Georgia Democrats to decide today who will replace John Lewis on the ballot

The Democratic Party of Georgia unveiled five finalists to be considered Monday to replace the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ name on the November ballot, a group that includes the state party’s chairwoman, several other elected officials and the retired president of Morehouse College.

The group of five top contenders largely represents a younger, more progressive wing of the party and doesn’t include several veteran figures who were floated as possible “placeholders” to serve out a two-year term or who signaled they would immediately step down to trigger a wide-open special election next year.

ExploreAs they mourn John Lewis' death, Georgia Democrats must pick his successor

Here are the five finalists:

State Rep. Park Cannon is one of the youngest members of the Georgia Legislature and a member of the party’s progressive wing. First elected in 2016, Cannon is one of several LGBTQ state lawmakers and has pushed for measures that would expand Medicaid and a more equitable criminal justice system.

“I would become the first openly queer member of Congress and the first openly queer woman,” she told the committee. “There is no other candidate that is more representative of the people that make up this diverse district and no one more prepared to serve this district immediately without a conflict of interest.”

Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens is seen as a rising Democratic leader. First elected in 2013, the business executive has carved a progressive agenda in City Hall, including legislation that implements a $15 hourly minimum wage in the city and initiatives promoting more affordable housing.

“I have passed laws. I know how to tackle big policy. I conduct research. I gain support. And I win the vote,” he told the committee.

Robert Franklin is the former president of Morehouse College who now serves as the historic institution’s emeritus president. He led the school from 2007-2012, a period of growth that included the expansion of the school’s campus and endowment. He’s the author of four books.

He called himself a “transformed non-conformist” who can “do what history needs doing right now: We have to heal the racial divide in our city.”

State Sen. Nikema Williams is the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia who represents an Atlanta-based stretch of Lewis’ congressional district in the state Legislature. She’s considered the front-runner for the party’s pick and has deep ties in the district and support from key party leaders. Her husband was a key aide to Lewis.

Williams framed herself as an acolyte of Lewis, down to her Alabama upbringing, and invoked her 2018 arrest at the state Capitol while demonstrating for voting rights as a sign of her willingness to get into “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.”

James “Major” Woodall is president of the Georgia NAACP and a veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, where he served as an intelligence analyst. A former candidate for the Georgia House in 2016, he served on the state committee of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

He said he’d be a voice for a younger generation who fights for the “promise of freedom.” “When we stand together we win, and we’re stronger together than ever apart,” said Woodall. “We can make America a better nation.”

Among the applicants who didn’t make the cut: State Reps. William Boddie, Howard Mosby and “Able” Mable Thomas; former Fulton Commission chair John Eaves; former state Reps. Tyrone Brooks and Doug Teper; and former state Sen. Vincent Fort.

Other prominent figures didn’t apply, including former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Stacey Abrams, the party’s 2018 gubernatorial candidate.

Here’s the full list.

The names were vetted by a 7-member panel that included Abrams, Bottoms, former party chair DuBose Porter and Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014.

“There was a great outpouring of interest. We considered every name and we had a really robust discussion. We ultimately reached a consensus on these recommendations,” Carter said. “There are a lot of good people who didn’t make it, but there will be additional elections if they seek to run.”

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200719-Atlanta-A man holds his candle high in front of the mural of John Lewis during a celebration of his life Sunday evening July 19, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The former top aide to the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis urged state Democratic officials on Monday to consider the “will of the people” when replacing the civil rights hero’s name on the ballot, indicating that he sides with activists who want the pick to step down in January to trigger a wide-open special election.

Michael Collins, who was long one of Lewis’ most trusted deputies, sent the letter to members of the party’s state executive committee hours before the group was set to decide among 131 candidates who applied to replace Lewis’ name on the November ballot.

“He believed very strongly that the people who represent the citizens should be elected by the citizens,” he wrote. “And that a free and fair election, where all individuals have a level-playing field, is in the best interest of our democracy.”

The letter could shake up the lightning-quick nominating process after Lewis’ death on Friday. Georgia law requires the state party to decide whether to replace his name by Monday, and a committee was assigned to vet the contenders who applied over the weekend.

Wendy Davis, a member of the executive committee, responded to Collins’ letter by pledging the group will “select a nominee worthy of the support of the people who were honored to be represented” by the congressman since 1987.

Since the Atlanta-based district is heavily Democrat, the appointment is seen as a virtual lock to win a full two-year term on November’s ballot.

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UNITED STATES - JUNE 23: Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., right, and Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., left, wade through the crowd of demonstrators on the East Plaza of the Capitol supporting the Democrats' sit-in for gun control legislation on Thursday, June 23, 2016. Rep. Lewis brought the sit-in to an end at 1 p.m., Thursday, thanking members for the 25-hour siege. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Facing a tight legal deadline, Georgia Democrats are set to replace the late John Lewis on the November ballot from a pool of more than 100 potential candidates who applied for the seat the weekend after the civil rights hero died.

The Democratic Party of Georgia’s state executive committee plans to meet to decide who to nominate to represent the Atlanta-based district Lewis held since 1987, and the candidate that lands the appointment will be considered a virtual lock to win a full two-year term in November.

The front-runner was believed to be state Sen. Nikema Williams, an Atlanta state senator who is also the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. Williams, 41, is a veteran activist with deep ties to the district and to Lewis; her husband was one of his aides.

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

But several Democratic officials and activists have urged the committee to tap a placeholder – someone who agrees to serve only a two-year term – or another candidate who will resign the seat in January to clear the way for a new vote.

Tharon Johnson, a veteran Democratic strategist who was one of Lewis’ top deputies, advocated for the latter approach, noting the congressman’s long history as a voting rights champion. He pointed to a state law that requires a special election if someone elected to Lewis’ seat withdraws after certification of the vote but prior to taking office.

“There were few things more sacred to him than the power of the people to make their voices heard at the ballot box,” said Johnson, who said that out of respect to Lewis’ legacy “his successor should be chosen and elected by the Democratic voters of the 5th Congressional District of Georgia, not party officials.”

He was echoed by several party officials and operatives, including state Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Brookhaven attorney who said his next congressman should be “chosen by the people of the 5th District not state party leaders.”

Others pushed back on that strategy.

Wendy Davis, a member of the executive committee, said tapping a stand-in who would resign would deprive the voters of the Atlanta-based district of a representative for months longer. State Sen. Gloria Butler, another member of the group, pronounced Johnson’s idea “insane.”

And state Sen. Jen Jordan, who represents portions of Atlanta in the Legislature, said the party must follow the state law even if it sets up an awkward situation.

“Whomever wants to run against the pick can. Two years is nothing,” she said. “Whomever it is will face multiple challengers in ’22.”

Though the jockeying for Lewis’ seat might seem off-putting so soon following his death, state law sets a speedy timeline.

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.

Georgia state Sen. Nikema Williams holds her son Carter Small after Williams at the state convention. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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.

(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 on the ballot. A nominating committee stacked with some of the party’s most prominent figures, including Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, will vet the online applications.

It will send a list of finalists 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.

The state party didn’t immediately disclose who applied for the job, but several Democratic leaders who were viewed as possible short-term options apparently didn’t apply. They include former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Fulton County Commission chair Robb Pitts, who are nonetheless both said to be open to the possibility.

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