Low-key primary turns into high-profile runoff
By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - Voters couldn't get a greater contrast in styles to choose
from than they're being offered in next week's Democratic runoff in
Georgia's 4th Congressional District.
U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Decatur, has made a career in Congress
out of being controversial - as she likes to put it, "speaking truth to
power'' - on issues from the war in Iraq to the Bush's administration's
slow response to last year's Hurricane Katrina.
Former DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson, a lawyer from Lithonia
who is challenging McKinney's bid for a seventh term, is much more
measured in his statements.
In fact, he argues that McKinney's bombastic style has alienated her
colleagues in Congress to the point that she can't effectively
represent the district, which includes most of DeKalb and portions of
Gwinnett and Rockdale counties.
"She can't work with people,'' he said. "If you can't work with people,
you can't get anything done in Congress.''
In response, McKinney holds out a recent report from a Web site that
covers Congress, which ranked her tops among Georgia Democrats for
"legislative effectiveness.'' She also puts at $350 million the federal
spending she has brought to the 4th during a dozen years in office.
"I am a proud independent Democrat who represents people with
passion and conviction,'' she said.
But political observers say McKinney's style is what got her into
enough trouble with voters to force her into Tuesday's runoff with
Johnson. The winner will be heavily favored to defeat Republican
Catherine Davis in November in the heavily Democratic district.
His strong second-place showing on July 18 - 44.4 percent of the vote
to 47.1 percent for McKinney - was the biggest surprise of this year's
After all, McKinney was able to win the Democratic primary two years
ago without a runoff, even though she had five opponents.
She didn't have the advantage of incumbency in 2004, either, having
lost the seat in 2002 to Denise Majette.
"I think she's represented the district in such a way that she really
has polarized the electorate,'' said Merle Black, a political science
professor at Emory University. "If you did a favorability poll, she'd
have very high negatives.''
Apparently, McKinney was among those surprised by the strength of
Before July 18, she ran the low-profile campaign of an incumbent
expecting to win easily.
But since then, she has turned up her efforts, agreeing to two
televised debates with her challenger, making a big cable TV
advertising buy and holding a news conference to announce her
endorsement by former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.
"Being held below 50 percent by an underfunded, largely unknown
candidate showed she really misunderstood the contest they were in and
is trying to catch up,'' Black said.
As the campaign between McKinney and Johnson has become more visible,
it also has grown more negative.
McKinney has gotten personal with Johnson, citing financial problems
that include failing to pay taxes and filing for bankruptcy.
He said he has made good on the taxes he owed and learned some valuable
lessons from going through bankruptcy, including gaining empathy for
people who get caught in a financial bind.
McKinney also has highlighted Johnson's receipt of $16,000 in campaign
contributions from Republicans.
She also played the Republican card back in 2002 when she blamed her
defeat by Majette on Republicans "crossing over'' to vote against her
in that year's Democratic primary.
"Republicans in Georgia want to dictate who the Democratic nominee in
this election will be,'' she said.
Johnson responded that he is a "lifelong Democrat'' and that the money
McKinney cited is a drop in the bucket compared to the $130,000 in
donations he took in before the primary vote.
Turning the tables, he has criticized McKinney for bankrolling her
campaign with out-of-state contributions from places like Los Angeles
and New York, where she enjoys a high profile among wealthy liberals.
"My money comes from my constituents,'' he said. "Her money comes from
out of state.''
Handicapping the race
As with any runoff, the result will be determined by which candidate
does a better job convincing their supporters to come out and vote a
Even though McKinney finished first on July 18, Black suggests that she
faces a tougher challenge.
For one thing, incumbents generally go into primaries with an advantage
but tend to fare poorly if they're forced into runoffs.
"More often than not, the challenger wins because the momentum
shifts,'' Black said.
"Johnson's supporters will be very motivated to come back because they
think he has a chance of winning.''
Over the years, McKinney has earned a reputation for getting her
supporters to the polls when she needed them.
But Black said recent statistics show that she might be losing her
While she scored an impressive win two years ago by staying out of a
runoff in a race with multiple candidates, she still garnered just more
than 50 percent of the vote.
That 2004 primary win was sandwiched between a 2002 primary loss and
the July 18 vote. She only scored in the 40s among voters in those two
"For three elections in a row, she's averaged less than half of the
Democratic primary vote in her district,'' Black said. ... I doubt
whether there is any incumbent in Congress with that record. ... That's
a real challenge for her.''
Here are the candidates for the
Democratic nomination in Tuesday's 4th Congressional District primary:
Hank Johnson Jr.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Clark Atlanta University; law degree,
Texas Southern University
Political Experience: Member, DeKalb County Commission (second term)
Family: Wife, Mereda, two children
Occupation: Member, U.S. House of Representatives
Education: Bachelor's degree in international relations, University
of Southern California; master's degree in law and diplomacy, Tufts
Political Experience: Elected to Congress, 1992; lost 4th District
seat to fellow Democrat Denise Majette, 2002; won back seat, 2004
Family: Single, one child