Several prominent Democrats line up to succeed John Lewis in Congress

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta), colleagues and activists march to the headquarters of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during a protest on June 13, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta), colleagues and activists march to the headquarters of U.S. Customs and Border Protection during a protest on June 13, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Credit: Alex Wong

Credit: Alex Wong

Nikema Williams opts against a bid for Lewis' unexpired term

A former Morehouse president, two state legislators and an ex-Atlanta city council member are among the candidates who lined up Friday to finish the unexpired term of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, setting the stage for a Sept. 29 special election to succeed the civil rights hero in Congress.

Veteran college administrator Robert Franklin, former Councilman Kwanza Hall, retiring state Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas and former state Rep. Keisha Waites highlight the list of seven contenders competing to fill the seat until January, when Lewis’ term expires.

But the slate is just as notable for those who decided not to compete in the heavily Democratic district. A host of well-known figures including former Atlanta Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and state Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, opted against a bid.

Williams has already been tapped by Democratic Party officials to replace Lewis on the November ballot in a separate vote for a full two-year term, and she is heavily favored to defeat Republican Angela Stanton-King in that contest.

She was under pressure by some fellow Democrats to also face the voters in a wide-open special election, though others cautioned there was little upside to risking a defeat in an unpredictable race to fill the seat for a short stint.

Williams said in a statement that she’s focusing her time on “maximizing turnout, making voting more accessible regardless of ZIP code” and working to help presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden flip Georgia in November.

“I will fight tirelessly to earn the support of voters in the 5th Congressional District and would be honored to serve as their voice in Congress in January,” she said.

A political comeback?

Several others signed up to run hours before Friday’s deadline, ending a qualifying period that started quietly. No candidates filled out paperwork to run during the first two days out of respect for Lewis, whose legacy was celebrated by three former presidents at his Thursday funeral.

One of the most prominent contenders is Thomas, who will have served a total of 22 years in the Georgia Legislature over three separate stints when she officially leaves office in January. While in the General Assembly, she has advocated for the expansion of Medicaid and more funding to combat high maternal mortality rates.

Joining Thomas in the fray is a onetime colleague in the Legislature, Waites, who ran for the Fulton County Commission chairmanship in 2018 and nearly forced U.S. Rep. David Scott into a runoff in the June primary in the 13th Congressional District.

Hall, too, is attempting a political comeback. He finished fourth in the 2017 race for mayor and was one of the only candidates to endorse Keisha Lance Bottoms before she won the mayorship in a December runoff.

He soon landed a job with Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency, but departed in January 2019 amid questions about whether his hiring violated ethics rules.

Franklin is an Emory University professor who was the president of Morehouse College from 2007 to 2012. A prolific author, Franklin was one of five finalists nominated by Democratic officials to replace Lewis on the November ballot, losing to Williams in an overwhelming vote.

During that party meeting, Franklin called himself a “transformed nonconformist” who can help bridge the generational gap between Lewis and another successor. His top priority, he added, would be to “do what history needs doing right now: We have to heal the racial divide in our city.”

Also running are Barrington Martin, an educator who was trounced by Lewis in the June primary but has amassed a fervent following on social media; Steven Muhammad, an East Point minister running as an independent; and Chase Oliver, who is active in the state Libertarian Party.

Since it’s a special election, all candidates will share the same ballot without a party primary to filter out nominees. If none receives a majority of the vote, there will be a Dec. 1 runoff between the two top finishers to fill the term for roughly a month.

Here’s a list of the candidates:

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

Kwanza Hall, a Democrat, is a former Atlanta city councilman who came in fourth in the 2017 race for mayor. He briefly worked as an economic development official for Invest Atlanta, but he left the job in January 2019 amid questions about whether his hiring violated ethics policies.

Barrington Martin, a Democrat, is an educator who challenged Lewis in the June primary. He’s pledged to push for a universal guaranteed income, the legalization of marijuana and congressional term limits to challenge the “tribal and corrupt nature” of Washington.

Steven Muhammad, an independent, is a minister from East Point. No other details were immediately available.

Chase Oliver, a Libertarian, is a customer service specialist who is active in the Libertarian Party of Georgia.

State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas, a Democrat, will have served a total of 22 years in the General Assembly when she officially leaves office in January. She was first sworn in to the state House in 1985 and served eight years. She returned to office in 2003, serving for six years, then returned for a third stint in 2013.

Keisha Waites, a Democrat, is a former state legislator who ran for the Fulton County Commission chairmanship in 2018 and nearly forced U.S. Rep. David Scott into a runoff in the June primary in the 13th Congressional District. During her campaigns, she’s emphasized her five years in the state Legislature as proof of her political capabilities.

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