Nikema Williams, it’s not too late to agree to Atlanta Press Club debateState Sem. Nikema Williams
By Maria Saporta
It’s just not right.
State Sen. Nikema Williams, who is the Democrat running to succeed the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis on the Nov. 3 ballot, has declined the Atlanta Press Club’s invitation to the Loudermilk-Young Debate Series against her Republican opponent.
As chair of the APC’s debate committee (a position I’ve held for nearly 30 years), I ardently believe on the right of voters to know what choices they have when they cast their ballots.
Our debates, which are done in partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting and occasionally with Public Broadcasting Atlanta, are known for being even-handed and fair. But candidates also know they will have to face challenging questions from journalists and their opponents.
(For the record, this column represents my views and does not reflect the position of the APC Debate Committee).
Over the years, I’ve truly come to appreciate how candidates respond to questions in an unrehearsed format. It is one of the most enlightening ways to get a sense of who is running for public office.
But Sen. Williams has denied voters in the 5th District a chance to see how well she can handle the debate stage and having to think on her feet.
In a statement, Williams said she is meeting voters through numerous virtual community events.
“I have tremendous respect for the Atlanta Press Club and the decades of public service provided by the Loudermilk-Young Debate Series,” Williams stated. “Because of that respect I’m not going to give my opponent a platform to spread her Trump Republican lies and baseless conspiracy theories to the voters of the Fifth Congressional District. I refuse to legitimize her candidacy.”
According to the Atlanta Press Club’s longstanding policy, we will proceed with the debate with just Republican candidate Angela Stanton-King on Monday, Oct. 12 (unless Williams changes her mind).
Williams’ decision to forgo the APC-GPB debate has irked many in Georgia’s political circles – especially when one considers the way she got her name on the ballot to fill John Lewis spot on the Nov. 3 ballot. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic, and it is expected that any Democrat on the ballot would win.
“A lot of people feel the whole process was rigged,” said Marckeith DeJesus, a resident of the 5th District who ran in the Democratic Primary for the U.S. Senate seat of U.S. Sen. David Perdue.
That sentiment was echoed by Maya Dillard Smith, a former executive director of ACLU-Georgia who also ran in the 2020 Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate, which Jon Ossoff won without a run-off.
Smith said Williams’ decision to not participate in the debate was just one more affront to the voters of the 5thdistrict – saying it was Strike 3.
Strike 1 happened right after Lewis died on July 17 – when a handful of Democratic Party insiders selected Williams, who happens to be chair of the Party.
“When the Democratic Party moved at warp speed without public criteria, without transparency, without voter input from the district and without representation from every corner of the district on the nominating committee, we eviscerated fairness in the process,” Smith said. “If we want to be with clean hands about what is right in the process, there’s no reason the Democratic Party should have named a successor within 72 hours of Rep. John Lewis’ passing.”
Smith said legislative counsel for the General Assembly said the Democratic Party only needed to inform the Secretary of State within 72 hours of its intent to name a successor.
“Shouldn’t the voters have had a right to weigh in on the replacement of the iconic John Lewis?” Smith said. “What the Party did was actually a form of voter suppression.”
Strike 2 was when Williams decided not to run in the Sept. 29 special election to fill out Lewis’ term until January 2021. (Seven candidates ran for the abbreviated term, and former Atlanta Councilman Kwanza Hall will face former Morehouse President Robert Franklin in a run-off on Dec. 1).
“I absolutely believe the replacement nominee (Williams) should have run so the people of the district could have had an opportunity weigh in on her representation of the district,” Smith said. “It was about putting party politics and political strategy over voter engagement and election integrity.”
Williams stated she decided not to run in the Sept. 29 special election so she could focus on the general election.
“In my opinion, Nikema could have done the right thing by placing herself in the special election,” said DeJesus, who believes she would have won that election, adding legitimacy to her candidacy. “It has turned a lot of Democrats against the political process.”
DeJesus also is upset Williams won’t debate her Republican opponent.
“The Atlanta Press Club debates are a staple in our democratic process,” he said. “For Nikema to not want to be a part of the debate has me a little baffled.”
Smith said she doesn’t have an issue with Williams.
“My issue is not the person. It’s the process. I’m about fairness in the process,” said Smith, who added decisions should be made based on the best interest of the voter rather than the Party. “Given the iconic legacy of John Lewis, don’t we owe it to him?”
Nikema Williams, here’s hoping you’ll change your mind.
Note to readers: In 2008, Rep. John Lewis had significant opposition in the Democratic primary – running against community leaders Rev. Markel Hutchins and State Rep. Able Mable Thomas. Despite my best efforts to get Lewis to participate in our debate, his campaign decided he shouldn’t take the political risk of taking questions from his opponents and from the press. My bottom line is if you’re running for public office to represent voters, you need to enter the arena.
Click here for a full line up of the Atlanta Press Club General Election debates – beginning on Oct. 12.