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Democrats scramble to name the successor to a legend

Tom Baxter

By Tom Baxter

John Lewis was so widely regarded as a saint during his life that it might seem a sacrilege to remember him as a politician now that he’s gone. But not to do so would miss something about this great man. He was a saint by calling, but he was a politician when he had to be, and a good one, too.

John Lewis, Baxer

A young man stands next to a memorial to John Lewis. Credit: Kelly Jordan

After the outpouring of love and pride we’ve witnessed since his death Friday night, it may be hard to imagine that when he began his 1986 race to represent the Fifth District in Congress, Lewis wasn’t widely considered to be right for the job. The urbane and well-spoken Julian Bond seemed the obvious choice to succeed the dapper Wyche Fowler, not the more countrified Lewis. Fowler had roundly defeated Lewis to win the seat in 1977, and had spent the intervening years on the Atlanta City Council, picking fights with important people. Bond narrowly missed winning the election without a runoff, polling 47 percent, 12 points ahead of Lewis. In a stunning upset, Lewis won the runoff with 52 percent of the vote.

Lewis is said to have agreed only reluctantly to challenging Bond to take a urinalysis drug test, which was a big factor in the upset. But in a 1990 interview with Vincent Coppola for Atlanta Magazine,  Bond, who had won the majority of the black vote in 1986, offered another reason for his loss.

“I think many white voters said, ‘If Bond gets into office, he’s only going to be worried about them and not about us. John Lewis will worry about us all. He’ll be worried about everyone.’ That was a correct analysis for them to have. They were right.”

The durability of Bond’s observation was reflected in the extraordinary diversity of people who have gone online to recall some personal encounter with Lewis, some private assurance that he worried about us all. It’s rare enough to hear people say they’re proud to live in someone’s congressional district. It’s unheard of to hear people say, as some said about Lewis over the weekend, that living in his district was the reason they moved to Atlanta.

Like many a successful politician, Lewis owed much to his late wife, Lillian. It was she who you’d find at the State Capitol in the wee hours of the morning, when the reapportionment committee was drawing up new maps. Neighboring Democrats might grumble that the Fifth District could afford to give up some precincts that would help them, but she made sure her husband’s district was impregnable.

John Lewis, Baxter, mourner

A mourner kneels to take a photo of an image of John Lewis holding a child. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Just how John would be reacting to the way his succession is being handled is hard to say. But Lillian might have a few salty words.

It’s true that Lewis’ death gave the party a very narrow window for replacing his name on the November ballot, although it’s questionable whether the State Constitution required the party to have the new name they wanted on the ballot by Monday afternoon. In any case. state Sen. Nikema Williams, who is also the state party chair, seemed the likeliest choice from the beginning, and was elected by the party’s executive committee by near acclamation.

Williams will be almost a prohibitive favorite in November against her Republican opponent, Angela Stanton-King. But here’s where the law turns this election inside out. The State Constitution also requires that a special election be held to fill out the remainder of Lewis’ term this year. Williams’ first decision as the party’s nominee will be to decide what to do about that race. If she skips it, she risks conjuring up a future Democratic opponent. If she runs, she risks losing.

There have also been calls over the weekend from Democrats who want the party’s nominee to resign immediately on taking office so the people can choose next year who’ll serve out the two-year term. That idea hasn’t gotten a lot of traction so far.

Like Lewis, Williams is from Alabama, and in his footsteps she was the first legislator ever arrested at the Capitol in a demonstration a couple of years ago. It would be ridiculous to expect her to replace someone whose mural image is part of the Atlanta skyline, but she comes into this confusing race at a time when divisions are sharpening within her district, and between the city and state, not to mention what she can look forward to in Washington. Even if she weren’t following in the footsteps of a legend, she’d have a lot on her shoulders.

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Tom Baxter
Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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