McKinney-Johnson debate features sparks

ATLANTA - Customarily, candidates shake hands following a debate.

But there was none of that on Monday night after U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney and Democratic primary challenger Hank Johnson spent a half hour trading barbs on topics from her missed votes to his personal financial troubles.

Johnson, a former DeKalb commissioner, characterized McKinney, D-Decatur, as a divisive politician who has done nothing to improve the lives of her constituents in Georgia's 4th Congressional District.

McKinney accused Johnson of funding his effort to unseat her with money from developers and Republicans, two groups she said he would be beholden to if elected.

McKinney, who has been in Congress for most of the past 14 years, was the top vote-getter in the July 18 primary but failed to gain the majority required under state law to avoid an Aug. 8 runoff.

She received 47.1 percent of the vote to 44.4 percent for Johnson. John Coyne III, a businessman from Alpharetta, missed the runoff by finishing third with 8.5 percent of the vote.

Monday night's debate, sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club and aired statewide over Georgia Public Television, featured one sharp-elbowed exchange after another.

Echoing charges he has made throughout the campaign, Johnson said McKinney has been able to pass only one bill of the 64 she has sponsored during her time in Congress because she can't work with her colleagues.

"The Republicans have the majority,'' he said. "You simply must work with them to be effective. ... I am a candidate who builds consensus.''

Johnson also listed a series of recent House votes on key issues that McKinney missed, including efforts to raise the minimum wage and reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But McKinney dismissed criticism of her attendance, citing a 94 percent voting record compiled throughout her time in office.

She also argued that she has been an effective legislator, citing a recent report from a Web site that covers Congress ranking her at the top among Georgia Democrats in effectiveness.

McKinney said Johnson received more than $16,000 from Republicans leading up to the July 18 primary, shades of the same argument she used against Denise Majette during the Democratic primary four years ago.

Majette ousted McKinney from Congress that year, and McKinney charged after the primary that Republican "crossover'' voters played a key role in her defeat.

But she won the seat back in 2004 when Majette left the House in an unsuccessful bid for the Senate.

"Mr. Johnson's contributors are Republicans and developers,'' McKinney said Monday. "I don't have Republicans giving me votes, and I don't have Republicans giving me money.''

Johnson said that $16,000 was a small part of the $130,000 he raised during the primary campaign and that highlighting that money was "unfair.''

McKinney also assailed Johnson's personal finances, including unpaid taxes and a bankruptcy filing.

Johnson said he ran into financial problems for several years during the late 1980s but has since paid all of his back taxes and gotten back on his feet.

"It was a humbling experience to go through,'' he said.

The debate touched only briefly on McKinney's run-in with a Capitol police officer last March. She struck the officer after he didn't recognize her at a checkpoint and stopped her.

The incident was referred to a grand jury, but the panel declined to indict McKinney for assault.

"I was never charged with anything,'' she said.

Monday night's debate was the first between the two candidates to be televised.

McKinney didn't show up for two debates before the primary, citing scheduling conflicts.