Just days after U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ death, Georgia Democrats selected party chairwoman Nikema Williams, a state senator who framed herself as a protégé of the civil rights giant, to replace his name on the November ballot.
Facing an urgent legal deadline, the state party’s executive committee met Monday on a virtual Zoom call to select Williams over four other finalists from a group of 131 candidates who scrambled to submit online applications after Lewis’ death on Friday.
Williams is seen as a virtual lock to win the Atlanta-based 5th Congressional District, which is so heavily Democratic that Lewis often drew only token Republican opposition since he won the seat in 1986. She will face Republican Angela Stanton-King, an ally of President Donald Trump, in November.
A veteran activist with deep ties to the party’s base, Williams was long considered the front-runner and won by an overwhelming vote of the 44-member committee. But several leading Democrats questioned whether Lewis — a champion of voting rights and transparency — would favor the obscure process to select his successor.
Instead, they called for the party to tap a “placeholder” candidate who would serve only one two-year term or resign in January to clear the way for a wide-open vote. Among them was Michael Collins, Lewis’ former top aide, who urged the committee to carry out the “will of the people.”
“He believed very strongly that the people who represent the citizens should be elected by the citizens,” Collins wrote of Lewis. “And that a free and fair election, where all individuals have a level-playing field, is in the best interest of our democracy.”
State party leaders said they had little choice but to carry out the lightning-fast process, even as they mourned the death of one of the state’s most iconic political leaders.
Since the congressman died after the party’s June primary — and so close to the November election — Georgia law gives party officials until Monday at 4 p.m. to determine whether to leave Lewis’ name on the November ballot or replace it.
Several party officials said putting in a placeholder deprives residents of the district, which spans parts of Clayton, Dekalb and Fulton counties, of an effective representative. And state Sen. Gloria Butler, a member of the executive committee, said the idea of tapping a Democrat who would resign the seat in January was “insane.”
“We know this process is flawed and it needs extra work,” she said. “And when we get back in the session, we’ll look at that.”
Republicans and others poked fun at the convoluted process that played out on a Zoom call with the usual technical difficulties of accidentally un-muted lines and frozen screens.
“Can a Zoom chat be smoke filled?” quipped John Simpson, a GOP operative.
Others accused Democrats, who have long criticized Georgia Republicans of voter suppression tactics, of hypocrisy.
“In a near unanimous vote, the Georgia Democratic Party executive committee chose their own chairwoman for the slot. And no one is surprised except for the other 130 folks who applied for it thinking they had a fair fight,” said Paul Bennecke, a consultant who was once executive director of the Republican Governors Association. “Let the spinning begin.”
A committee of party leaders that included Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams waded through the applicants, who filled out a six-question form early Monday before presenting a slate of five top contenders.
The group of finalists that emerged largely represented the party’s younger and more progressive wing with one exception.
Former Morehouse College president Robert Franklin, a retired college administrator, presented himself as a bridge between generations who can “do what history needs doing right now: We have to heal the racial divide in our city.”
The other finalists — state Rep. Park Cannon, Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens, Williams and Georgia NAACP president James Woodall — framed themselves in 5-minute online speeches as principled activists who could honor Lewis’ lofty legacy.
“There is no other candidate that is more representative of the people that make up this diverse district,” said Cannon, who said she would be the first openly queer member of Congress, “and no one more prepared to serve this district immediately without a conflict of interest.”
Speaking from her Atlanta home, Williams cast herself as an acolyte of Lewis — right down to their shared Alabama upbringing — and invoked her 2018 arrest at the state Capitol during a voting rights demonstration as a sign of her willingness to get into Lewis’ brand of “good trouble.”
“We need someone who is not afraid to put themselves on the line for their constituents in the same way Congressman Lewis taught us to do,” said Williams.
It’s not immediately clear if Williams will also run in a separate special election to fill out the remaining months of Lewis’ term, which expires in January. Gov. Brian Kemp has 10 days to set the timing of that vote, which has no bearing on the November election for the full two-year term.
(Article written by Greg Bluestein)