By Aaron Blake - 08/02/06 12:00 AM EDT
ATLANTA — If Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) is to lose her primary runoff with DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson next week, she has made it clear she will not go without a fight.
After an altercation in March in which she was accused of hitting a Capitol Police officer with her cell phone and was not charged, the fiery incumbent knows it often does no harm to take a swing at the guy who is in her face.
McKinney appeared confident from the outset of her debate Monday with Johnson, lambasting him for taking money from Republicans and for character issues.
If she is the loose cannon her detractors say she is, then Johnson is surely the anti-McKinney. He is stoic, almost never flashing a smile and rarely showing emotion. He promises dialogue and interparty coalescence, while the incumbent has alienated many within her party.
Few knew much about him before he surprisingly won enough votes to force the runoff. Since then, money has flooded into his campaign and the race has gained national attention. He has been getting thousands of dollars every day after raising just $170,000 for the primary.
During a morning press conference Monday near an old courthouse in Decatur, a suburb, he began managing expectations for the debate.
“I’m just a real simple guy; I don’t do a lot of preparation,” he said, calling McKinney a “seasoned and experienced campaign debater” and saying he hoped to “match up with her.”
That simplicity was on display when he took reporters and his staff to Mammy’s Kitchen for lunch. There is nothing fancy about the bright-red and yellow relic known for its buttermilk biscuits and “meat-and-two” lunch, which consists of meatloaf or fried chicken and two vegetables.
Mammy’s Kitchen sits on Memorial Drive, a main thoroughfare in Atlanta. A portion of the road was renamed Cynthia McKinney Parkway several years ago.
The stretch is a testament to a different time in the 4th District, which is mostly composed of DeKalb County. Observers say McKinney has since alienated white Democrats by ignoring them and with her controversial comments and actions.
The district is majority-black, but barely so at 53 percent. It is also heavily Democratic; Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won 72 percent of the vote in his presidential bid here in 2004.
In 2002, McKinney hinted that President Bush had prior knowledge of Sept. 11 and that he benefited financially from having a war on terrorism. She went on to lose 58-42 to Denise Majette, a black primary challenger who had the overwhelming support of whites. White voters turned out in much higher numbers than blacks, and the district effectively lost its black majority.
When Majette ran for the Democratic nomination for Georgia’s open Senate seat in 2004, McKinney quietly grabbed 51 percent of the congressional district’s primary vote and taking back her seat. Her strongest two challengers that year were both white.
This year she again has a strong black challenger. Johnson calls south DeKalb County, the predominantly black area where he serves as commissioner, his base and says his campaign strategy elsewhere in the district is a “shotgun approach.” He did slightly better than Majette among black voters, but if he is elected it will largely be thanks to the white vote.
In the primary he received 44 percent to McKinney’s 47. The other 9 percent went to businessman John Coyne, and Johnson said he thinks Coyne will soon endorse him.
Turnout for the runoff was very low — about half of the nearly 120,000 who voted in 2002 — possibly indicating that many voters didn’t expect such a close race. Runoff turnouts are generally very low too, but the unexpectedly close contest could inspire voters from both sides who stayed home in July.
In 2002, McKinney accused thousands of Republicans of crossing over and defeating her. Several analyses have discounted that, but Republicans did work, to a significant degree, on Majette’s behalf. McKinney sued after the loss but later dropped the suit.
In her first debate Monday — she skipped two others, citing scheduling conflicts — McKinney seized on $16,000 in donations Johnson has received from Republicans and again attempted to cast her opponent as a tool of the Republican Party.
Johnson has taken money from Republicans including former state Rep. Emory Morsberger, Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus and former gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner.
“Republicans in Georgia want to dictate who the Democratic nominee in this election is going to be,” she said.
Johnson said in an interview with The Hill that he has not made any appeals to GOP voters and has stayed away from Republicans in general. He said that in March he even parted company with a consultant who had worked with Republican candidates, for fear that it would become a campaign issue.
Charles Bullock, an expert in state politics at the University of Georgia, said that McKinney would like to make the race appear to be black Democrats against white Republicans but that a Majette-like effort on Johnson’s behalf hasn’t yet materialized. He also said history shows it might not be the best strategy.
“It backfired against her four years ago because simply more white voters turned out,” Bullock said.
At the debate, Johnson tried to paint McKinney as being absent when voters needed her most. McKinney has missed several recent votes, including on an amendment some say would have gutted the Voting Rights Act, an important piece of legislation to many black voters.
Johnson also went after her record for getting bills passed, trying to cast doubt on her effectiveness.
He called her attacks “desperate attempts from a desperate candidate,” and she responded by citing her Congress.org rating for legislative effectiveness, which is the best among Democrats in the Georgia delegation.
She ranks 275th out of 435 House members in that category and 408th out of 435 in overall power. The latter is second to last among the state delegation’s six Democrats.
When she was asked in the debate about her confrontation with the Capitol Police, McKinney deflected the question by saying she had not been charged with anything and by promoting her Congress.org rating. She has largely avoided the media and wouldn’t respond to questions from a mob of reporters after the debate.