Decatur, Ga.—Rep. Cynthia McKinney, running late, rushes into her suburban Atlanta campaign headquarters. She’s about to be endorsed by the 250-member Afro-American Patrolmen’s League.
It’s a week before a runoff between McKinney and Democrat Hank Johnson. It’s a day after three county sheriffs and the statewide Fraternal Order of Police threw their support to Johnson. And McKinney is struggling to make her second comeback in two years.
“This is the fight of her career,” says William Boone, a political scientist at Clark Atlanta University.
The competition for police support stems from a March incident in which McKinney shoved a Capitol Hill officer. “I was never charged with anything, and so it’s not an issue,” she says.
Even so, the scuffle underscored the main issue for many voters—McKinney herself. Johnson, a low-key defense attorney and former county commissioner, understands that as well as anyone. His slogan is “Vote Hank, Replace Cynthia.”
McKinney, 51, touts herself as a voice for the voiceless. “Send me back to Washington so I can speak truth to power,” she says.
Last month, however, she won only 47% to Johnson’s 44% in the Democratic primary, forcing Tuesday’s runoff. She began a cable-TV ad barrage at week’s end as polls showed her trailing Johnson.
McKinney’s scuffle with the Capitol Hill Police officer has been a key issue. McKinney had a new hairstyle and was not wearing her congressional member pin when an officer stopped her from circumventing security at the Capitol. She later accused the officer of racial profiling and “inappropriate touching.” A grand jury did not bring charges against McKinney.
McKinney’s conduct sets a bad example and is an appropriate campaign issue, Johnson says. A “regular” person who shoved a cop, he says, would have been handcuffed, fingerprinted and booked.
Abramowitz says many voters perceive McKinney as a mix of “arrogance and paranoia.” He says she has written off northern DeKalb County, a white area where he lives: “We do not get her newsletters. She never ventures up here.”
McKinney counters that “I’ve always been the representative for everyone” in the district, whatever their race or party.
Mark Davis, a “data miner” for the GOP, says he’s notifying Republicans who did not vote in the GOP primary that they can vote in the Democratic runoff. He says some Republicans want to stay out of it because “we love having a wing nut like McKinney as the face of the Democrat Party.” Others want to defeat her because “she is such a joke that she can’t get much done in Congress for her constituents.”
McKinney scores Johnson for taking money from Republicans—including former gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner—and says it’s “pernicious” that her state’s open system allows them to vote in the runoff. “Republicans want to pick who the Democratic leader of the 4th Congressional District of Georgia is going to be,” she says.
Civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have endorsed McKinney, and most of her contributors are from outside Georgia. It’s OK for them to help pick the winner, McKinney said, because “Congress is a national office.”
Unlike typical candidates, McKinney has no campaign press secretary or public schedule. She did not participate in debates before the primary. A recorded office greeting last weekend urged callers to vote in the primary July 20. The primary was actually on July 18.
McKinney called her event with black officers Tuesday “very important,” but the press was not alerted. Only CNN and USA TODAY were present, joined halfway through by a local TV station. The CNN crew was there for a prearranged interview (it never happened) and was unaware of the endorsement.
One of the endorsers was McKinney’s father, a retired cop. The pair spent much of the hour discussing past and present discrimination against black police officers.
Boone says one reason McKinney might lose Tuesday is her focus on racial issues. Newcomers to her district, he says, are younger, middle-class blacks interested in education, jobs and taxes: “They are not necessarily influenced by the old civil rights leadership. The demographics are changing. … We are definitely in a post-civil rights phase.”