OPINION: Congresswoman-elect Nikema Williams already taking the lead

Congresswoman-elect Nikema Williams, who won the Nov. 3 election to represent the 5th Congressional District in the 117th Congress, sat recently for her member portrait. (Courtesy of Nikema Williams)
Congresswoman-elect Nikema Williams, who won the Nov. 3 election to represent the 5th Congressional District in the 117th Congress, sat recently for her member portrait. (Courtesy of Nikema Williams)

Credit: Courtesy of Nikema Williams

Credit: Courtesy of Nikema Williams

When she was growing up, Congressman John Lewis was nothing more than a character in history books to Nikema Williams.

That soon changed, Williams said, when she made her way to Atlanta and began as she put it “seeing him in spaces.”

John Lewis the civil rights icon became known to her as the jokester and shopping buddy.

“Our favorite moments together were going to Dillard’s after-Christmas sales,” she remembered recently.

In none of those moments did she ever imagine that she would one day become the first woman to serve as a representative in Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, and she is doing so in a district that had been held since 1987 by the civil rights icon.

Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that Williams’ first surprise came when, just days after Lewis’ death in July, Georgia Democrats selected her to replace the late congressman on the November ballot.

ExploreJohn Lewis put life on line for the right to vote; now it’s our turn

“I didn’t imagine this life for me,” Williams told me. “Everything I’d worked so hard for was being recognized.”

Voters certainly noticed. Williams went on to win the seat in a landslide victory against her Republican challenger Angela Stanton-King.

That alone was a heady moment for the 42-year-old, but just think about what it will mean when she takes the oath of office in just a few short weeks.

In January, she will be sworn in and join a record number of women poised to serve in the 117th Congress, including at least 51 women of color.

Who can’t get excited about that?

For most of its history, members of both chambers of Congress have mostly been white men. That has been changing for at least the past five years, with the 116th Congress the most racially and ethnically diverse in history, according to the Pew Research Center.

I digress but I can’t help but note that in the full 116th Congress, the overwhelming majority of racial and ethnic nonwhite members are Democrats (90%), while just 10% are Republicans.

It’s no surprise women bring with them their personal experiences as mothers, as daughters, and as grandmothers and those experiences inform their policy priorities.

The result can’t be underestimated.

It should also be noted here that Nikema Williams is already making her mark.

In another vote of confidence, her fellow freshman Democratic members of Congress voted Williams their class president during new member orientation held Nov. 12-20. As such, Williams will serve as the official convener of the class and ensure the class acts as a unified force.

If you’ve somehow managed to miss Williams’ story, rest assured she is anything but a political novice.

Her first foray into partisan politics dates back to 2002 when she joined the Young Democrats of Georgia, eventually serving as political director and then national committeewoman.

In 2011, she was elected first vice chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia — the youngest person to ever hold that position.

For nearly a decade, she was Vice President of Public Policy for Planned Parenthood Southeast, helping to build legislative and community engagement programs to promote reproductive health care throughout Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.

Even as she did that, Williams, a self-described busybody, kept working in her own political backyard.

After winning a state Senate seat in a 2017 special election, she became the first Black woman last year to chair the state’s Democratic Party.

Our paths first crossed early this year, when we were selected to receive the 2020 Pinnacle Leadership Award.

Given annually by the Fortitude Educational and Cultural Development Center, the award recognizes women who “quietly or boldly” use their platforms to nurture their communities and excel in their field of work.

I learned a little about her story then. When she launched her campaign Aug. 6, the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, she had my attention.

Lewis, who passed in July from pancreatic cancer, had risked his life for that landmark piece of legislation, so the significance was clear.

Williams wanted to make sure there was no question she understood and appreciated Lewis’ legacy, of the doors he opened and the path he blazed to make her candidacy even possible.

U.S. Rep.-elect Nikema Williams seconds the nomination of Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. (Courtesy of Nikema Williams)
U.S. Rep.-elect Nikema Williams seconds the nomination of Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. (Courtesy of Nikema Williams)

Credit: Photo courtesy of Nikema Williams

Credit: Photo courtesy of Nikema Williams

“I know even now that there are lots of eyes on me,” she said.

And so a few things are top of mind as she prepares to build on her friend’s legacy and create her own.

First she wants to establish a national response to the coronavirus pandemic and advocate for Medicare for All.

Williams contracted COVID-19 in early March.

“I was fortunate to have health care, to be able to see my doctor, but I know that’s not the reality of so many people,” she said.

Getting both a national response to the pandemic and Medicare for All, she said, is contingent on fair elections.

Seeing to it that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a rewrite of the 1965 act, is passed is of paramount importance to her.

But so is this.

“There are a lot of people depending on me,” she said. “I hope I never lose sight of that or the people who sent me to Washington to represent them.”

I get the feeling that won’t happen if for no other reason than there’s a little boy named Carter who calls Williams Mommy. When she fights for him, and rest assured she will, she’s fighting for you and your loved ones, too.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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