Vernon Jones peered down at the empty chair at a candidate forum Wednesday and asked to a ripple of laughter from the small crowd: "Where are you, Hank?"
It was an answer to a setup question by Maynard Eaton, the skilled moderator of the "Newsmakers Live" Web cam debate, that was designed to humiliate U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, the incumbent in the 4th Congressional District: "What would you say to Hank Johnson if he were here?"
Eaton and producer Jim Welcome had eviscerated Johnson for skipping the forum that pitted him against Jones, the charismatic and controversial former CEO of DeKalb County, and Connie Stokes, a county commissioner and veteran legislator, who hope to defeat him in the July 20 Democratic primary.
There was no political upside for the dry, low-key Johnson to risk being upstaged by Jones or Stokes, both of whom who have personalities that fill a room. The Internet could make even a debate before a small crowd dangerous for the congressman, whom experts on 4th District politics expect will keep his seat if he avoids any scandal, major controversy or more Guam-like moments.
Stokes and especially Jones put on strong showings at the debate, but Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University expert on elections, said Johnson still likely would win the primary. That would all but seal his election in November because any of his four Republican challengers would have a Mount Everest-like climb to defeat him in the heavily Democratic district.
Both Jones and Stokes contend Johnson is vulnerable in a seat that has changed hands three times in eight years. Veteran political operative Oliver Brown, however, said the two-term congressman could count on the cloak of incumbency to protect him.
Brown noted the bombastic Cynthia McKinney served from 1993 before one controversy too many allowed Denise Majette to defeat her in 2002. . Voters again elected McKinney in 2004, abut the victory was short-lived. After McKinney was accused of slapping a Capitol Hill police officer, Johnson, a county commissioner, defeated her in 2006.
"DeKalb County doesn't have a history of turning out somebody for no good reason," Brown said. "Cynthia had to do a meltdown."
Plus neither Stokes nor Jones has fared well when they tried to move to the national stage.
Stokes was badly beaten in 2004 when she ran for the same congressional seat, and Jones, who has had his own scandals, was trounced both in the state and DeKalb County in the primary when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008.
"If there were stronger challengers, Hank might be at risk, but I can't see it with Vernon and Connie Stokes," Abramowitz said. "She would have to spend quite a bit of money just to increase her name recognition. Vernon has the name recognition, but much of it is negative."
Johnson, whom President Barack Obama endorsed and who just joined the House transportation committee, a source of funding for MARTA, avoided controversy until this spring. At a congressional hearing, he told an admiral that he feared the tiny Pacific island of Guam might tip over if the United States turned it into a huge military base. He later said he was making the point that overdevelopment might harm the atoll's ecology, but his dry, flat delivery made many television and Internet viewers question his competency.
The poorly delivered joke made some viewers -- and certainly Jones' supporters at Wednesday's forum -- also think Johnson's long battle with hepatitis C was taking its toll.
Johnson said he doesn't expect the Guam controversy will matter much, and he said he didn't think his health would be a factor. The 55-year-old also said he didn't think he had an obligation to disclose his illness -- he kept it hidden for years -- to voters until questions arose whether he was too sick to do the job. Other pols agreed.
"From what I'm hearing, people have no issue with the sitting congressman," said Richard Oden, chair of the Rockdale County Commission.
Jones, 49, who served eight years in the Georgia House before being elected DeKalb CEO in 2000, has had a series of controversies. They range from mild ones, such as developing a reputation as being a bully who was also an effective and forceful administrator, to the more serious: being accused of illegally using campaign funds to promote the 2005 bond referendum and of raping a woman during a menage a trois. No charges were filed in either case, and Jones has maintained his innocence.
At Wednesday's debate, those controversies were only mildly raised. Instead Jones forcefully articulated his view that his success as a CEO would help him focus on creating jobs from Washington. During his eight years as DeKalb CEO, DeKalb became one of only 37 counties nationwide to have a AAA bond rating. He also vastly expanded the county's green space by creating parks, and he started a program of capturing the methane gas from landfills and selling it.
His predecessor, former DeKalb CEO Liane Levetan, however, said that Jones also bloated the county work force, jobs the cash-strapped county now has to shed. "He and the board had some economic things going on, but I think the parks was the major initiative, I really do, because DeKalb County lacked so much green space," she said.
Stokes, 56, has a much tougher hill to climb, Oden said. The demographics of the county has changed since she represented part of it as a state senator for 10 years, until her 2004 run for Congress, Oden said. In those days, she was one of Gov. Roy Barnes' floor leaders. Stokes noted she now represents an at-large commission district in DeKalb that contains most of the 4th District's voters.
She counts on capturing the female vote to ensure a victory. "I think the voters really want change, and I think change this year represents going from 15 men from Georgia sitting in Congress and adding a woman's voice," she said. "They can trust me to go to Washington and put families first."
Johnson's political views might make waves in some districts but will likely create only small swells in the 4th. He is an unabashed believer in big government as long, he says, as it is effective government: "I don't think we should be afraid if government gets larger."
Those views put him in conflict with the constituents drawn to the four Republican candidates in the campaign, all making their first run for office. Larry Gause, 48, a property manager, and Victor Armendariz, a 40-year-old in the publishing business, both are committed to tea party principles of shrinking the federal government. They contend the federal government's key role should primarily be national defense and securing the country's borders.
Liz Carter, a 41-year-old high-tech entrepreneur, and Cory Ruth, a 32-year-old management consultant, are more moderate Republicans who see a more expansive role for government but who also emphasize securing the border and cutting federal spending. Only Carter has managed to break out from the GOP pack when she forced "NewsmakersLive" to include her in the debate that had been limited to the African-American candidates, including Ruth. There she showed she had a political presence on stage.
State Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Atlanta) said Carter has put together an organization and won some GOP bona fides by having her "Yank Hank" campaign endorsed by the influential conservative Web site Redstate.com. Chambers said she had met Armendariz, whom she described as likable and enthusiastic.
"He is very excited and wants to learn about politics, and I think he'll learn a lot from the experience," Chambers said.
All the Republicans said they can be victorious in November, which only proves to Abramowitz that they truly are neophytes.
"I don't know what drives them," he said. "Hope springs eternal."
Name: Hank Johnson
Education: Undergraduate: Clark College, Atlanta, 1976; law degree: Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University, Houston, 1979
Political experience: Congressman, Georgia's 4th Congressional District, 2007-present; DeKalb County Commissioner, 5th District, 2001-2006; DeKalb County Magistrate Court judge, 1989-2000
Military experience: N/A
Civic experience: Past board member of the DeKalb Community Service Board.
Family status: Married to Mereda Davis Johnson, two children
Name: Vernon Jones
Education: Bachelor's degree in business administration from North Carolina Central University. Completed Executive Program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Political experience: 2000 to 2008: chief executive officer of DeKalb County; 1992 to 2000: state representative from DeKalb County in the Georgia General Assembly. During his tenure, Jones held positions on the Appropriations and Insurance committees, Health and Ecology, Banking Committee, and special Judiciary Committee.
Military experience: N/A
Civic experience: Jones has served as a member of the boards of the DeKalb Board of Health, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the DeKalb Library Board, the DeKalb Pension Board, and as a member of the Board of Visitors for Emory University and North Carolina Central University.
Family status: Single
Name: Connie Stokes
Education: Bachelor’s in business administration (BBA), marketing major; master's in public administration (MPA), public management major
Profession: Real estate broker
Political experience: State senator for 10 years, served as chairwoman of Health and Human Services Committee; DeKalb County super district commissioner
Military experience: N/A
Civic experience: Leadership DeKalb, Atlanta, and Rockdale-Regional Leadership Institute
Family status: Married to Dr. James Stokes; members of St Philip AME Church; three adult sons
Name: Victor Armendariz
Education: Bachelor's degree from Georgia State University
Political experience: I have held no elected position.
Military experience: N/A
Civic experience: Member of the Mexican/American Chamber
Family status: Single
Name: Lisbeth "Liz" Carter
Education: Sociology/marketing, Edmonds Community College and Utah Valley University
Profession: Entrepreneur, executive management in high tech and financial industries
Political experience: None
Military experience: Father and family, personally none
Civic experience: HOA board member; president, Women's Association; and Board of Advisers, Operation Homefront
Family status: Married, two stepsons
Name: Larry Gause
Education: Bachelor of science in marketing and management from Florida State University
Profession: Property manager
Political experience: Never held political office, but active supporter and participant in tea party movement. Attended tea party rallies in metro Atlanta and served as a volunteer. Actively worked to gather signatures in support of the Fair Tax.
Military experience: Served as an officer in the United States Navy. Served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, was admiral's aide, training officer for RECOM Seven (southeastern United States), Operations Officer, XO of MCM Crew DELTA forward deployed in Bahrain clearing mines and recovering ordinance. Awarded the Navy Commendation Medal, two Navy Achievement Medals, Combat Action Ribbon, Battle "E" from three commands and multiple other service awards. Honorably discharged and disabled veteran.
Civic experience: Actively involved in Gwinnett County swim program as a qualified stroke and turn judge as well as a starter. Once a month, work for local church with the children's program. Participated in several Habitat for Humanity homes. Volunteer in several capacities at children's school.
Family status: Married 10 years this June to my wife, Annette. We have two daughters, Hannah and Katelyn.
Name: Cory Jerome Ruth
Education: Studied biblical studies at Carver Bible College and theology at International Seminary. He was a Hearst Scholar at Oglethorpe University, where he studied history and politics and taught American Conversational Culture in Germany at the Universität Dortmund as a Halle scholar.
Profession: Project management consultant to provide strategic consultation and to manage multi-large, complex enterprise wide projects. He is currently managing projects associated with information security standards and technical compliance across 44 business units for a Fortune 500 firm.
Political experience: Ruth has published several political articles as the political analyst for Philadelphia-based think-tank RBA (Reformed Blacks of America).
Military experience: N/A.
Civic experience: Among other efforts, Ruth managed pro bono an emergency men's shelter that served 50 men, and a local food drive that fed hundreds each week, and mentored boys on path to expulsion at North Clayton High School.
Family status: Single