging and appreciated.”

Before Oz entered, the GOP primary in Pennsylvania hadn’t been shaping up well for Republicans. While Parnell snagged a Trump endorsement, he also came under fire after his estranged wife accused him of physical abuse. Parnell denied those accusations.

His departure from the race created an unanticipated opening, with no clear frontrunner and a potential Trump endorsement up for grabs. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who endorsed Parnell, said that Oz is “a big name. I think it’s a big splash. I don’t know what effect it will have on the race yet.” Hawley didn’t rule out wading into the race later but said he had no immediate plans.

The primary already has several candidates, like Jeff Bartos, who previously ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, and Carla Sands, a businesswoman and former ambassador to Denmark under Trump. And more are preparing to enter, including David McCormick, who runs Bridgewater Associates.

The Senate GOP’s campaign arm isn’t intervening in open primaries. When asked about Oz’s candidacy, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.) responded: “We’ve got a lot of great candidates around the country.”

Toomey, meanwhile, declined to weigh in on Oz or any other candidates in the primary to replace him. But the retiring senator said he is “feeling good about the field” and predicted Republicans would hold onto his seat.

Democrats have their own competitive primary in the state, with Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, Rep. Conor Lamb, and state representative Malcolm Kenyatta all looking to succeed Toomey.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) didn’t comment on Oz’s decision to enter the race. But he predicted that a divisive GOP primary would help Democrats.

“I try not to weigh in on the rancor and discord and intramural fight on the other side,” Casey said. “It’s going to be, like all our Senate races, competitive. Whenever the other side has conflict, that’s good for us.”

Senate Republicans quietly buck Trump in Alabama race


No senator other than her former boss, Sen. Richard Shelby, has publicly endorsed Katie Britt yet. But she is quietly getting support from at least a half-dozen of Shelby’s Republican colleagues in her bid against Donald Trump’s pick in Alabama’s open Senate race.

Five Republican senators — Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) — have donated to Britt’s campaign from their leadership PACs. None of them have done so yet for GOP Rep. Mo Brooks, who Trump endorsed in April to replace the retiring Shelby (R-Ala.).

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), a Trump ally who won his seat in 2020 with Trump’s backing, attended a Wednesday night D.C. fundraiser for Britt, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who served as the event’s “special guest,” according to the invitation.

“I like Katie a lot,” Graham told POLITICO on Thursday, noting he has known Britt since she worked for Shelby, and eventually became the senator’s chief of staff.

“In a party trying to grow demographically and pull more women in the party, that’d be a good thing. The people of Alabama will figure that out.”

Brooks has “a strong profile in Alabama, but Katie’s not giving an inch,” Graham added. “We’ll see what happens.”

The financial support for Britt, the former president of the Business Council of Alabama, comes in spite of Trump’s disparaging comments about her.

“I see that the RINO Senator from Alabama, close friend of Old Crow Mitch McConnell, Richard Shelby, is pushing hard to have his ‘assistant’ fight the great Mo Brooks for his Senate seat,” Trump said in a July statement. “She is not in any way qualified and is certainly not what our Country needs or not what Alabama wants.”

But Brooks has faltered since he entered the race, and a narrative has spread that Trump is disappointed in the Alabama congressman’s performance.

Neither Graham nor Tuberville have officially endorsed Britt, though their appearances at the crowded event Wednesday — where Tuberville was photographed with his arm around Britt — come as recent polling and fundraising numbers have cemented Britt as a leading candidate.

Britt has outraised Brooks by more than 2-to-1, bringing in $3.7 million to date, compared to his $1.7 million. Her campaign’s expenditures total less than half of Brooks’, even as Brooks has held off on staffing up for the race in an apparent cost-saving measure.

Ahead of the fundraiser Wednesday, Tuberville and Britt visited during the Iron Bowl — the state’s premier football rivalry between Alabama and Auburn — in Auburn last weekend, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

In a sign that Tuberville may be more opposed to Brooks than supportive of Britt, the former Auburn University football coach has also been receptive to Mike Durant, another Republican seeking the Senate nomination in Alabama. Durant on Thursday morning posted a photo from a meeting with Tuberville.

Brooks’ campaign chair Stan McDonald pushed back on the notion of a flailing campaign, saying in a statement that Britt is “trying to win in the DC Insider Primary because she is an insider.”

“Mo Brooks’ base is the Alabama conservative grassroots who decide our elections,” McDonald said. “He’s got their support, and he’s got President Trump’s support because they know he’s the conservative leader Alabama needs.”

While Britt is a first-time candidate, Brooks has held office for much of the last 40 years, including in the House since 2011. Prior to that, he served in the Alabama House and on the Madison County Commission.

After Brooks failed to clear the field in the race, Graham spoke with Trump to advocate on Britt’s behalf, according to a person familiar with his efforts to help her.

Graham didn’t directly answer Thursday when asked whether he has tried to talk Britt up to Trump.

“I think he has a good impression of her,” Graham said.

A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Marianne LeVine contributed to this story.

‘How Could I Take a Stand?’: Herschel Walker’s Lifelong Aversion to Racial Politics


WRIGHTSVILLE, Ga. — In the spring of 1980, in this little, isolated place in rural, middle Georgia, Black people clamored for equality and white people beat them with fists and sticks and chains. Bigots called Black protesters soulless animals and cannibals, brandished Confederate battle flags and sent shotgun blasts into Black families’ homes. Pastors and activists registered voters, and sued the sheriff and other local lawmen, and they marched. “Fired up!” hundreds chanted, walking four abreast from a Black church to the courthouse in the central square. “Can’t take no more!”

For days, then weeks, then months, so many people in a town of 2,500 were swept up in the unrest, with one particularly notable exception — the area’s most prominent Black resident, almost certainly its most prominent citizen, period.

Herschel Walker.

Walker, of course, is the famous former football player who is the top Republican candidate running for the United States Senate in this politically pivotal terrain. The polling and fundraising leader, Walker, 59, is endorsed by both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.


Back then, though, he was the most celebrated, most hotly recruited high school athlete in the whole of America — not just an all-everything running back but the president of the Johnson County High School chapter of the Beta Club of academic achievers and one of only two seniors to receive a “Citizen-Leadership Award.” In a county of not quite 8,000 that was approaching 40 percent Black but had no Black elected officials and no Black sheriff’s deputies but one Black superstar, Walker had become something like a folk hero — a favorite son who just days before had decided to great fanfare to stay in-state and attend the University of Georgia. And here he was asked, at the very outset of his life as such a public figure, by Black leaders, classmates and peers, by Jesse Jackson, by the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., to say something, to do something — to join them.

He was barely 18, but his response to those entreaties speaks clearly to who he was then and says just as much about who he is now, according to interviews with more than 40 people, including some of his closest, most important teachers, coaches, mentors and friends. An obviously promising football prospect, an uncommon combination of big and strong and fast, Walker was a budding world-class track talent, too — but he talked about wanting to be an FBI agent or perhaps a Marine. He was, thought the people who watched him and helped guide him, not exactly shy but often impenetrably withdrawn, an odd mixture of exceptionally focused and strangely disengaged. By his senior year, his athletic exploits couldn’t help but bring a brighter and brighter spotlight, but even the way he ran was telling — marked by efficiency and brutality more than artistry or flexibility. Walker ran through people and ran over people. He ran away from people. He was a reluctant celebrity.


And so that spring, as the escalating turmoil closed factories and schools and people were asked to take sides and stands, Walker could have marched. He could have played peacemaker. He could have said something or simply made a statement to one of the reporters to whom he had grown accustomed over the previous heady couple of years. He did none of those things.

“He said his Black friends were fussin’ because he wouldn’t march and the white people were calling him the N-word,” Tom Jordan, the white head coach of the track team, an assistant coach for the football team and one of Walker’s main advisers at the time, told me. “He said, ‘Coach, I don’t know what to do.’”

Jordan’s advice?

“I told him,” he said with a laugh, “to stay out of politics.”

It’s what Walker did, even as some Black students took to calling him “honky-lover” and “Uncle Tom,” while a white teammate said it “helped” that he “stayed neutral.” And it’s what he kept doing, from his standout stint in college in Athens 100 miles north to his more uneven time as a pro that included playing for a team owned by Trump to his life as an entrepreneur after that. Walker believed, he said, not in “Black and white” but in “right and wrong,” according to a biography published in 1983. “I never really liked,” he wrote in his memoir in 2009, “the idea that I was to represent my people. My parents raised me to believe that I represented humanity — people — and not black people, white people, yellow people, or any other color …”

But after a lifetime of mainly steering clear of making head-on comments on matters of racial conflict, Walker only relatively recently began to more overtly engage in the political arena — and did so on behalf of a polarizing white celebrity-politician who had earned a reputation for stoking the very racial divisions Walker says he was taught and inclined to evade. In 2015, in the initial stages of the presidential bid of his former employer, Walker made known his support for Trump. And in only the last couple years, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd in Minnesota and Ahmaud Arbery a few hours away here in Georgia, as Black Lives Matter and critical race theory and the fight for voting rights have come to define the rifts in the nation’s discordant political discourse, Walker has talked more and more about race — and in ways that echo if not outright reiterate the worldview he began to express when his out-of-the-way hometown more than 40 years back became an unlikely capital of the perpetual struggle for racial justice.


“It ain’t about African American. It ain’t about white,” Walker said in a post on his Instagram in the midst of the coast-to-coast furor in the aftermath of the police killing of Floyd. “It’s about justice.” Earlier this year he argued in congressional testimony against reparations for slavery. “Slavery,” he said, “ended over 130 years ago.” And this fall he made his first major appearance as a candidate for the Senate at a Trump rally — in a small dot on the Georgia map not that different from the one he’s from. “Don’t let the left try to fool you,” Walker told the cheering, predominantly white crowd in Perry, “with this racism thing.”

Walker’s first challenge is winning a GOP primary. Should he win, though, as expected, he will face in the general election not merely another Black man — incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock — but a Black man who is the first Black senator from Georgia, a Black man who is an heir of sorts of Martin Luther King, the senior pastor of King’s spiritual home of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Walker is a political novice — and also, by any conventional measure, an imperfect candidate, with a documented history of erratic behavior and alleged threats of violence against women that he’s partly chalked up to a rare mental health condition about which he has been eyeopeningly candid. Given, though, the salience of Black voters in this state and the looming matchup with Warnock, the way Walker has engaged with race and race-related matters, and the way he has not, could be an equally or even more important facet of the coming contest, say Georgia-experienced political analysts and strategists from both parties.

“It will matter,” Democratic consultant Rich McDaniel told me. “In rural counties, places where UGA flags fly year-round, places where Grandpa might’ve been a Klansman but I’m not, he’ll get their vote if for no other reason than they get to wear it as a I’m-not-a-racist badge,” said Republican pundit Mike Hassinger. “Herschel Walker’s race will be a good test case,” added Democratic operative Kevin Harris, “where even if you are a candidate of color, can you run a race-neutral campaign in the South?”

Walker, who since announcing his candidacy in late August mostly has kept a sparse public schedule and granted friendly, limited interviews to right-wing outlets, declined to comment for this story. Talking recently, though, with one of Walker’s favorite teachers and his Beta Club adviser, I suggested that Walker at the very least would do quite well with voters in Wrightsville.

Not necessarily, Jeanette Caneega told me.

“Probably the vast majority of whites will vote for him. He has some, some Black enemies here, going back to him becoming” — she paused to think about how she wanted to put it — “a white person.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“Him not taking a stand,” she said. “You know, memories, memories — people remember things. And there’s still some resentment from even some of his classmates — Black classmates, I will say.”

The Black leaders of the protests and other Black luminaries wanted Walker to do something or say something because he was famous. He was famous because of football.

“In modern American history,” the sportswriter Jeff Pearlman once wrote, “few sports figures have possessed the mythological aura of young Herschel Walker.” He did thousands of pushups and sit-ups and wind sprints in bare feet on dirt roads while dragging truck tires lashed to his waist. In high school, unleashed, he was 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds and ran for 86 touchdowns and more than 6,000 yards and did roughly half of that in just his senior year, when he led Johnson County to a state title and was the top pick on the Parade All-America team — an all-time phenom in this nowhere burg. “Everybody here is living off what Herschel does,” a local businessperson said in a story in the Atlanta Constitution in 1979. “A hero,” said Gary Phillips, the head football coach. “Already a legend.”

The way he was raised, though, and the way he was wired, made Walker a hesitant legend, and an unlikely spokesperson, especially on the topic of race. The fifth of seven children of parents who met while picking cotton on a white man’s land, he minded his mother and father, and took after them. “He was,” the wife of the white farmer once told a reporter, “a real humble, polite colored boy.” Walker recalls in his memoir watching the Ku Klux Klan march through nearby Dublin. He tells a harrowing tale of helplessly witnessing a “fake lynching,” by jeering Klansmen with a real rickety stool and a real noose in a tree, of a “sobbing” Black child his age. “To whom could we go?” Walker wrote. “The police were white men.” Walker’s parents “did tell us stories of African-Americans who had been lynched, beaten, etc.,” as he put it, but they held no grudge, he said. “My mother and father had no ax to grind against white people.”


By the time he was in high school, Walker’s father was working at a chalk factory and his mother was working at a clothing factory owned by the same white man who owned the farm where his parents had met. Increasingly, he looked to as mentors two of the more prominent white men in town — Ralph Jackson, a farmer, and Bob Newsome, the owner of the Ford dealership. Walker as a teenager worked for Newsome, which was in step with his family’s M.O. “They endeared themselves to many old-line white families,” wrote the late Jeff Prugh, then the Atlanta-based southern correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. “If you looked at the people that were constantly invited, not only by him but his family, to functions,” Caneega told me, “they would basically be his white coaches and a few white people.”

In yearbooks from that time that I reviewed in the local library, I counted 110 students in Walker’s graduating class — 55 of them Black. Racial parity, though, did not mean placidity. “Racial tensions,” Walker wrote in his memoir nearly 30 years on, “were always present.”

When he was a junior he got one of his first lessons in what would be asked of him.

A Black classmate was horsing around in a hallway. The white principal told him to stop. “It ain’t no big thang,” the Black student said. It was indeed a “big thang,” the principal shot back, in what Black students interpreted as a racist pantomime.

“As one of the most visible African-American students at the school, and one of the student body’s leaders, I was put in a tough position. Almost all the African-American students at the school expected me to side with them in their belief that the principal, in imitating the student, had crossed a line,” Walker said in the memoir. “According to them, while the principal hadn’t used the N-word, he might as well have. The white students cited this as just another example of the overly sensitive African-American students looking for ghosts where there were none. I didn’t agree with that position, but I also didn’t want to look at this as a racial issue at all.”

It’s unclear to what extent Walker expressed to his classmates his true feelings as he tried at the time to stay out of the fray, but in the pages of the memoir he made it plain he picked a side: “In my mind, if you took out the issue of race, then the student was in the wrong. He was the one who was being disrespectful. He was running in the hallway and messing around, and if the principal, the highest authority figure at the school, asked him to knock it off and to just go about his business, then that’s what he should have done. To me, everything that happened after that was a result of the student’s lack of respect. I couldn’t get many people to see my line of reasoning, and when I didn’t come out and publicly support the allegations that the principal was bigoted, a lot of African-American students were upset with me and felt like I’d turned my back on my people.”

As a boy, Walker had stuttered and been chubby and felt teased, and so he possessed, still and in spite of his mounting renown, a disposition that tended toward isolation. Nobody knew then, including Walker himself, that he had as well the makings of Dissociative Identity Disorder, or what used to be called multiple personality disorder — but those around him the most did know Walker was taciturn and hard to read. “I always say I know him, but I always say I never knew him,” Phillips once said in a kind of odd but spot-on koan. And for all of his accomplishment and activity, Walker often retreated, seeking refuge and counsel in the homes and classrooms of his favorite coaches and teachers — the majority of them white. “By not taking sides in that dispute my junior year, I was further isolated,” he wrote. “I could never really be fully accepted by white students and the African-American students either resented me or distrusted me for what they perceived as my failure to stand united with them — regardless of whether they were right or wrong.”

It’s one of the reasons his recruitment was as protracted as it was, stretching into the spring — the 29th and last freshman of that Bulldog class to sign on. It wasn’t because Walker wanted all the attention that came with his high-profile wooing — it was the opposite. “Herschel had trouble telling anyone no,” said Jordan. “It was difficult for him to finally say where he was going,” Vince Dooley, then the Georgia head coach, told me, “because he knew that would disappoint a lot of people.”

Walker made his announcement on the evening of April 6, 1980 — Easter Sunday — picking Georgia over Clemson, Southern Cal and many other suitors. He had promised two local reporters, from the Wrightsville Headlight and the Dublin Courier Herald, they would be the first to know, and he kept his word. The reporters joined his coaches, his family and other guests at the Walkers’ house out in the country, some five miles from the courthouse in the central square.

“It will be hard to live up to the expectations of everybody,” Walker said. “I can only promise that I will do my best.”

Not 48 hours after Walker committed to play football in Athens, the Rev. E.J. Wilson, the Black pastor of the Neeler Chapel A.M.E. Church in the Black part of town, along with John Martin, a local leader for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, plus a hundred or so additional Black demonstrators, convened at the courthouse — angling for better-kept roads in Black neighborhoods, public cemeteries, parks and pools, more jobs for Black people in stores and in the town and county governments, and in law enforcement, too.

A focus of their ire was Roland Attaway — the white sheriff, by then, for nearly 20 years, widely regarded as the county’s most powerful pol. They wanted him to come out of his office to talk, and he refused, and so they shouted that he was a coward. The epithet enraged the growing group of white people that had mustered to keep watch, and they surged forward, according to the coverage of local and regional reporters on hand. Close-quarters pushing and shoving quickly became an out-and-out free-for-all.

“Attaway and his deputies were calling the protesters ‘n—–s.’ At one point, he huddled briefly with his chief deputy, then he led his deputies into the crowd,” David Lucas, a Black Democratic state representative from the area who’s still in the state senate, said at the time. “They were swinging their sticks and beating people over the head.”

Attaway called Lucas “a damned liar.” He said Black people were calling him “scum” and his deputies “trash.” Attaway dismissed the protesters as “outside agitators.”

Wrightsville was a powder keg.

“Herschel Walker notwithstanding,” Wilson said, “this is one of the most racist places in Georgia.”

A few days later, back in the square, Black demonstrators assembled, and the Klan mobilized — all of it monitored by riot-ready state troopers dispatched by the governor, the Democrat George Busbee. The Black group, led by the SCLC president, sang civil rights hymns. “White power!” the white group yelled back. J.B. Stoner, the notorious white supremacist and segregationist, reveled in his racist taunts. “We’re going to get all the civil rights laws repealed and get those jungle animals shipped back to Africa,” he said. “You can’t have law and order and n—–s too.” Stoner, who was months from being found guilty of bombing a Black church in Alabama, said he had come from his home in north Georgia to see “what the Black mob is going to try and take away from the whites.”


The menace and violence continued. In mid-April, two Klansmen sprayed shotgun shells at a Black family’s mobile home, wounding a 9-year-old girl. One especially contentious night in May, Attaway and his deputies raided churches and homes and arrested largely without warrants or charges more than three dozen people — among them Wilson, Martin and another SCLC staffer. “Somebody’s going to get killed,” a young Black person told a reporter from the Associated Press. “I’ll tell you how it’s going to end,” predicted a middle-aged man who was white. “One day, 15 of these Blacks are going to get killed, and it will be over.”

Throughout these tense, terrifying weeks and months, according to subsequent reporting in national newspapers and magazines, Black schoolmates, demonstrators, organizers and more leaned on Walker. “Demanded he join,” said the New York Times. “Pleaded,” as the Atlanta Constitution put it. “Coretta King and Jesse Jackson were calling Herschel,” Gary Smith wrote in the fall of 1981 in Inside Sports, “trying to get him to take a stand.” (A spokesperson for Jackson confirmed this to me.)

Others his age had. That spring, Jordan told me, half a dozen Black athletes on the track team quit as a form of protest. Not Herschel Walker. He didn’t do or say anything else, either — just like, it should be said, the vast majority of the 3,000 or so Black residents of Johnson County. None of all those others, though, of course, was a Georgia-bound football star. Walker reeled. He told Phillips and Jordan, his football and track coaches, he wanted to all but disappear by joining the Marines, according to the reporting of Prugh, who wrote the biography of Walker from 1983. “Tom and I told him, ‘Hey, there’s no way you’ll do that!’” Phillips said. “We said, ‘We’ll help you get through this. We’ll do something to get these people to leave you alone. Remember, we can do certain things with whites, anyway.’”

“One day he told me, ‘My friends won’t even talk to me because I won’t get involved in the protests,” Jordan told Gary Smith in 1981. “He said there were blacks threatening to kill him because he wouldn’t march and whites threatening to kill him because he was black.” When we talked last month, Jordan recalled how much that had hurt Walker. “Hurt him bad,” he said.

Hurt as he was, Walker’s stance came as a comfort to many in the white community who lauded his choice.

“Why can’t they all be like Herschel Walker?” That’s what some white people here said about Black people here, Prugh wrote. “We followed him. We looked up to him,” Buck Evinger, a white football teammate, told the biographer. “The fact that he stayed neutral helped the situation a lot.”

Not to his Black peers it didn’t. “Kids were calling him honky-lover, saying he hung around with more white people than Black,” Milt Moorman, a Black football teammate, told Smith. “If you hang around a lot of white people,” Moorman told me last month, “they start saying things.”

“He was a smart kid,” Jimmy Moore, who was a white assistant football coach, told me, “and he saw through some of the stuff that was going on. That was — I mean, I don’t know how to phrase this — manufactured maybe a little, exaggerated just a little bit. There was some strife — I mean, there’s strife everywhere — but there’s no need to go about that in that particular way.”

“He had a future, a bright future,” Curtis Dixon, who was a black assistant football coach, told me, “and he didn’t want to mess it up.”

“The family was focused on other things,” Phillips said of the Walkers. “They were not going to get embroiled in that.”

“He had a lot of pressure as a Black man from a lot of fairly powerful people in the community there, wanting him to kind of take a position,” Evinger told me. “But his position was kind of common sense: ‘I don’t really know what I think about the situation, and I’m not a spokesperson for anybody, so I’m not sure what you want me to do other than lend my name to your cause …’”

“He was all about the hate,” Caneega, who taught Walker geometry, said of E.J. Wilson, the Black pastor who was one of the leaders of the protests. “And I can’t see that he would have ever been interested in Herschel other than using him.”

She added: “I don’t think he backed away. I think he just navigated it in a very wise and thoughtful way.”

And on May 30, the most famous person ever to attend Johnson County High School graduated, one of only 12 seniors to have maintained an “A” average all four years, according to the coverage of the ceremony in the Courier Herald. Walker was one of two Black students on the 10-person Honor Guard — sort of school spirit reps. He was the only Black student among the five officers of the Beta Club. Part of the Walker lore that has hardened over the years is that he was the valedictorian, but Dixon, one of the assistant football coaches, who also taught Walker social studies, expressed to me some amusement at that, pointing out that the school didn’t name valedictorians until 1994. But Walker was, Dixon and others agreed, a very capable student — not necessarily brilliant but without a doubt diligent. And the “Citizen-Leadership Award” Walker won, the newspaper said, was given to a student who not only earned good grades but “exhibits character and leadership qualities” and participates in “social and community activities.”

The local push for racial justice, though, raged on without him. Wilson, Martin and others organized voter registration drives. They prepared a class-action lawsuit against Attaway and other local lawmen. They kept marching in and around Wrightsville.

During a march through Dublin the first week of June, Hosea Williams, the veteran civil rights activist and state senator from Atlanta, mentioned Walker. Many of the white people who knew Walker the best had seen his decision as one of pragmatic and prudent neutrality, but that’s not what some Black people saw.

White people in Wrightsville, Williams said, had made Walker an “Uncle Tom.”

“What Herschel Walker doesn’t understand is that when he stops carrying that football,” Williams said, “he has to return to the Black community.”

He was so good so fast in college it almost beggared belief.

Walker scored two touchdowns in his first game and three more in his second. “My God,” said Larry Munson, Georgia’s revered radio play-by-play man. “A freshman!” Over the course of the 1980 season, Walker, who had turned 18 that March, rushed for 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns, a debut that was so stunning Walker got a few of votes that fall in Georgia’s election — for president of the United States — and that was before he led the undefeated team to a win against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl and the national championship. “He was a legend before he ever arrived in college,” former National Football League player and sports agent Ralph Cindrich once wrote, “but he somehow became even bigger there, the Paul Bunyan of the peach trees …”

And yet Walker remained Walker.

A criminology major, he didn’t drink alcohol and ate one meal a day, slept only four or five hours a night, and in addition to being on the football and track teams took classes for tae kwon do. “People think I’m a strange guy,” he told Smith from Inside Sports. “I have friends but no best friend. You can never totally open yourself.”


He started dating Cindy DeAngelis, a white woman on the Georgia track team. Her parents didn’t like it. His parents didn’t care. Other people talked. “There has been a lot of discussion by black women,” a Black track teammate told the New York Times, “that Herschel is white-oriented.”

And as much as that attracted attention, and as much as Walker continued to try to shun the limelight, even as that became harder and harder, he still managed to typically sidestep controversy. Even when he veered toward borderline subversiveness — his openness, for instance, to the notion of leaving college early to play pro sports — he broached it in broadly palatable terms.

When a team from the Canadian Football League floated an offer after only his freshman year, Walker cast his choice to decline in practically patriotic terms. “I was born in America, and it does not seem right to leave the country to play professional football,” Walker said. “Americans should feel proud,” said Dooley, the Georgia coach. Walker later considered suing the National Football League to let him play before his graduation, contrary to convention. He invoked themes of the free market, the constitution and self-determination — but not to the point of issuing ultimatums. “I don’t think it’s right for anyone to deny me that chance,” he said in 1981. “I still feel the rule is basically unconstitutional. However, I don’t want to interfere with the system that’s designed to be the best for the majority of people involved,” he said in 1982.

“Herschel shouldn’t be underestimated,” a Black assistant vice president for academic affairs at Georgia told Sports Illustrated in 1981. “There is a kind of genius there that has enabled him to synthesize things at a much quicker rate than most adults. He’s not the kind to put an umbilical cord anywhere — even where race is concerned. He gets close to some people … at a distance. In the same way, he will never be directly offensive or affrontive.”

“He just had an ability to say the right thing,” Dooley told me recently, “so he never got into any controversy.”


“He presented himself as an extremely moderate, buttoned-down figure who was respectful of both Black and white,” Jim Cobb, a former Georgia history professor and former president of the Southern Historical Association, told me. “He was really the first Black athlete in the Deep South,” Cobb said, “to sort of achieve superstar, iconic status — and of course that process was not hindered by his demeanor.”

“His humbleness and how he carried himself and what he did for the University of Georgia — I think it changed a lot of people’s minds,” Frank Ros, a white Georgia teammate and one of his best friends, told me.

He was, in other words, a Black athlete white fans cheered and liked — in that era, more O.J. Simpson, say, than Muhammad Ali. While Walker “kept close track” of Ali, Wrightsville mentors said in 1981, he was impressed by Simpson’s “stature” and “class.”

“Herschel Walker,” Harry Edwards, the Black sociologist and longtime advocate for activism among Black athletes, once told the Atlanta Constitution, “was in good shape in Georgia as long as he was ‘the right kind of n—–.’ It’s as simple as that. That’s something Black people recognize universally in this society. As long as he restricted himself to activities and comments about what was happening on the football field, he was OK. They were demonstrating against racial injustice in his hometown, and he couldn’t come out and make a statement about it because he was eminently concerned about being above reproach as far as his credentials relative to being ‘the right kind of n—–.’”

“Down in Georgia at that time they didn’t call you Black. They called you a n—–,” Edwards told me recently. “He was simply saying, ‘I’m not going to get involved with activism, because it’s not about Black folks, it’s not about the state of Georgia — it’s about me. And as long as they think that I’m a good n—–, I got a chance.’”

More than a chance. After finishing third in the running for the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, then second as a sophomore, he won the award as a junior — officially the nation’s best player. Wrightsville held “Herschel Walker Appreciation Day.” Walker rode through town in the back of a convertible, seated next to DeAngelis, his white girlfriend whom he would marry the following year. There in the central square, Walker was feted — by the governor, by the mayor, and by Sheriff Roland Attaway.

Two months later, in early 1983, at the federal courthouse in Dublin, an all-white jury found Attaway not guilty — saying he had not violated the civil rights of the protesters in 1980. Walker had come up in the trial. During testimony, Attaway’s attorney had invoked his name — to imply a state of racial harmony. “Was not Sheriff Attaway named Man of the Year,” he said, “at the same time Herschel Walker was named Youth of the Year in Wrightsville, Georgia?”

“Herschel,” Willis Wombles, the mayor of Wrightsville, said that March in the Chicago Tribune, “took the heat off when everybody was talking about racial trouble here.”

“Herschel,” said Attaway, “did not get involved in that trouble. He’s a fine young man. And he’s welcome here any time.”

“It’s so strange,” said Herschel Walker.

It was the middle of 1986. Walker was with a reporter from Atlanta sitting poolside at his high-rise condominium in New Jersey. He was in New Jersey because he had played his first three seasons of professional football for the New Jersey Generals, owned for the last two of those years by Donald Trump — whom Walker had added to his line of white advisers, coming to consider Trump, he would say in his memoir, “a family-oriented man” and “a mentor to me,” “and I modeled myself and my business practices after him.” He even saw, he said, a potential president. Here, though, at his condo, he was with the reporter because the reporter was working on a series of stories for the Atlanta Constitution. “Run For Respect,” it was called. “A Study of Black Football Players and the South.”

“Some people have said,” Walker said, “they thought Herschel hasn’t overstepped his boundaries in the Black-white issue — ‘he’s a good n—–.’”

He smiled. He looked at his wife.

“They always say the worst thing a Black person can do is marry a white,” Walker said to the reporter. “Did I pay attention to that?”


It had been at that point more than five years since the racial tumult in Wrightsville. Walker had not talked about it much. He said a little to Smith, and it ended up in the 1981 story in Inside Sports: “I guess it’s easier to give me a hard time than anybody else.” And he said a little more the same year to a reporter from the New York Times: “I didn’t want to get involved in something I didn’t know much about.”

But now here in New Jersey he said more.

“I am not,” he told the reporter from Atlanta, “a speaker. I am a doer. When I was in high school, people wanted me to take a stand on the racial problems. But as young as I was, how could I take a stand when I didn’t understand what they were demonstrating for? I felt I could hurt the cause a lot worse by not understanding, if I’d made a statement that was wrong.”

This, though, proved to be not so much simply a question of youth. Even as he got older, as he moved after the Trumpcaused demise of the USFL to the National Football League, to the Dallas Cowboys and then to the Minnesota Vikings and then to the Philadelphia Eagles and then to the New York Giants and then back to Dallas, even as he dabbled in ballet and bobsled and mixed martial arts and founded a chicken and food business, Walker throughout and again and again made the same essential decision he had made back in the tempestuous spring of his senior year of high school. When it came to controversial social and political topics? He steered clear.

Then came Trump.

Walker backed Trump the summer he started running for president — “he is a good man,” he said — and he did his part in the 2020 reelection effort by insisting at the Republican National Convention Trump was no racist. “Growing up in Deep South, I’ve seen racism up close. I know what it is. And it isn’t Donald Trump,” Walker said. “Uncle Tom” trended on Twitter.

And in the last year and a half, as he’s waded more and more into the political fray, in particular on the topic of race, Walker often has sounded the way he sounded more than 40 years back. “We use Black power to create white guilt,” Walker said in his congressional testimony on the issue of reparations. “My approach is Biblical. How can I ask my heavenly father to forgive me if I can’t forgive my brother?” He said he had talked to his mother. “Her words,” Walker said. “‘I do not believe in reparations. Who is the money going to go to? Has anyone thought about paying the families who lost someone in the Civil War who fought for their freedom?’”


So far, it’s how he’s sounded as a Senate candidate, too. He said what he said in Perry — “don’t let the left try to fool you with this racism thing” — and he struck the same note last month at a well-attended event in Marietta. “I’m getting tired of it, because that’s how they try to separate people,” he said. “We got to get out of this racism.”

On paper as a candidate Walker is vulnerable. He’s been divorced for almost 20 years from DeAngelis, who got a protective order against him, accusing him of violent, controlling behavior. When Walker published his memoir, Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, she told ABC News that he had pointed a pistol at her head and said, “I’m going to blow your f-ing brains out.” (He’s remarried.)

In Breaking Free, Walker says he used to sit at his kitchen table in Dallas and play “Russian roulette,” putting a bullet in a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, “an old police-issue double-fire center-action nickel-and-steel beauty,” spinning the chamber, putting the barrel to his temple, putting it into his mouth — pulling the trigger. “I certainly came close to believing that I was nearly invincible. My alters and I had survived so much and attained such a high level of achievement the only thing left for me to do was to take on death.” Walker’s alters: He details some dozen different personalities he says he used to get through different situations — the Hero, the Consoler, the Judge, the Enforcer, the Sentry, the Watch Dog, the Daredevil, the Warrior and so on, “the essential Herschel and other satellite Herschels.”

Republican strategists and even Democrats I’ve talked to say it’s hard to use the disorder against him, given the heightened awareness of and empathy for mental health struggles — and Walker continues to be a public advocate for the importance of being open and getting help. And that’s true. Still, reading Walker’s book at times can feel like he himself provided in 2009 the first couple hundred pages of the opposition research on him in 2021 and 2022. He all but starts his story, after all, talking about the time in 2001 he considered killing a man, “how satisfying it would feel,” because this man was late with a delivery of a car that Walker had bought — Walker expressing on the page “the visceral enjoyment I’d get from seeing the small entry wound and the spray of brain tissue and blood.”

Perhaps no less important than these admissions, his past transgressions or mental health, though, is just hard electoral and demographic math. “When he stops carrying that football, he has to return to the Black community.” That’s what Hosea Williams, the civil rights activist and state rep, said back in 1980, and now, headed into 2022, Black people make up nearly a third of the registered voters in Georgia — a state in which the share of the white vote is shrinking, a state that currently has a Black man as one of its two U.S. senators, a state that came within a whisp of electing a Black woman to be governor in 2018 and will have another chance next year now that Stacey Abrams is running again.

Walker’s candidacy is prepared to highlight a fundamental and age-old conundrum in this country. What’s the most effective way to address the scourge of racial bias? Confront it out loud? Or stay mostly mum? Say it’s over and it’s time to move on in a stated stance of neutrality some find noxious or at least naïve? To whom will Walker’s positioning appeal? To which slices of which voters that could decide the winner in diversifying and tick-tight Georgia?

“It doesn’t look like the old South anymore. It’s changing. And so if you continue to run that old playbook, your math doesn’t add up. The imperative used to be to just not talk about it because the votes aren’t there — gotta be a little race-neutral,” said Kevin Harris, the Democratic operative and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus who has been a frequent adviser on civil rights and criminal justice. “Now it’s sort of flipped on its head, where if you aren’t race-explicit, you might have a hard time winning.”

“Herschel’s never been an outspoken person on racial matters,” a Republican former state rep told me. “And when you’ve got a guy like Raphael Warnock, who’s been on the front lines of all that for his whole public life, as pastor and now as a senator, I think that helps keep most African Americans on Warnock’s side.”

“You also have to remember how many new Black residents we have in the state of Georgia,” a former GOP member of the state’s congressional delegation told me. “And they may not even know that background,” this person said, meaning Wrightsville, 1980 and beyond. Until now.


But Mike Hassinger pointed to “probably a large, wide strain” of white Trump voters, from rich to poor. “If they have one thing in common,” said the Republican consultant and analyst, “they are f—ing sick to death of being called racists. That aggravates the snot out of them because they’re not. And they’ve never defined themselves that way. ‘I thought we were all supposed to look past each other’s skin. Black people are being racist. Why aren’t they just people?’ And they really believe that.” Those voters? “They’ll put a Herschel bumper sticker on their truck,” Hassinger said. “No question.”

Regardless, said Rich McDaniel, the Democratic strategist who led Barack Obama’s reelection efforts as that campaign’s field director here in Georgia, Walker’s stance on race, past and present, will matter. “It will matter,” McDaniel told me, “particularly if it becomes a debate about Black men and police brutality or the criminal justice system, or even voting rights. Where were you 40 years ago, or 30 years ago, on this issue, and why are you stepping up now? Why did you remain silent? Are you going to remain silent while you’re in office?”

It’s about right and wrong?

It’s not about Black and white?

“He’s going to have to explain that to voters of color if he wants to convince them that he’s going to be their advocate,” Harris told me. “That’s like ‘All Lives Matter, and that’s not gonna get it anymore,” he said. “It just makes us ask more questions. OK, well, who are your folks?”

Senate Republicans wonder whether Dr. Oz is their Pennsylvania remedy


Senate Republicans are open to Dr. Oz as the miracle cure for their headaches in Pennsylvania.

With the Keystone State’s GOP Senate primary uncertain, Senate Republicans suggested this week that they might embrace the celebrity doctor’s nascent campaign to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey. GOP senators conceded in interviews that they didn’t know much about Oz. But if he’s the best prescription for reclaiming the Senate majority, they’ll take it.

“It’s a good sign for the Republican Party that somebody of his standing and stature would want to run under the Republican banner,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of former President Donald Trump. “He’s got an incredible background and personal story. It’s good news for the Republican Party, and I think he’d be very competitive.”

The surgeon-turned-talk-show-host Mehmet Oz made his Senate bid official this week, rolling out a campaign video in which he declared that the coronavirus pandemic “showed us our system is broken” and vowed to “put America first.” His Republican candidacy comes after Trump-endorsed candidate Sean Parnell ended his Senate bid after losing custody of his children.

Pennsylvania is widely viewed as a bellwether in next year’s fight for the Senate majority, and though Toomey is a Republican, the GOP knows there’s no guarantee the seat will stay red. The state is a perennial battleground: In 2020, President Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by about one point. And while it’s not clear yet how competitive Oz will be in the GOP primary, Republican senators certainly aren’t counting him out.


Oz, his potential future colleagues noted, brings two important assets to the race: name recognition and cash.

“It’s great to have someone who certainly is a game-changer the very first moment,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “Who doesn’t love a guy that’s got 100 percent name ID and a whole bunch of money?”

Cramer and other Republicans added that it was too early to assess what Oz’s weaknesses would be. But his campaign will be steered by veteran GOP operatives — managed by Casey Contres, who helmed former Sen. Cory Gardner’s campaign last year. Former National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Chris Hansen and Erin Perrine, a campaign spokesperson for Trump, are also assisting with Oz’s run.

Going from celebrity to political candidate isn’t unheard of, especially after Trump swapped reality TV for the White House in 2016. But as a first-time candidate, Oz hasn’t undergone the grueling vetting process that comes with running for public office. His TV show amounts to hours of potential opposition research for his rivals.

And the heart surgeon has faced plenty of past scrutiny for his medical advice, particularly his promotion of weight-loss supplements despite questionable evidence of their efficacy. During a 2014 Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) accused Oz of giving viewers misleading information about weight loss by advocating for “miracle” products. Oz has also encouraged the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus. The Food and Drug Administration said last year that hydroxychloroquine wasn’t likely to be effective for Covid treatment and could carry potential risk.

In addition to his controversial medical advice, questions about Oz’s residency could become a focal point for his opponents. He previously lived in New Jersey, having resided in Pennsylvania since 2020; however, he grew up in the greater Philadelphia region, currently votes there and has his medical license in the state. He also attended the University of Pennsylvania for medical and business school, and there married his wife, who also has Pennsylvania roots.

“Can he win?” asked Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a top deputy to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It’s always an adventure for somebody who’s never run for public office before. I don’t think most people realize what sort of scrutiny you go through when you run for office. And frankly, it’s not always fun.”

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) described Oz as “obviously intelligent” and said he “seems to have a clean grasp of the issues,” noting that although Oz has never ran for office before, “many first-time candidates succeed.”

Contres said in a statement to POLITICO that “the overwhelmingly positive feedback [Oz has] heard from Republican Senators is encouraging and appreciated.”

Before Oz entered, the GOP primary in Pennsylvania hadn’t been shaping up well for Republicans. While Parnell snagged a Trump endorsement, he also came under fire after his estranged wife accused him of physical abuse. Parnell denied those accusations.

His departure from the race created an unanticipated opening, with no clear frontrunner and a potential Trump endorsement up for grabs. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who endorsed Parnell, said that Oz is “a big name. I think it’s a big splash. I don’t know what effect it will have on the race yet.” Hawley didn’t rule out wading into the race later but said he had no immediate plans.

The primary already has several candidates, like Jeff Bartos, who previously ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, and Carla Sands, a businesswoman and former ambassador to Denmark under Trump. And more are preparing to enter, including David McCormick, who runs Bridgewater Associates.

The Senate GOP’s campaign arm isn’t intervening in open primaries. When asked about Oz’s candidacy, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.) responded: “We’ve got a lot of great candidates around the country.”

Toomey, meanwhile, declined to weigh in on Oz or any other candidates in the primary to replace him. But the retiring senator said he is “feeling good about the field” and predicted Republicans would hold onto his seat.

Democrats, meanwhile, have their own competitive primary in the state, with Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, Rep. Conor Lamb, and state representative Malcolm Kenyatta all looking to succeed Toomey.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) didn’t comment on Oz’s decision to enter the race. But he predicted that a divisive GOP primary would help Democrats.

“I try not to weigh in on the rancor and discord and intramural fight on the other side,” Casey said. “It’s going to be, like all our Senate races, competitive. Whenever the other side has conflict, that’s good for us.”

Biden takes the fight to Omicron. But the toolkit is growing bare.


President Joe Biden has staked his presidency on defeating the pandemic. But nearly a year into his term, the administration is crashing into the limits of its power to end the nation’s fight against Covid-19. And in the few places where it could go further, it seems unwilling to do so, as of now.

Beset by rising cases, falling approval ratings and the emergence of a worrying new variant, Biden on Thursday pleaded with Americans to get vaccinated and promised more measures to slow the virus’ spread — unveiling what the White House is touting as a wide-ranging plan to avert a winter resurgence of the virus.

The reality, however, is that most of the steps the administration plans to take are continuations or modest expansions of existing initiatives, and some experts doubt they will do much to change the pandemic’s current trajectory.

“He’s facing a hostile public, a hostile political opposition and a hostile judiciary,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University global health law professor in touch with the White House. “And so the only things left to do are things that are largely ineffective.”

Biden announced on Thursday that his government will launch campaigns to expand access to vaccines and booster shots, institute stricter travel requirements and open a path toward free at-home Covid-19 testing.

The so-called winter Covid strategy was already in the works before the Omicron variant was discovered late last month, born of a rise in Delta cases across the nation as more people congregated indoors and gathered for the holidays. But a new sense of urgency has gripped the West Wing to display leadership against the virus.

“He has to go out because people expect to hear from the president at times like this,” said David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “He is working with what he has. He has been trying to use this as a moment to regenerate a sense of urgency on vaccinations. We’ll see how that goes.”

Biden, for his part, implored the country to come together to fight the latest iteration of the virus, which continues to kill hundreds of Americans each day. “This is a moment we can put the divisiveness behind us, I hope,” the president said Thursday during a speech at the National Institutes of Health. “It should unite us, not continue to separate us.”


But even as the president promised that his new approach “pulls no punches in the fight against Covid-19,” his administration is stopping short of the more aggressive measures that health experts believe would more quickly rein in the pandemic — like vaccine mandates for domestic travel, more rigorous public health restrictions and enforced quarantines — wary of further inflaming GOP opposition and demoralizing an exhausted public.

Political divisions have already stymied many of the administration’s efforts to end the pandemic. The White House is in the midst of a legal fight for the survival of sweeping vaccine mandates for employers and health care workers, which Biden officials have cast as crucial tools for inoculating the vast majority of the nation.

“We’re not going to get the unvaccinated vaccinated unless we have mandates — it’s that simple,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist and former Covid adviser to the Biden transition. “We’ve plateaued at 60 percent [vaccination], and that’s just not going to get us there.”

The Biden administration also continues to battle GOP governors over mask mandates and vaccination requirements that could help tamp down cases in the hardest-hit states. In states like Florida and Texas, Republican leaders have championed their resistance to those preventative steps, even as national Covid-19 hospitalizations tick up and deaths hover around 1,000 per day.

And throughout it all, officials are struggling to counter widespread misinformation around its vaccination drive, fanned by conservative pundits and Republicans lawmakers alike — a campaign that has hardened opposition to the shots among the roughly 45 million adult holdouts who have yet to get vaccinated.

Administration officials and others close to the Covid response concede there’s little in Biden’s new plan that’s likely to drive up the vaccination rate among those yet to get their first shots.

While they do believe that fear of Omicron will convince people to get immunized, the White House in recent days has shifted much of its attention in recent days to shoring up the ranks of the already vaccinated. Though Biden health officials don’t yet know how well the current vaccines protect against Omicron, they’ve concluded that boosters provide the fullest protection — a belief that’s become the driving force behind new campaigns to get all vaccinated adults their booster shots.

The new plan unveiled Thursday would ramp up outreach to families and older Americans, in a bid to accelerate vaccinations for children and boosters for adults and the most vulnerable.

The administration will also more closely track travelers into the U.S. and encourage more frequent testing, potentially giving officials a better picture of the virus’ spread and helping to head off outbreaks.

In perhaps the most significant new initiative, private insurers will soon be required to reimburse the cost of at-home tests — though those procedures will take weeks to set up and could prove complicated in practice.

But much of Biden’s new nine-point Covid-19 plan for winter builds on existing initiatives that the White House laid out in earlier plans issued for the fall, and for the summer before that. None have yet managed to chart a path for Biden around the political resistance that’s prolonged the pandemic and blunted the effectiveness of its Covid-19 response.

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