In five House elections from 1992 to 2000 and then again in 2004, voters in a black-majority suburban Atlanta sent Democrat Cynthia A. McKinney to Congress. During that time, she gained some loyal supporters with her advocacy on behalf of minorities, women and the poor.
But McKinney’s knack for controversial statements and actions alienated many others in Georgia’s 4th District — the main cause of her defeat in an Aug. 8 primary runoff at the hands of Hank Johnson, a former commissioner in DeKalb County, home to most of the district’s residents.
Though Johnson’s victory over McKinney was hard-won, he should coast through the general election in the solidly Democratic 4th District. His virtually certain election makes him the latest member of CQ’s “On Their Way” club, made up of open-seat candidates who, because of their personal strengths and the partisan leanings of their districts, appear shoo-ins for the November elections.
The seat Johnson is taking over has the unique distinction of being won by an “On Their Way” club member in each of the past three House election cycles, thanks mostly to McKinney’s penchant for becoming embroiled in controversy.
Johnson is not the first Democrat to send McKinney packing. Comments by McKinney prior to her 2002 primary alleging that President Bush may have had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks offended many voters, and she lost her bid for renomination to former state Judge Denise Majette.
Majette’s unexpected decision to leave the seat open in 2004 to run for the Senate prompted a quick comeback by McKinney, but she again received negative publicity last March when she engaged in a physical confrontation with a Capitol Police officer.
Johnson — a much more mild-mannered politician who already had launched a primary challenge to McKinney — describes the incumbent’s second primary defeat as “a breath of fresh air” for district voters.
“Like if the wind came through and knocked all of the pollution out of downtown . . . that’s the way it feels down there,” Johnson told CQPolitics.com on Sept. 11 while visiting Washington, D.C.
Johnson said he decided to run because he viewed McKinney as “ineffective” and “divisive.” Johnson credits his win to the voters’ desire to elect a representative who offered “solutions, not politics.”
“I think a lot of people felt that it was a new day for politics in the 4th District,” Johnson said. “One of unity, one of bringing people together and representing disparate interests.”
Most local analysts and news outlets believed McKinney would survive the primary, despite her previous ouster. It wasn’t until the results in the first-round primary showed McKinney short of the majority vote she needed to win outright that pundits began taking notice.
Johnson, who, like Majette, is a former judge, was able to hold McKinney to under 50 percent of the vote in the July 18 primary, in part because a third Democrat in the race, John F. Coyne, captured more than 8 percent of the votes. This pushed McKinney into a runoff with Johnson.
“The press started taking the election very seriously... but we did not get carried away by the newfound popularity,” he said. “We ran all the way through the tape, if you will, like the runner who starts with somebody right on their heels.”
Though McKinney maintained a base of voters who supported her frequent challenges to the Bush administration, her civil rights efforts and actions for the poor, Johnson proved a strong alternative for voters who disliked the incumbent.
He is a prominent African-American official in a black-majority district, having served five years on the governing board in DeKalb, the same county that forms McKinney’s base. He won the runoff with 59 percent of the vote.
The district is a Democratic stronghold, having supported John Kerry for president with 71 percent of the vote in 2004. So Johnson is highly favored to defeat Republican human resources manager Catherine Davis — the GOP nominee who lost to McKinney two years ago — on Nov. 7.
Still, Johnson planned to resume his campaign in “full-swing” upon returning to Georgia from his trip to Washington for a Congressional Black Caucus meeting.
“I’m certainly not taking the opponent lightly. I know what can happen when you do that,” Johnson said.
In between formally closing his law practice, Johnson & Johnson Law Group, Johnson said he and his staff will be educating themselves on Congress and working on the staff transition with McKinney’s aides.
Johnson also said he is preparing for the challenges that come with moving from county-level legislating to becoming a federal lawmaker.
“Coming to Congress — it’s a little bit further removed from the people and you deal with national and international issues,” Johnson said, adding that the job will be much more “rigorous” and will be a “full-time pursuit.”
Johnson hopes to address the district’s transportation issues as his first local order of business, along with pursuing federal help for Georgia’s education system.
Johnson appears to understand a freshman’s role in Congress. While joking that he would “most certainly accommodate” leadership requests to serve on the powerful Appropriations and Ways and Means committees, he also would be content with seats on the Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, and Transportation and Infrastructure panels.
Regardless of his committee assignments, Johnson said he plans to work with fellow lawmakers in much the same way that he did as a county commissioner. Johnson contrasted himself to McKinney’s reputation, saying he was never a “divisive” figure in his county position who wanted to “pick up his marbles and go home” after not getting his way.
He said he hopes the approach he brings to the position will win positive reviews from back home.
“I’m also looking forward to people being able to say that Hank Johnson was able to work with other people to bring home the bacon for our district and we’re proud of the way that he conducted himself.”
CQ rates the race as Safe Democratic. Please visit CQPolitics.com’s Election Forecaster for ratings of all races.
Hank Johnson Biographical Data
Born: October 2, 1954; Washington, D.C.
Family: Wife, Mereda Davis Johnson; two children
Education: Clark College, B.A. 1976 (political science); Texas Southern U., J.D. 1979
Military Service: None
Career: Lawyer; county judge
Political Highlights: Sought Democratic nomination for Ga. House, 1986; DeKalb County Board of Commissioners, 2001-06