It was a moment that both humiliated and galvanized Nikema Williams.
On a dreary November 2018 morning, the state senator arrived at the state Capitol for a rote vote on Hurricane Michael relief. She left the building hours later, in restraints and flanked by law enforcement officers, for standing with voting rights protesters.
Though the criminal charges were later dismissed, Williams spent hours in a local jail and later said officers threatened to conduct a strip search. It was an affront to First Amendment rights, she said, and a reminder of the dangers of unfettered police authority.
It was also a defining point in the 41-year-old’s young political career. When she appealed to fellow Democrats on Monday to nominate her to succeed the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Williams evoked the arrest as proof of how she’s embraced the sort of “good trouble” the civil rights giant championed.
Williams is now on the cusp of succeeding Lewis in Congress after winning an overwhelming vote of party insiders forced by a legal deadline to decide this week on his replacement. She’s not trying to fill Lewis’ shoes, she told the party’s executive committee, but will use her personal experiences to shape the journey.
“I learned from Congressman Lewis how to speak up and speak out for my constituents,” she said before Monday’s vote. “He showed me the value of putting myself, sometimes physically, in between the dangerous policies and the most vulnerable communities they hurt.”
Williams’ career arc took her over the past three years from community activist to state senator to chairmanship of the state Democratic Party — she’s the first black woman to hold the post — to the brink of Congress. And just like Lewis, it started in small-town Alabama.
She grew up in the east Alabama town of Smiths Station, a few miles across the state line from Columbus, in a family that had been deeply involved in the civil rights movement. Her grandfather was a prominent community leader, and her great-aunt, Autherine Lucy, integrated the University of Alabama in 1956.
After graduating from Talladega College in 2000, Williams moved to Atlanta — her family still calls it the “big city” — hardly knowing a soul. Her social network centered on her growing political activism, and she quickly plunged into her work with the Young Democrats chapter in Atlanta.
Williams climbed the rungs of party leadership the old-fashioned way: organizing events, knocking on doors, registering new voters. And she made her mark urging anyone who would listen — voters, candidates, activists — to strive for authenticity.
“She’s clear-eyed about her values, and she expects people to walk the walk,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, who entered the state Senate at the same time as Williams. “It’s not just about espousing values. You’ve got to live it.”
Williams’ day job mirrored her passion. She worked for Planned Parenthood, voting rights groups and labor organizations. She met her husband, Leslie Small, a veteran strategist who was an aide to Lewis, while on the campaign trail in 2008. She often brings their 4-year-old son Carter — named after former President Jimmy Carter — to campaign events.
By 2013, when Williams was the party’s No. 2 leader, she was forced to step in as acting chairwoman for several months when then-Chairman Mike Berlon resigned halfway through his term amid fraud accusations. It was an early test for Williams on a statewide stage.
“She was part of the team that helped rebuild the party. We didn’t have enough money to pay the light bill,” said DuBose Porter, whom Williams helped draft to overhaul the organization. “People started trusting in the party, nationally and statewide, soon after because of the work Nikema put in.”
Eager to transform her advocacy into political action, Williams seized an opening when veteran state Sen. Vincent Fort resigned his Atlanta-based seat in 2017 to run for mayor. She narrowly won the heavily Democratic district in a special election later that year, and she quickly made her mark in the chamber.
She pushed for causes such as expanding abortion rights and opposed measures she feared would restrict ballot access. As a prominent ally of Stacey Abrams during her campaign for governor against Republican Brian Kemp, Williams traveled the state delivering razor-sharp broadsides against his policies.
Still, she could work across the aisle when necessary. When Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan sought help to shape his hate-crimes proposal earlier this year, one of the first Democrats he approached was Williams.
“You have always been an honest broker and I have no doubt you’ll continue to do the same in D.C.,” John Porter, Duncan’s top aide, wrote Williams in a congratulatory note.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who became the Georgia delegation’s second female member when she was appointed to complete the rest of Johnny Isakson’s term, said she identifies with the pressure Williams now faces.
“I certainly know what it’s like to fill the shoes of a giant of a statesman, of someone who has served our state well and left their mark,” Loeffler said. “And one of the most touching moments I think in recent congressional history was the embrace between Congressman Lewis and Senator Isakson. That spirit: We should continue that.”
‘She stood up'
Williams’ profile rocketed skyward after the November 2018 confrontation with police, when she was among 15 demonstrators arrested during a “count every vote” protest under the Gold Dome while the election between Abrams and Kemp was still unsettled.
She had joined the group in the Capitol Rotunda to show support for constituents who were protesting Kemp’s policies as Georgia’s top elections official when an officer abruptly restrained her hands with zip ties and brought her to a waiting van. As she was hauled out of the building, confused reporters asked the senator why she was being arrested.
Priscilla Smith, now a candidate for a Georgia House seat, was among the activists arrested with Williams.
“She was furious, and I don’t blame her,” Smith said. “It was completely uncalled for. It’s against the law for her to be arrested; she can’t be arrested in the Capitol while she is doing her job.”
Williams was charged with obstruction and disrupting a general assembly, sparking outrage from Democrats who said she was wrongfully arrested as she stood peacefully with constituents. The charges against Williams and the other activists were eventually dropped, but the sting remained.
Jordan, the senator, called it a “clarifying moment” for Williams.
“Sometimes you don’t choose the moment. The moment chooses you. She didn’t have any intent to get arrested that day,” Jordan said. “But she saw her constituents getting pushed around by Capitol Police and wanted to mediate. She stood up to them.”
Months later, Williams won election as leader of the state party with a promise to expand the strategy that Abrams embraced: an intense focus on voters who feel neglected by politicians, muscular opposition to Republican policies and an embrace of a liberal agenda.
The coronavirus has presented another challenge, personally and professionally. As she helped shape the Democratic response to the pandemic, she also disclosed that she was among at least five state senators who had contracted COVID-19. Quickly, she saw her fight with the disease as a chance to warn about not being complacent.
“You can get this, too” she said on her social media account. “Many of you reading this already have the coronavirus and are showing no symptoms.”
As the presidential election nears, she’s stepped up her attempts to persuade Joe Biden and national Democratic groups to pour money into Georgia. Now she’ll be among five Democrats who are a minority in Georgia’s congressional delegation — but a majority in the U.S. House.
Williams, who declined interview requests, is a heavy favorite to defeat Republican Angela Stanton-King in November. But she must also quell doubts within her own party over her selection.
While few prominent Democrats openly criticized her, there was much pushback over the quick process required by Georgia law to name Lewis’ successor on the ballot just days after his death.
Some Democrats wanted a nominee who would step down in January to trigger a special election, and there are discussions in party circles about an effort to draft a write-in candidate who promises to do that.
Her allies dismiss that notion. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson was among the overwhelming majority of party executive committee members who endorsed Williams’ nomination, and he said Tuesday that he has no doubts about her leadership capabilities.
“She will serve that district well,” Johnson said, “and I’m proud to know her and I look forward to her being one of my colleagues here in Congress.”