Just days after the death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrats selected party Chairwoman Nikema Williams, a state senator who framed herself as a protégé of the civil rights giant, to take his place on the November ballot.
Facing an urgent legal deadline, the state party’s executive committee met Monday on Zoom to select Williams over four other finalists filtered from dozens of applicants who sought the seat after Lewis’ death Friday.
Williams is seen as a virtual lock to win the Atlanta-based district, which is so heavily Democratic that Lewis often drew only token Republican opposition since he first won the seat in 1986. She will face Republican Angela Stanton-King, an ally of President Donald Trump, in November.
A veteran activist with deep ties to the party’s base, Williams cast herself as an acolyte of Lewis — right down to their shared Alabama upbringing. And she invoked her 2018 arrest at the state Capitol during a voting rights demonstration as a sign of her willingness to get into the congressman’s brand of “good trouble.”
“We need someone who is not afraid to put themselves on the line for their constituents in the same way Congressman Lewis taught us to do,” she told the committee in a virtual address.
She was considered the favorite for the party’s pick and won by an overwhelming vote of the 44-member committee.
But several prominent Democrats questioned whether Lewis — a champion of voting rights and transparency — would have favored the obscure process to select his successor through a hurried vote of party insiders rather than an election.
Some called for the party to tap a “place-holder” candidate who would serve only one two-year term or resign in January to clear the way for a wide-open vote. Among them was Michael Collins, Lewis’ former top aide, who urged the committee in a letter sent Monday to carry out the “will of the people.”
“He believed very strongly that the people who represent the citizens should be elected by the citizens,” Collins wrote of Lewis. “And that a free and fair election, where all individuals have a level-playing field, is in the best interest of our democracy.”
State party leaders said they had little choice but to carry out the rapid process, which played out as they mourned the death of one of Georgia’s most iconic political leaders.
Since Lewis had already won the June primary, Georgia law gave party officials until 4 p.m. Monday to determine whether to leave his name on the ballot or replace it. Party operatives said not doing so would have risked losing a seat that Lewis carried by at least 70% of the vote in nearly all of his re-election bids.
State Sen. Gloria Butler, a member of the executive committee, echoed several of her colleagues when she said the idea of tapping a Democrat who would resign the seat in January was “insane.”
“We know this process is flawed and it needs extra work,” she said. “And when we get back in the session, we’ll look at that.”
Some Republicans poked fun at the convoluted online teleconference calls marred by the usual technical difficulties of accidentally unmuted lines and frozen screens. Others accused Democrats, who have long accused Georgia Republicans of employing voter suppression tactics, of hypocrisy.
“In a near unanimous vote, the Georgia Democratic Party executive committee chose their own chairwoman for the slot. And no one is surprised except for the other 130 folks who applied for it thinking they had a fair fight,” said Paul Bennecke, an operative who was once executive director of the Republican Governors Association. “Let the spinning begin.”
More than 130 potential candidates filled out the six-question forms over the weekend to compete for Lewis’ seat, and a committee that included former party gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms hashed out a list of five top contenders early Monday.
Other prominent figures didn’t apply, including former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts.
The group of finalists that emerged largely represented the party’s younger and more liberal wing: state Rep. Park Cannon, Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens and Georgia NAACP President James Woodall joined Williams on the slate.
The exception was former Morehouse College President Robert Franklin, who presented himself as a bridge between generations who can “do what history needs doing right now.”
“We have to heal the racial divide in our city,” Franklin said.
Each of the finalists framed themselves in 5-minute online speeches as principled activists who could honor Lewis’ lofty legacy.
“There is no other candidate that is more representative of the people that make up this diverse district,” said Cannon, who said she would be the first openly queer member of Congress, “and no one more prepared to serve this district immediately without a conflict of interest.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Williams won thanks to support from a formidable network of activists and elected officials who form the core of the state party. She captured 37 of the 41 votes cast; her closest rival, Cannon, netted two ballots.
“Her fight for the oppressed, the left behind and the strivers will continue to serve Georgia well,” Abrams, one of Williams’ key supporters, said shortly after the vote.
It’s not immediately clear whether Williams will also run in a separate special election to fill out the remaining months of Lewis’ term, which expires in January. Gov. Brian Kemp has 10 days to schedule that vote, which has no bearing on the November election for the full two-year term.
It’s also not certain how Williams’ Atlanta-based state Senate seat will be filled, or whether she will remain as the party chairwoman through the November election. Hours after she won the nomination, she posted a picture with Lewis to her social media feed.
“Nobody will ever fill the shoes of Congressman John Lewis,” she wrote. “I will do everything in my power to honor his legacy and lift up his spirit.”