By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 07/26/06 12:00 AM EDT
Rep. Cynthia McKinney’s (D-Ga.) Democratic opponent is criticizing her for missing a vote on an amendment to a bill reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that opponents argued would have gutted the legislation.
“Once again, Representative McKinney was missing in action for a crucial vote. While her colleagues fought the good fight, she was planning for that evening’s festivities in New York. She let others carry the load and came in at the last minute to take credit for a fight already won,” DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson Jr. said in a statement after he was informed about the missed vote.
It is unclear why McKinney might have been traveling to New York City; she did not respond to requests for comment.
McKinney and Johnson, who are both black, will square off Monday in a debate in which Johnson is likely to highlight her missed vote. He forced a runoff election, scheduled for Aug. 8, by holding McKinney to 47 percent of the vote in last week’s three-way primary.
McKinney had extolled the importance of voting to reauthorize the historic act on the House floor and in a radio address two weeks before the vote.
“As the Congress considers extending the Voting Rights Act, it is important to note that black voters are still confronted with a concerted effort to deny their right to vote and have outspoken, uncompromising representation,” McKinney said June 24 in the radio speech on behalf of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
“The sad fact is that someone intended for these things to happen. And every time we don’t vote, we take their side against us,” she added.
“As this Congress considers the Voting Rights Act, I hope it will care enough to craft legislation that addresses these 21st century disfranchisement schemes that occur today. The Voting Rights Act is relevant and necessary to protect the right to vote,” McKinney said on the House floor July 12.
But when the House began voting on the afternoon of July 13, McKinney missed voting on the first amendment, offered by Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.). His amendment would have made it easier for some areas to change their voting laws without approval from the Department of Justice (DoJ) while requiring new areas to get the government’s permission.
The House rejected Norwood’s amendment 96-318, as well as three other amendments; the bill passed 390-33. The Senate passed the measure 98-0.
For some lawmakers, the chance to vote to renew the act carried an emotional wallop.
“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the most important piece of social legislation in the 20th century,” said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). “It is the implementation legislation for the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. … It is extremely difficult as an African-American who is a beneficiary of that to make a case for nonparticipation.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), whose parents were former sharecroppers who moved from South Carolina to Maryland, in part to have a better opportunity to vote, said, “It was one of the highlights of my career. To me, it’s one of the most important things that I could do on my watch.”
Several lawmakers said it was an honor and privilege to vote alongside Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader in the civil-rights movement who was beaten by police officers during a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said he was “awed by the irony” of being on the House floor with Lewis while the House debated the measure.
“Humbling” is how Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) described the moment.
While McKinney participated in the debate, she belatedly arrived on the House floor looking flustered shortly after voting on Norwood’s amendment had ended, a lawmaker who saw her said.
Now McKinney’s political career is uncertain after an incident in the spring in which she struck a Capitol Police officer with her cell phone when he did not recognize her at a security checkpoint.
McKinney, in her sixth term as a congresswoman, lost in the 2002 Democratic primary to Democrat Denise Majette, who decided after one term to forgo a reelection shot in 2004 and instead launch a Senate bid, which fell short. McKinney won back her old seat in 2004.
She has remained in Georgia since last week’s primary and has not cast a vote on the House floor since July 13, according to the Congressional Record.
Some of her CBC colleagues were surprised she missed the vote on the Norwood measure. Others were dismissive of the effect it might have in her runoff.
Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), chairman of the CBC, said focusing on a missed vote is “grasping at straws.”
Jackson Lee said she would continue to support McKinney; two other black lawmakers declined comment.
Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.) is the only other CBC member who missed voting on an amendment to the Voting Rights Act reauthorization. Carson missed her vote because she was attending a function with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson in Indianapolis.