Georgia’s Democratic Party picked its own party chair, Nikema Williams, a state senator, to run in Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, the seat held by the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis. Lewis died Friday after a battle with cancer.
“The presidential administration changes in January, and we need to hit the ground running with a qualified, experienced person in this position,” Bobby Fuse, chairman of the Democratic Party in Georgia’s 2nd, said on a Monday conference call announcing his support for Williams. “We do not need to wait another two years to have an election for a permanent congressman, because we’ll lose two years’ seniority.”
Williams’ nomination was the culmination of a two-day mad dash to put forward a candidate for Lewis’ seat. The party announced Monday morning that it was considering five local leaders and politicians: Park Cannon, a progressive queer state representative, Andre Dickens, an Atlanta city council member, Robert Franklin, president emeritus of Morehouse College, a historically Black men’s college in Atlanta, James “Major” Woodall, the president of the Georgia NAACP, and Williams.
Georgia’s election code requires the party’s executive committee to offer a substitute candidate to the Secretary of State by 4 p.m. on the business day following the actual knowledge of the death of the candidate.
The state’s Democratic Party held a single-day open call for candidate applications Sunday, and received a total of 131 applicants that were reviewed by a committee of local politicians and party officials. A separate executive committee in the party, which Williams was on, met Monday, to nominate a single candidate.
Williams abstained from the voting and the five finalists were given the opportunity to address the party’s executive committee, however the final tally among party committee members was overwhelming for their own chair. Reps. Hank Johnson and Lucy McBath both voted for Williams.
Among those on the nominating committee were Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, former Democratic leader of the Georgia House and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, as well as state party members and former leaders, like Jason Carter, a former state senator and 2014 gubernatorial candidate.
The district, which encompasses much of the city of Atlanta, is 59% Black, and overwhelmingly Democratic. Because of the district’s electoral makeup, the general election is little more than a formality. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the district by a margin of 73 percentage points and Williams is expected to win easily.
In effect, the Democratic officials charged with selecting a nominee in an unusually rapid, behind-closed-doors process will likely install a long-term successor for Lewis without the input of Democratic voters in the Atlanta-area district.
The nominee is all but certain to be an incumbent member of Congress in 2022, when the district next holds its Democratic primary. Given the advantages of incumbency, that makes it that much harder for voters to elect someone new.
Vincent Fort, a progressive labor lobbyist who represented southwest Atlanta in the state Senate for two decades, denounced the process for depriving Atlanta Democrats of the chance to pick a nominee in an open primary for the first time since 1986 when Lewis defeated fellow civil rights leader Julian Bond.
“Foremost voting rights advocate in last 65 years, Rep. John Lewis, is going to be replaced in [a] rigged process by a few dozen people most of whom don’t live in the 5th congressional district,” Fort tweeted.
Fort told HuffPost in a follow-up interview that he wanted the party to nominate a senior figure like former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin as a placeholder who would resign after the November election.
Likewise, ahead of Williams’ selection on Monday, Tharon Johnson, a former campaign manager for Lewis, called for the party’s pick to immediately resign in order to allow for an open primary to fill Lewis’ seat.
“Out of respect to Lewis’ legacy, his successor should be chosen and elected by the voters of the GA-5th District,” Johnson wrote on Twitter.
Lewis, an iconic civil rights organizer, was a fierce voting rights activist for his entire career and a key supporter of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He served in the House for 33 years, and died as a high-ranking lawmaker who chaired the powerful House’s Ways and Means oversight subcommittee — a group that in recent weeks oversaw inquiries into delayed coronavirus stimulus payments. Just a month before his death, he visited protesters demonstrating for Black lives in Washington, D.C.