John Lewis occupied a singular perch on Capitol Hill

In this June 25, 2013 file photo, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., appears on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Credit: Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Credit: Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

In this June 25, 2013 file photo, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., appears on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

It’s not uncommon on the U.S. House floor to feel like no one is paying attention. Lawmakers deliver remarks to a mostly empty chamber, speechifying to the C-SPAN cameras and a few distracted colleagues scrolling on their cellphones.

But it was different when Congressman John Lewis entered the room. Members would stop what they were doing. They’d linger in the chamber or step in if they were nearby.

“When John got up to speak, in that thunderous, deep voice, it was almost like it was coming from the mount,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “He couldn’t go into a room without people pivoting to look at him who were hanging onto every word.”

Lewis, who died Friday following a battle with pancreatic cancer, was a magnetic presence on Capitol Hill whose gravitas and moral authority were unmatched.

The Atlanta Democrat was a walking, breathing piece of U.S. history, a reminder of a not-so-distant past during which Black Americans were banned and even bloodied for trying to get a library card, voting or drinking from a “Whites Only” water fountain. His experience at the crest of the civil rights movement made him a singular presence in Congress, where he served for almost 34 years.

Lewis was a confidant of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a galvanizing presence for Democrats on issues from voting rights to gun control and immigration. Even rarer, he had something close to universal admiration and affection from Republicans despite being a fierce defender of liberal causes.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, holds hands with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California as a group of congressmen sing “We Shall Overcome” on Capitol Hill in Washington after House Democrats ended their 26-hour sit-in protest in June. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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“The way he carried himself, the way that he was respected among members of Congress, that is what we all aspire to,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler.

Lewis was also Georgia’s longest-serving lawmaker, a respected elder within the Congressional Black Caucus and a symbol of hope and progress to countless young African Americans getting their start on Capitol Hill.

“People such as myself don’t get into positions that we have without the John Lewises of the world,” said John Jones, a Clark Atlanta graduate and real estate executive who was once the top staffer for U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.

Democratic stalwart

Lewis wasn’t a legislative wonk. He wasn’t known for taking a technical approach to policy or for cutting deals in Washington’s back rooms.

He didn’t need to.

When Lewis spoke, with his soaring oratory and preacher’s cadence, his voice had weight.

“Whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, if you had John Lewis cosponsoring a bill with you, you’d be golden,” said Bob Hurt, a lobbyist and former top aide to Georgia U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.

He commanded such respect on certain issues that he could crush proposals he disagreed with in one swoop.

When then-U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Athens, sought to eliminate enforcement funding for a portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2012, Lewis forcefully spoke against it on the House floor. Broun apologized and withdrew the proposal on the spot.

When Lewis got involved in the nitty-gritty of policy, it was often to look out for the needs of the most disadvantaged Americans or to honor the civil rights movement he was so integral to.

He was particularly adept at energizing his Democratic colleagues. Troy Clair, a former congressional staffer, recalled that Democratic leaders often scheduled Lewis to speak to his colleagues right before major votes.

“What he was really good at was clarifying for the whole Democratic caucus what the moral question was,” said Clair, a lobbyist who once worked for Democratic U.S. Reps. G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina and Steny Hoyer of Maryland. “Particularly when there were debates that split the caucus, he was key in helping (party leaders) rally the troops.”

The congressman’s colleagues often looked to him to bestow legitimacy on their biggest political priorities.

Rep. John Lewis leading gun control sit-in on House floor

When more junior members of the Democratic caucus wanted to force Republican leaders to hold votes on gun control bills following the 2016 mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, they pulled Lewis into the mix. What resulted was a 26-hour sit-in on the House floor in which Democrats commandeered the chamber, sang protest songs and streamed it live for the world to see on social media. Sitting in the middle of the group on the blue carpet was Lewis.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said if Lewis’ hadn’t led the effort, “I’m not sure that we would have been as strong and as resolute in our protest.”

“Knowing that he was there protesting with us, we knew it was the right thing to do,” the California Democrat said in an interview Sunday.

This photo provided by Rep. Chillie Pingree, D-Maine, shows Democrat members of Congress, including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., center, and Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn. as they participate in sit-down protest seeking a a vote on gun control measures, Wednesday, June 22, 2016, on the floor of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Rep. Chillie Pingree via AP)

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Also indicative of Lewis’s influence was the number of colleagues who joined him on annual pilgrimages to Selma, Ala., where they would re-enact the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that ended in a violent attack known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Presidents and members of Congress from both parties would bring their families to the church services and other community events that filled the weekend in Selma. But the highlight was always marching across the bridgeway with Lewis leading the way, often arm-in-arm with political leaders and activists, and hundreds of people behind them.

Georgia clout

Lewis’ death leaves a gaping hole in the Georgia delegation, which is still rebuilding its clout on Capitol Hill after a raft of retirements over the last decade.

In the seniority-based U.S House, Lewis had incredible pull. He was a senior member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, arguably the most powerful panel in the chamber, and had the ear of House leaders and - until Donald Trump - unparalleled access to presidents.

His role as dean of the Georgia delegation was a ceremonial one, but his larger-than-life presence left a major impression on his colleagues.

“He was a beacon,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, who credits his first congressional win in 2006 in part to favorable public comments from Lewis. “A giant of a man who walked a road of righteousness and brought everybody along within him.”

Representative John Lewis, D-Ga., giving a Capitol tour to a constituent demonstrates how the "sound system" works. Between 2 spots about 20 feet apart in Statuary Hall you can whisper in one and be distinctly heard in the other. July 22, 1993 (Photo by Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

The state’s Republicans offered similarly reverential tributes. U.S. Rep. Tom Graves of Ranger cited Lewis as a trusted partner on parochial interests, including securing funding for the Savannah Port. He proposed commissioning a statue of Lewis for Statuary Hall, a place of high honor in the U.S. Capitol, echoing the calls of the two top Republican leaders in the state Legislature and others.

“There are times we lose sight of what is most important, and we need that reminder,” said Graves, who’s retiring at the end of the year. “John was always that one who would take a moment when it was necessary, go to the House floor and give a speech that would bring everybody back to home base.”

Lewis’ death comes at an acrimonious moment in which his ability to transcend tribal divisions is needed more than ever, said Ornstein.

“These are times when we need people who can stand up and say ‘this is not America,’ he said. “And nobody could do it the way John could do it.”

Others said they’d miss the humble and soft-spoken humanity Lewis brought to his job, a trait that’s become increasingly hard to find in Washington.

When walking the corridors of the Capitol, Lewis was known to stop and talk to every doorkeeper, every cop and every visiting student who wished to speak with him. His opening line was often a simple “hello brother, how are you?”

“Whether it was the Senate majority leader or a maintenance worker, he treated every human being the same,” said Jones, the former congressional aide.

In those moments when he’d talk to you, Jones said, “everything else would get drowned out.”