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Rush to judgment: Dems choose nominee to succeed Rep. Lewis

State law required quick work; critics say it cut out voters

ATLANTA — Monday, Georgia Democrats named an Atlanta state senator to replace the late John Lewis on the November election ballot.  Nikema Williams will be on the ballot facing a Republican reality show star in November.  

The Democratic Party executive committee took the vote in public on a Zoom call. It makes Williams automatically the favorite to succeed Lewis in Georgia’s fifth district which is one of the most Democratic districts in the country.

Williams quickly became the frontrunner as the Democratic Party of Georgia solicited applications over the weekend from anybody who wanted to succeed Lewis.  

Although Lewis died July 17, his name is still on the ballot in the November election facing Republican Angela Stanton King.

By Sunday’s deadline, the state party had received 131 online applications to become the Democrats’ replacement for Lewis.

The party’s nominating committee, which included Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former candidates for governor Stacey Abrams and Jason Carter, narrowed down the list to the five finalists by late Monday morning.

The finalists were Sen. Williams, State Representative Park Cannon, Atlanta city councilman Andre Dickens, Morehouse College president emeritus Robert Franklin, and James “Major” Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP.

"I would become the first openly queer … woman member of Congress," Cannon told committee members in the call. She finished a distant second in the voting.  

Williams' support came from her presence as chair of the state Democratic Party – bolstered by her arrest by at the state capitol during a 2018 protest that echoed the civil rights arrests of Congressman Lewis.

"I’ve considered myself a student of the John Lewis school of politics," Williams told committee members. "He showed me the value of putting myself, sometimes physically, in between the dangerous policies that the most vulnerable communities are hurt by."

Democrats were on a tight deadline. They had to formally submit Williams’ nomination by 4:30 p.m. Monday. They took the vote with about two hours to spare.

Prior to the vote, Democratic strategist and former Lewis aide Tharon Johnson said the committee's choice should resign in January in order to let fifth district voters decide on their representative. 

"Out of respect to Congressman Lewis's legacy, his successor should be chosen and elected by the democratic voters of the fifth congressional district of Georgia, not party officials," Johnson said in a statement.

There were a few awkward moments as applicants and party leaders expressed sorrow over Lewis' death and unease over the haste of their need to name a replacement. 

Congressman Hank Johnson pointed out that the law requires the party to name a replacement one working day after the seat is vacated. That Lewis died on Friday gave party leaders a couple of extra days over the weekend to organize the response and call for applicants.

"My preference is for an election," Dickens told the committee while acknowledging its inability to call one.

"I think we can all agree this puts the party in a very tough bind for a very important decision," added Jason Estevez, an executive committee member.

Although state law calls for a special election to fill a congressional vacancy, the winner would only serve a matter of weeks - at best - before Lewis's current term expires in January 2021.

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