The two Republicans vying to unseat U.S. Rep. John Lewis this year concede whoever wins the July 20 GOP primary will have an extremely tough fight against the civil rights icon.
Lewis has won 12 straight elections to Congress. He had $435,277 in campaign cash on hand as of the end of March, federal records show. His district has consistently voted for Democratic statewide candidates. And Lewis has huge name recognition for his desegregation efforts during the 1960s, including helping lead the voting rights march in 1965 from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery.
Attorney Fenn Little and challenger Kelly Nguyen, a graphic artist, say they both respect Lewis for his civil rights work. But they say he has grown out of touch with constituents of the 5th Congressional District, which includes much of Fulton County and western DeKalb County and northern Clayton County.
Both Little and Nguyen want to shrink the size of government and rein in spending amid the recession. And both are critical of the national health care reform law and the $787 billion federal stimulus program. Lewis voted for both of those measures.
“He represents the hard-core Democratic [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosis of the world,” Little, 48, said during a recent interview in his Atlanta law office.
Little is perhaps best known for representing an Atlanta police informant in a lawsuit connected to the highly publicized botched drug raid that left 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston dead in 2006. The informant, Alex White, says he cannot earn a living anymore because his face, name and reputation became public after Johnston’s killing. He is trying to recover the wages he says he lost once he became too well-known to work as a confidential informant for Atlanta drug investigators. White's suit is pending.
Nguyen said if she is elected, she would seek to institute a three-term limit for members of Congress.
“I appreciate everything he has done for my community and society and civil rights. He is a great man,” Nguyen, 25, said of Lewis during an interview at the Java Vino coffeehouse in Atlanta. “But his time has come and gone. And his ideas that he has were good for that time, but we are in a new time with new problems.”
Lewis, now 70, hasn’t faced a Republican opponent since the 2000 election, when he defeated Hank Schwab with 77.2 percent of the vote. He said he doesn’t know much about Little or Nguyen, but he isn’t taking this election for granted.
“I’m doing a lot of listening to people in schools, in churches, grocery stores, Home Depot, Lowe's, on the streets, wherever I see people,” Lewis said in a recent telephone interview. “I never, ever take a race for granted.”
Lewis said he opposes efforts to repeal the health care reform law. And he defended his vote for the stimulus program, saying he was “convinced as a nation we had to do something, not just to save the economy of America but to help to save the world economy from turning into a worldwide depression.”
Lewis also emphasized his seniority in Congress, where he serves as the chief deputy whip for the Democratic Party and as a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
“I’m not so sure the people of this district are prepared to cast their lot with someone that must start from the back -- a new person,” Lewis said. “I think they want someone who has been tried and tested.”
Sue Everhart, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, said, “Our two Republican candidates in the 5th Congressional District, Fenn Little and Kelly Nguyen, come from varied backgrounds and experiences. I encourage every voter in the 5th to get to know them and look forward to supporting the nominee.”
But do Little and Nguyen have a shot? Not really, says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University.
“This is one of the safest Democratic congressional seats in the entire country,” Black said. “There would be no expectation of a Republican winning this district ... I am absolutely certain about that."
Little said he admires Nguyen for running for Congress at a young age, but he said he is the better candidate to face Lewis because he “can actually win. I have connections all throughout the community.”
Like Little, Nguyen is mounting her first campaign for public office. Nguyen said she is the better Republican to face Lewis because she has “a better message -- it’s a very unifying message. I live in a very… liberal part of town. And I seem to manage.”
Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in religion and philosophy, Fisk University, 1967; Associate Degree in seminary, American Baptist Theological Seminary, 1961
Profession:A longtime civil rights activist who helped organize desegregation efforts during the 1960s
Political experience: U.S. House, 1987-present; senior chief deputy whip for the Democratic Party; member of the House Ways and Means Committee; member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support; chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight; Atlanta city councilman, 1982-1986
Military experience: N/A
Civic experience: Helped lead the historic “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march in 1965 from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery; helped create and lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; served as associate director of the Field Foundation and as director of the Voter Education Project. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed him as director of domestic operations of ACTION, a federal volunteer agency.
Family status: Married to Lillian Miles and has one son, John Miles.
Education: Bachelor of Arts in economics with emphasis in U.S. history, Washington and Lee University, 1984; law: Juris Doctor, University of Georgia,
1987; attended Candler School of Theology at Emory University, 1999-2001
Political experience: N/A
Military experience: N/A
Civic experience: Board member, Wilderness Works; board member, Compassion House Ministries; attended the Leadership Murray County training program; allied attorney, Alliance Defense Fund
Family status: Married to Ruth Barrett Little, two children
Education: Studied studio art at Georgia State University
Profession: Graphic designer
Political experience: Has been an activist to restore personal liberties and constitutional values for several years
Military experience: N/A
Civic experience: Volunteer for Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and Missionaries of Charity
Family status: Single
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