ATLANTA — The quick selection to fill the seat for the late US Rep. John Lewis raised questions about the speed and the law behind it.
Democrats quickly named their party chairman - State Sen. Nikema Williams (D-Atlanta) - during a party meeting, Monday.
In replacing Congressman Lewis’s name on the November ballot, Georgia Democrats cited a state law that Republicans, including the Secretary of State, say they completely misinterpreted.
It happened during a hastily-called virtual meeting of the state Democratic party’s executive committee. It produced the nearly-unanimous selection of Williams, the party’s chair, as the Democrat's successor for Lewis on the November ballot.
Democrats have held the 5th district seat for 47 years - a fact that the party is keenly aware of.
"We cannot let this go to a Republican seat," former Democratic party leader Dubose Porter told members during a virtual meeting of the party's executive committee.
Had the Democrats failed to name a replacement, the only person on the ballot would have been Republican Angela Stanton King.
The law cited says this: ”The decision whether to fill such vacancy shall be made by the state executive committee by 4:00 P.M. on the next business day following the actual knowledge of the death or disqualification of the candidate.” (Emphasis added.)
But Democrats chose to interpret that to mean they had to deliver a candidate’s name, as well.
"We must have the name submitted by four o'clock today at the Secretary of State’s office, to avoid any ambiguity in the law,” Porter said Monday.
A Democratic party spokeswoman said Democrats came to that conclusion after the party's attorney conferred with officials at the Republican-led Secretary of State's office.
The Secretary of State’s office said the conclusion ran contrary to the advice they gave.
“We told them that we interpreted the law to require them to let us know by 4:30 on Monday that they intended to fill the vacancy, not to tell us the name of the nominee by then,” deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs told 11Alive in a statement.
So, why would the Democrats insist on submitting the name of their party chair so quickly as Lewis’s replacement? To prevent a groundswell of support for a candidate other than Williams, suggested Mark Rountree, a Republican strategist.
“You basically had the person who was running the Democratic party [Williams] putting her name down as the person interested in going to Congress … and the Democrats basically eliminated all opposition,” Rountree said.
Democrats had taken applications over the weekend from 131 people interested in becoming their nominee, then eliminated all but five of them. Williams won 37 of the 40 votes cast.
During the vote, some Democrats on the committee complained that the process eliminated voters from the selection, and urged that the law be changed in next year's legislative session.
The dispute highlights deep suspicions between Democrats and the GOP-led Secretary of State’s office. Democrats say they had to interpret a vaguely written law in a way that closed the door on any potential Republican interference in naming Lewis’s successor.