Herschel Walker tries to turn ‘prop’ badge controversy into campaign gold

Patrick Swanson / October 15,2022


Herschel Walker was widely mocked and criticized for flashing an honorary deputy sheriff’s badge onstage at a Georgia Senate debate Friday after his Democratic opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock, called him out for pretending to be a police officer.

Get ready for more.

Walker, a Republican, is now showing the badge, one of at least two he has from Georgia sheriffs, in TV interviews. He plans to tout it in a video cut for social media with Johnson County Sheriff Greg Rowland, who gave him the badge. And Walker’s campaign told NBC News that it has ordered 1,000 imitation plastic law enforcement badges that say “I’m with Herschel” as a fundraising tool.

It hopes to hand some of them out at a crime-themed event with law enforcement officers Thursday in Macon if the props arrive in time.

“Herschel Walker has been a friend to law enforcement and has a record of honoring police,” said Gail Gitcho, the Walker campaign strategist who ordered the badges Saturday.

“If Sen. Warnock wants to highlight this, then bring it on,” Gitcho added. “It just gives us a chance to talk about Herschel’s support of law enforcement and law enforcement’s support for him. It’s a great issue for us.”

But to Warnock and his campaign, Walker is only reinforcing the criticism that he hasn’t been honest about his experience and that he isn’t a “serious” candidate.

“My opponent, Herschel Walker, is not ready,” Warnock told reporters Monday. “I pointed out the fact that he claimed to be in law enforcement — to be a police officer — and that he threatened a shootout with the police. And his response was to produce a fake badge? The people of Georgia deserve a serious person to represent them in serious times.”

Law enforcement surrogates for Walker said they had no problem with his display of the badge because he was expressing his support for their profession, rather than pretending to be part of the police. A sheriff who backs Warnock, however, said in an interview that Walker’s use of the badge as a prop was a “disgrace.”

The candidates’ responses to the furor exemplify the differences in the campaigns’ messaging and tactics as early voting began Monday in Georgia. Warnock is increasingly criticizing Walker’s honesty and his fitness for office. Walker is elevating crime as a closing issue, which Republicans are doing throughout the country.

But Warnock has sought to turn the tables on Walker by questioning his law-and-order bona fides in referring to Walker’s talk “about having a shootout with police” in 2001, according to a heavily redacted police report from a Dallas-area police agency that The Associated Press obtained in February. At the time, according to the report, Walker was alleged to be threatening his wife, Cindy Grossman, who went on to divorce him three months later.

Grossman helped Walker promote his 2008 book about his struggles with dissociative identity disorder, and in a CNN interview at the time, she said he threatened to kill her with guns and knives. Walker didn’t deny her allegations then but said he had no memory of committing the alleged attacks. Walker has expressed regret for his past actions and says he has overcome his mental illness.

Before he ran for the Senate, as Warnock referred to in the debate, Walker had made embellished claims about having worked in law enforcement, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in June. Walker has said he has worked “in” and “for” law enforcement over the years, and he once suggested he was an FBI agent.

Walker’s campaign said that the FBI line was a joke he made in a speech and that he worked for years in a volunteer capacity for the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, where the old sheriff had issued him an honorary sheriff’s identification.

Walker’s campaign also pointed out that he has been endorsed by sheriffs throughout the state — two of whom have given him honorary badges — as well as the Fraternal Order of Police.

As one of the few swing-state Democratic incumbents up for re-election in the evenly divided Senate, Warnock has been a top target of Republicans who have run misleading ads that seek to tie him to the “defund the police” movement, according to multiple fact checks dating to the 2020 campaign, which point out that Warnock doesn’t support efforts to cut funds for law enforcement. The fact-checking website PolitiFact also rapped Walker for a misleading ad that said Warnock had cut police funding.

In planning to sell badges, Walker’s campaign isn’t the first to try to spin a perceived weakness into political gold. It was a hallmark of President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, which aggressively marketed props, such as the markers it sold after “Sharpiegate” in 2019, when he used a map altered with a Sharpie to comport with his incorrect forecast of a hurricane’s dangers. Trump is known for using Sharpies.

At Friday’s debate, Walker didn’t accuse Warnock of trying to defund the police, but he obliquely mentioned Warnock’s 2015 criticism of some police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, as having a “kind of gangster and thug mentality.” (Michael Brown had been shot and killed there by police the year before.)

“He’s empowered criminals to think they’re better than police and because he believes in no cash bail and releasing prisoners,” Walker said during the debate. “I have more sheriffs that have endorsed me than anyone running in Georgia right now. And I even have some sheriffs here. They’ve endorsed me because they know I have their back, and they’re gonna have my back. So to listen to him say that [he supports law enforcement] after calling them names, I think it’s a disgrace.”

Warnock then struck back.

“We will see time and time again tonight, as we’ve already seen, that my opponent has a problem with the truth. And just because he said something doesn’t mean it’s true. I have supported our police officers,” Warnock said. “You can support police officers as I’ve done through the COPS program, through the Invest to Protect Program, while at the same time holding police officers, like all professions, accountable. One thing I have not done — I’ve never pretended to be a police officer, and … I’ve never threatened a shootout with the police.”

The crowd applauded as Walker demanded a chance to respond.

“You know what’s so funny?” Walker said, showing the honorary Johnson County sheriff’s deputy badge onstage, “I am work with many police officers.”

Before Walker could finish his sentence, however, debate moderator Tina Tyus-Shaw interrupted him to let him know he was violating the rules by bringing a “prop” onstage.

“It’s not a prop,” Walker said. “It’s real.”

Tyus-Shaw, however, wasn’t questioning the authenticity of the badge, only its use onstage.

Walker grew up in Wrightsville with Rowland, the sheriff who gave him the badge, who appears alongside him in the video for social media.

“It’s a real badge, exactly like the one I wear every day. Now, he doesn’t have arrest powers or anything like that,” Rowland said in an interview.

Rowland added that the badge is “honorary” — with “Herschel Walker” written on it and bearing his University of Georgia football jersey number, 34.  He said the badge carries responsibilities to help out his office, which has only 15 employees.

“We’re a small department. A lot of time, we don’t have but one officer on the road,” he said. “If catastrophe happens, a tornado or a hurricane, I have different people in different parts of this county I have given the badge to that would be like first responders helping us, assisting law enforcement.”

The executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, J. Terry Norris, said sheriffs across the state have used honorary badges for years as a “gift recognizing someone’s support for law enforcement.”

Nelson said the association advises county sheriffs — there are 159 in Georgia — to make sure recipients know they’re not sworn law enforcement officers and that they can’t make traffic stops or arrests as if they’re the police.

Nelson said he wasn’t troubled when Walker flashed the badge at the debate, but he acknowledged he couldn’t quite understand what Walker was trying to accomplish.

“I didn’t really know what he was saying, because the moderator rightly said there are no props,” Nelson said. “There was over-talking. If he said, ‘I’m a law enforcement officer and I have these powers,’ then I have a problem with that. If it was in the context of saying, ‘I support law enforcement and they support me,’ then I have no problem.”

In Savannah, where the debate was held Friday, Chatham County Sheriff John T. Wilcher said he also has given Walker an honorary badge because of his support for law enforcement. Asked whether he had a problem with Walker’s flashing the honorary badge onstage, Wilcher said: “No. I thought he kicked Warnock’s ass.”

Walker also was made an “honorary agent” of the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office in 2017 by then-Sheriff Neil Warren, according to a copy of the identification card Walker has shown. But there’s a new sheriff in town, Democrat Craig Owens, who beat Warren, a Republican, in 2020.

“The previous administration did not provide Sheriff Owens a list of the previous honorary deputies, nor a list of their responsibilities,” a spokesman said by email. “Therefore, Sheriff Owens had to rebuild the program from scratch and cannot confirm who might have previously held the honorary deputy title.”

Asked by email whether Owens had a problem with the way Walker displayed the badge, Owens’ office didn’t reply.

DeKalb County Sheriff Melody Maddox, a Warnock supporter, criticized Walker for his onstage stunt.

“It was a disgrace, and it was disrespectful to those of us who actually wear the badge and wear it proudly and serve our communities,” she told NBC News. “The problem with it is that it’s not a real badge. It does not have any power to it at all. There’s no arrest power. And my question is: If he’s flashing the badge now, then what else is he using the badge for? Where else is he flashing it?”

Another Warnock-backing sheriff, William Bowman of Liberty County, echoed Maddox, saying Walker was misusing the badge because it could mislead people.

“Just keep it in your pocket. It’s more like a memento,” he said. “It’s not something you should go around flashing. People will think you’re one thing when you’re not.”

The National Sheriffs Association hasn’t weighed in on the viral debate moment or Walker’s use of the badge. The association’s spokesman, Pat Royal, said the wearers of honorary badges shouldn’t confuse the badges with real ones worn by real police officers.

“It’s understood that an honorary badge is for the trophy case,” Royal said. “It’s the oath that makes the badge.”

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