Dec 13, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Herschel Walker confronts his mental health, domestic violence allegations

Herschel Walker addresses a crowd

Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker told Axios on Monday that he’s “accountable” for past violent behavior toward his ex-wife and people shouldn’t feel “ashamed” about confronting mental health issues.

Why it matters: The former college and pro football star is confronting his history of mental illness head-on during his campaign for the Republican Party's nomination, after the airing of some concerns among GOP leadership and voters.

  • Walker said he's "better now than 99% of the people in America. ... Just like I broke my leg; I put the cast on. It healed."

Details: In his first major interview on the subject as a candidate, Walker spoke in generalities, not specifics, about past allegations of violence. He declared he's never broken the law.

  • At one point, he answered a question about his relationship with his ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, by saying, "I'm always accountable to whatever I've ever done. And that's what I tell people: I'm accountable to it."
  • He went on to say "people can't just make up and add on and say other things that's not the truth. They want me to address things that they made up."
  • A spokesperson from his team clarified that in that case, Walker was denying allegations of threatening behavior by two other women in 2002 and 2012, not talking about Grossman.
  • Grossman has spoken publicly alongside Walker about her experience, including descriptions of threats and possible choking to ABC News and CNN in 2008. Walker told Axios he considers himself "best friends" with Grossman today.

The big picture: The longtime ally of former President Donald Trump wrote a book in 2008 about his life with dissociative identity disorder, in which he laid bare past violent thoughts about harming himself and others, as well as infidelity.

  • He's since been an advocate for mental health awareness in the military.
  • Walker said, if elected, he'll push to expand mental health resources across health care, law enforcement and the military.
  • “Most of the things I've done after my struggles have shown people that you can get knocked down and you can get up," he said. "And that's what I want people to realize."
  • "Don't be ashamed to address your issues," he said. "For a man, it's very tough. For an African American man, it's even harder. But you know, I want people to see that. And that's one of the major reasons I decided to run.”

Catch up quick: Some Republican leaders have been concerned about the political liability Walker's past could create as his campaign launched. This past year, reports surfaced of Grossman obtaining a protective order against Walker in 2005 after threats of violence.

  • Georgia Democrats, including incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, have refrained from directly going after Walker's mental health or past allegations of violence.
  • By contrast, one of Walker's GOP primary opponents, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, told reporters in October that Walker should be disqualified from the race because of domestic abuse allegations.
  • Black said Walker should “help other people that have the same problems,” rather than run for the Senate.

What they're saying: Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist in Georgia, said in the post-Trump era, "No subject, I believe, is off-limits. But, candidates do run a risk of it backfiring if they decide to attack Herschel Walker on this issue."

  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a fellow Republican whose mother was bipolar, said Walker's decision to address his past will "defeat any effort to smear him. ... This is not going to be a situation where it can be whispered about, and there's this secret that will blow up in late October."

Patrick Kennedy, the former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island who struggled with — and is an advocate for people with — addiction, bipolar disorder and mental illness, said it is "unusual" and "courageous" for candidates to talk openly about such struggles.

  • However, he said: “There's no blanket immunity from being responsible if you have one of these illnesses,” especially as it relates to violence.
  • “If Herschel Walker wants to bring that story to the public, I'm all for it. I do not think he should be condemned for it, because in a very real way that life he's living today is very redeeming for those who may share a lot of the same story of abuse, both of themselves and their abusing others,” Kennedy said.
Go deeper