Meet Nikema Williams, the newly elected leader of Georgia’s Democrats

Georgia Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, holds her son Carter Small after Williams made her bid to becom the next chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia Chair. January 26, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Georgia Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, holds her son Carter Small after Williams made her bid to becom the next chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia Chair. January 26, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Nikema Williams has big plans for the Georgia Democratic Party.

The first black woman elected to lead the state party, Williams takes over an institution energized by the campaign of Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the governor’s race to Republican Brian Kemp and continues to be seen as a rising star nationally.

In picking Williams, Democrats elected a protege of Abrams who has a similar approach: An intense focus on targeting voters often ignored by politicians, an embrace of liberal policies and a knack for taking the fight to the GOP.

She’s taking the helm at a critical time. Democrats lost every statewide election, but scored victories across the suburbs and made the race for governor the closest in decades.

Williams, a state senator representing a liberal Atlanta-based district, said she plans to be an assertive voice for Georgia Democrats, refusing to shy away from confrontations with the majority party. She got a head start on that in November when she was arrested during a protest at the state Capitol over the gubernatorial election.

“We’re going to make sure voters know how (Republican Gov.) Brian Kemp is failing us and what’s happening in Washington and our state Legislature,” she said Saturday.

As a young black woman, her election represents the diversity that’s a cornerstone of the Democratic Party, said Lance Robertson, who lives in Williams’ Senate district.

“I never thought this day would come in Georgia. It is so long overdue,” Robertson said.

Williams has some experience leading the party. She stepped in as acting chairwoman for a few months in 2013 when then-Chairman Mike Berlon resigned amid accusations of fraud two years into his term.

Berlon pleaded guilty in 2015 and was sentenced to five years in prison.

“I oversaw some of the darkest days and times of our party,” Williams said. “I’m excited to be coming into the party now where things are on the upswing. People are excited to be Georgia Democrats.”

The party is coming off a somewhat successful 2018 election season, when Democrats flipped a U.S. House seat and several state legislative seats that were held by Republicans.

Former state Sen. Vincent Fort, whom Williams replaced in the Senate in 2017 when Fort ran for Atlanta mayor, said Williams’ election shows that Democrats value the leadership of black women.

“Her election sends the message that the core of the Democratic Party is an essential bloc, not just of voters, but of leadership,” he said.

Focusing the party

When the Democrats lost the Governor’s Mansion, the party no longer had a clear leader in the state. Since then, Democrats in Georgia have at times faced power struggles involving the House and Senate members and the party. Williams said she aims to change that.

"With me at the helm as the chair of the party — and being a member of the Legislature — I hope to bridge that gap," she said, adding that she has good working relationships with Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson of Stone Mountain and House Minority Leader Bob Trammell of Luthersville.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, who was appointed as the party's first black chairman in 2001, said collaboration has long been a challenge but will be key to building on the gains from last year's election.

“The House, Senate and (party) is a three-legged stool,” he said. “The stool can’t stand without one of the legs.”

Jane Kidd, who in 2007 became the first woman to lead the state Democratic Party, said Williams will have a major task each year of her term.

“She’ll have the Census, the presidential election, and, on the end of the four-year term, she’ll have another gubernatorial election,” she said. “So it’s a huge task. She’s setting the stage for 2020 and 2022.”

Williams said a first order of business is to grow the party’s grassroots network as they gear up for the U.S Senate and presidential elections next year.

“My grandma taught me if you stay ready, you’ll be ready,” Williams said. “We’re going to build a year-round (operation), going directly to voters and reminding people what’s happened in the Legislature as we gear up for 2020. Democracy does not start and stop on Election Day.”

Even with the gains seen in the 2018 elections, the party will face an uphill battle. Republicans have held all of the statewide seats since 2011 and hold majorities in both the state Senate and the House.

Democrats have chipped away at the Republican two-thirds majority, which for years had allowed the GOP-controlled General Assembly to pass constitutional amendments without any votes from the minority party. But the gains were mainly focused in the metro-Atlanta area, with Republicans having strong support in rural Georgia.

And, still hanging over Williams' head is her November arrest during a protest in the Capitol during a five-day special session.

She was one of 15 arrested during the protest. Williams is charged with obstruction and disrupting the General Assembly. She is fighting the charge, arguing that Georgia law requires that legislators "shall be free from arrest during sessions of the General Assembly" except for treason, felony or breach of the peace.

Her case has yet to be assigned a judge.

“I’m coming into party leadership with two pending criminal charges,” she said. “I’m still hopeful the state is going to drop the charges. None of the arrests should have happened that day.”

From rural Alabama to Georgia party chair

Raised in Smiths Station, Ala., Williams moved to Atlanta in 2002 after graduating from Talladega College.

“I moved here not knowing a soul and trying to figure out how I was going to make it work in the ‘big city’ — as my family still calls it,” she said.

Williams said she joined the Young Democrats of Atlanta that year and has spent the past 17 years working her way up the ranks — serving as a congressional district chairwoman, national convention delegate and first vice chairwoman of the party.

She met her husband while campaigning for Democrats in 2008.

The two have a 3-year-old son, Carter, who she said has likely been to as many Democratic Party meetings as some state committee members. He was in tow during Saturday’s election, almost stealing the show when he rushed up to her as she closed out her remarks in front of the group.

“The Democratic Party is very much family,” she said.

Williams — who succeeds Dubose Porter, a former state representative who publishes a newspaper in Dublin — said while she’s spent that past 17 years in Atlanta, she understands the difficulties that many living in rural Georgia face.

“I grew up with no indoor plumbing and no running water,” she said. “In my Senate district, I represent some of the wealthiest parts of our city and some of the poorest. … My job is making sure that the Democratic Party is uplifting the voices of people who feel continually left out.”

Williams said it wasn’t until a few days before the election that she paused to realize she would be the first black woman to lead the party.

“Black women lift up so much in our communities,” she said. “We’re often not appreciated for the work we do, but we’re constantly called on to do the work. I’m grateful that people have seen the work I’ve done for so long and are willing to stand behind me.”