Sen. Raphael Warnock had only been in office a year when he brought FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to Jackson Electric Membership Corp. and invited all of Georgia's electric co-ops to come talk about the challenges of providing broadband service to rural communities.
“He showed early on that he understood the critical role that broadband was going to play in advancing rural Georgia," says Dennis Chastain, president and CEO of Georgia Electric Membership Corp.
Twenty-five of Georgia's 41 electric co-ops are providing or helping provide high-speed internet to rural residents.
Warnock, who also serves as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta—where Martin Luther King Jr. preached—wasn't well-known by rural Georgians before winning a special election in 2020 to fill the seat vacated by the resignation of former Sen. Johnny Isakson. But he has quickly proven himself to be a champion of co-op causes and a likeable leader, Chastain says.
“The first time I met the senator was when he came to Jackson EMC," he says. “He's just a very genuine person. He's the kind of person you'd like to sit down and have dinner with. He's very approachable, warm and charismatic."
Warnock serves on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, where he is helping to craft a new five-year Farm Bill that is expected to provide crucial financing to electric co-ops for broadband and electric infrastructure.
The 54-year-old Democratic senator, who was re-elected to a full term in 2022, has been instrumental in supporting key legislation that benefits electric co-ops and their consumer-members, Georgia co-op leaders say.
Oglethorpe Power, a generation co-op based in Tucker, worked closely with Warnock to ensure that clean energy programs in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act would apply to Oglethorpe and other generation and transmission co-ops. The law provides direct federal payments to co-ops when they deploy new energy technologies. It also created a voluntary $9.7 billion grant and loan program designed specifically for electric co-ops that buy or build new clean energy systems.
Oglethorpe Power leaders say Warnock also helped speed up guidance from the U.S. Treasury about the issuance of tax credits for production of emission-free energy from Plant Vogtle, a nuclear plant partially owned by Oglethorpe.
“Senator Warnock and his team have been responsive and helpful to Oglethorpe Power as we've worked together on a thoughtful approach to reliable, affordable and clean energy," says Oglethorpe President and CEO Mike Smith. “His support for Oglethorpe Power as a co-owner of Plant Vogtle, along with the entire bipartisan Georgia delegation, has been tremendous."
Warnock also helped bring $1.3 billion to Georgia for broadband as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021, Chastain says. And he helped pass the 2021 American Rescue Plan, which brought about $300 million to Georgia co-ops providing broadband service to unserved or underserved communities.
“He has proven to be very much engaged in our business and in rural Georgia," Chastain says. “He's had an open-door policy with us from the get-go."
Warnock says broadband service is crucial for rural families.
“We know access to broadband in the 21st century is essential, like access to electricity was in the 20th century, especially for our rural communities that have been historically underserved," he says. “Georgia families can't thrive in our economy without reliable internet access. That's why I've championed efforts in the Senate to expand rural broadband and why I'll continue to support our EMCs, which have an important role to play in helping us close this digital divide. I look forward to continuing to partner with Georgia's EMCs to support the power and connectivity needs of rural Georgia."
Warnock has also been generous with his time, meeting with Georgia co-op leaders at NRECA's annual Legislative Conference and greeting the state's Youth Tour students at the U.S. Capitol, Chastain says. The senator even got a taste of what it's like to be a lineworker, donning a hardhat and going up in a bucket truck while visiting Jackson EMC.
“He's very popular with the Youth Tour kids," says Jason Bragg, vice president of government relations at Georgia EMC. “I had to break up the selfie line the last time we were in D.C."