Seven compete to fill John Lewis’ seat - briefly

For the seven candidates in Tuesday’s 5th Congressional District special election to finish the term of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, motivation came in the form of divine intervention, raw ambition, a public service mission and the sheer pride of following in the footsteps of the legendary Lewis himself.

The candidates in the multi-ethnic, multigenerational field are all competing for a job that won’t even last as long as their campaigns. If no candidate wins 50% plus one Tuesday, the top two finishers go to a Dec. 1 runoff, leaving the winner with roughly 30 days in Congress before Lewis' term ends Jan. 3.

So why go to the trouble of running for a congressional seat they’ll hardly have time to occupy?

Former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall said he had no plans to run for office again until a July diagnosis of COIVD-19 left him sick and isolated, with days on end to think. After watching Lewis' funeral on television, along with young people demonstrating in the streets to protest police violence, he felt called by God. “He said, you’re going to run for this position and you’re going to serve," Hall said. "I felt the spirit.”

Hall says he’d spend his short time on Capitol Hill working on projects Lewis cared deeply about, including revitalizing the Auburn Avenue corridor in Atlanta. “Give me 90 days and watch what happens,” he said.

Retiring state Rep. “Able” Mabel Thomas said Lewis' work on health care, voting rights and criminal justice needs to continue in Congress as soon as his replacement is elected — and she’d be “ready on day one” to do it.

Thomas pointed to her time on the Atlanta City Council and 22 years in the state Legislature, where she won major victories on women’s health and maternal mortality, as proof. “Sometimes it becomes very clear that if you are going to occupy a legacy seat, you have to have someone who has done the work of the legend,” she said.

Filling the Lewis seat properly is a theme that comes up again and again among the candidates. “It’s not a secret that I have a desire to serve in Congress,” former state Rep. Keisha Sean Waites said. “But more important, this is almost a sacred seat.”

Waites tells potential voters that the 5th District is currently without representation “and it needs someone with legislative and policy experience, which I have.”

Unlike the veterans in the race, former Morehouse College President Robert Franklin has never run for office at all. But he said he “almost felt John Lewis on my shoulder” as he thought about who should replace the congressman, whom Franklin knew for many years.

“I’m running out of my desire to honor my friendship with John Lewis and my desire to steward his legacy forward,” Franklin said. “To keep alive in the public square his moral and legislative agenda.”

The fifth Democrat in the race, Barrington Martin II, ran against Lewis in the July primary and won about 20,000 votes. The special needs teacher at McNair Middle School said he decided to run again, just weeks after the primary, because he sees his candidacy as a way to “change the narrative” about young Black men in America.

“Me getting to Congress would show Black boys that to be great, they don’t have to be an athlete and they don’t have to be a rapper,” he said. “They can forge their own path.”

Along with the five Democrats, the race includes independent Steven Muhammad and Libertarian Chase Oliver, who both said that the special election gives them a once-in-a-career chance to run for a seat in Congress without Georgia’s cumbersome election laws that require thousands of signatures to run outside of the two major parties.

Running as an independent, Muhammad said, “opens up the door for me to talk to both sides of the aisle about what’s best for the 5th District and what’s best for America.”

Oliver said he’s running “to honor the legacy of John Lewis” and to highlight how Georgia laws still limit ballot access for third-party candidates.

“We need more choices and better choices,” he said.

Muhammad and Oliver aren’t the only ones running with complaints about how Lewis' seat will be filled — first with the special election to finish out the year, and again on Election Day with Republican Angela Stanton King and Democrat Nikema Williams facing off for a full two-year term.

Williams, who is the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, was named by the party to be its nominee in November, an option afforded by Georgia law.

Waites called the process “a sham.”

“I think it robbed the district of an opportunity that the congressman would have supported,” she said.

According to House rules, Lewis' immediate successor will work out of his former office space and have the option to continue to work with his staff. While no pension or health care perks come with the honor, they’ll always be afforded access to the chamber of the House in Washington as a former member.

More than anything, they’ll have the pride of knowing that they followed in the footsteps of a legend, even if it’s just a short walk.

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