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As they mourn John Lewis, Ga. Democrats must quickly choose a successor

FILE -- Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) speaks on voting rights outside the Capitol in Washington, June 25, 2019. Lewis, a son of sharecroppers and apostle of nonviolence who was bloodied at Selma and across the Jim Crow South in the historic struggle for racial equality and then carried a mantle of moral authority into Congress, died on Friday, July 17, 2020. He was 80. (Michael A. McCoy/The New York Times)
FILE -- Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) speaks on voting rights outside the Capitol in Washington, June 25, 2019. Lewis, a son of sharecroppers and apostle of nonviolence who was bloodied at Selma and across the Jim Crow South in the historic struggle for racial equality and then carried a mantle of moral authority into Congress, died on Friday, July 17, 2020. He was 80. (Michael A. McCoy/The New York Times)

As Georgia Democrats mourn the death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, they must also quickly decide who will succeed the civil rights hero in what might be the shortest congressional campaign in recent state history.

By Monday afternoon, the Democratic Party of Georgia plans to announce who will replace Lewis’ name on the November ballot — a candidate who will be a virtual lock to represent the heavily Democratic seat for the next two years.

There’s no time or need for the traditional campaign that candidates would normally run. Instead potential candidates must turn to their keyboards and fill out a six-question application that asks about their ties to the Atlanta-based district and why they should be considered for the seat.

The abbreviated process is playing out in a weekend of calls and text messages that began shortly after news broke Friday night of Lewis’ death. It culminates with a noon meeting on Monday of the party’s state executive committee to decide who will be the nominee for the seat Lewis has represented since 1987.

“Think about being the person to hold that seat after John Lewis — the pressure and scrutiny that comes with trying to fill the shoes of a giant,” said Joel Alvarado, a veteran Democratic strategist. “It’s got to be someone who is both magnanimous and humble, someone who can honor his legacy while forging their own identity.”

The front-runner, if it can be called that, is state party chairwoman Nikema Williams. The 41-year-old state senator represents a stretch of Lewis’ district in the Georgia Legislature and has built a national profile as one of the state’s foremost female Black political leaders. Her husband, Leslie Small, is a former Lewis aide who considered him a mentor.

Williams didn’t immediately comment over the weekend, but interviews with a dozen Democratic officials who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the process said she’s in leading contention to win the party’s nomination.

Other names have been floated, too. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin has deep ties with city leaders after serving two terms in the City Hall’s top job.

Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens, who is seen as an up-and-coming party figure and is likely to apply, emphasized the need for a “fair, transparent and democratic process.”

Former state Sen. Vincent Fort, who plans to submit his application, said Democrats should consider tapping a “placeholder” who would then give way to a wide-open election in 2022 for the seat.

“I’ve studied the movement and lived the movement,” said Fort, who preceded Williams in the state Senate before leaving to run an unsuccessful campaign for Atlanta mayor. “This historic seat needs an open and transparent process.”

State Sen. Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, speaks during a press conference at the state Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 14, 2018. (Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
State Sen. Nikema Williams, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, speaks during a press conference at the state Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 14, 2018. (Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

‘New voice’

The jockeying for Lewis’ seat might seem callous and even brazen so soon after his death. But it’s not the fault of state Democrats. It’s a is a necessity given the quirks of Georgia law.

Typically, if a sitting U.S. House member dies in office or resigns before his or her term is up, it sets up a months-long special election process. That’s what happened after U.S. Rep. Tom Price was tapped in November 2016 to serve in a Cabinet post, triggering a campaign for his suburban seat that ended with Republican Karen Handel’s June 2017 runoff win.

But since Lewis died after the party’s June primary — and so close to the November election — Georgia law gives party officials until the first business day after Lewis’ death to determine whether to leave his name on the November ballot or replace it.

It’s an option the party is eager to take, given that Lewis’ seat is so safely Democratic that he didn’t draw a Republican opponent two years ago. This year, the Democratic nominee will face Angela-Stanton King, a Republican long-shot candidate who is promoting her ties to President Donald Trump in a district he lost overwhelmingly in 2016.

(There will also be a separate special election to fill out the remaining months of Lewis’ term, which expires in January. Gov. Brian Kemp has 10 days to set the timing of that vote, which has no bearing on the November election for the full two-year term.)

Democrats outlined a two-pronged approach to replace Lewis’ name over the weekend. A nominating committee stacked with some of the party’s most prominent figures will vet the 131 online applications the party received.

That group includes Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and Jason Carter, who ran for governor in 2014.

That panel will select a list of finalists to pass on to the state party’s executive committee — a 44-member group of activists and elected leaders — that will make a final decision on Monday. The top finalists will also get the chance to make personal appeals before the committee casts their ballots.

Delegates cheer during the Georgia Democratic Convention  in Atlanta, Saturday, August 25, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Delegates cheer during the Georgia Democratic Convention in Atlanta, Saturday, August 25, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“It’s going to be hard to replace such a giant of a man, but I look forward to going through the process,” said state Sen. Gloria Butler, who chairs the chamber’s Democratic Caucus and is a member of the party’s executive committee.

“It’s such a quick turnaround. We don’t even have time to hardly think about it. But I hope we get some great upstanding candidates who can carry on his legacy. He made it look easy, but it wasn’t.”

Republicans snickered that the process borrowed from Kemp’s search last year for a successor to Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. Hundreds of people applied for the coveted job over several months, drawing criticism from Democrats who said the online method was opaque and unfair.

State Democrats said they had little choice but to resort to seeking online resumes in hopes of, according to party general counsel Sachin Varghese, honoring Lewis’ legacy while “working within the applicable legal framework.”

The law is a bit vague. It says the state party executive committee has until 4 p.m. Monday to decide whether to fill the seat, but doesn’t explicitly specify that a replacement be named by that deadline.

Still, party leaders want to leave nothing to chance — and are wary of a ruling by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, that blocks them from replacing Lewis’ name if they don’t meet the deadline.

“That’s the biggest concern — that seat could be lost on a technicality,” said Ted Terry, the party’s vice-chair. “That’s why you’re seeing a scramble.”

Scramble might be an understatement. Alvarado, the veteran strategist, said phones have been ringing — “and ears burning” — all weekend to lay the groundwork.

“We have to do everything we can to get the right person to fill the seat. It’s not about winning, because the Democrat will win,” he said.

“It’s about fulfilling the legacy of John Lewis. It’s a great time to lift up the new generation of leaders, to have a new voice who can add to the conversation.”

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