Low-key primary turns into high-profile runoff

ATLANTA - Voters couldn't get a greater contrast in styles to choose from than they're being offered in next week's Democratic runoff in Georgia's 4th Congressional District.

U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Decatur, has made a career in Congress out of being controversial - as she likes to put it, "speaking truth to power'' - on issues from the war in Iraq to the Bush's administration's slow response to last year's Hurricane Katrina.

Former DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson, a lawyer from Lithonia who is challenging McKinney's bid for a seventh term, is much more measured in his statements.

In fact, he argues that McKinney's bombastic style has alienated her colleagues in Congress to the point that she can't effectively represent the district, which includes most of DeKalb and portions of Gwinnett and Rockdale counties.

"She can't work with people,'' he said. "If you can't work with people, you can't get anything done in Congress.''

In response, McKinney holds out a recent report from a Web site that covers Congress, which ranked her tops among Georgia Democrats for "legislative effectiveness.'' She also puts at $350 million the federal spending she has brought to the 4th during a dozen years in office.

"I am a proud independent Democrat who represents people with passion and conviction,'' she said.

Surprise runoff

But political observers say McKinney's style is what got her into enough trouble with voters to force her into Tuesday's runoff with Johnson. The winner will be heavily favored to defeat Republican Catherine Davis in November in the heavily Democratic district.

His strong second-place showing on July 18 - 44.4 percent of the vote to 47.1 percent for McKinney - was the biggest surprise of this year's primaries.

After all, McKinney was able to win the Democratic primary two years ago without a runoff, even though she had five opponents.

She didn't have the advantage of incumbency in 2004, either, having lost the seat in 2002 to Denise Majette.

"I think she's represented the district in such a way that she really has polarized the electorate,'' said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. "If you did a favorability poll, she'd have very high negatives.''

Apparently, McKinney was among those surprised by the strength of Johnson's candidacy.

Before July 18, she ran the low-profile campaign of an incumbent expecting to win easily.

But since then, she has turned up her efforts, agreeing to two televised debates with her challenger, making a big cable TV advertising buy and holding a news conference to announce her endorsement by former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.

"Being held below 50 percent by an underfunded, largely unknown candidate showed she really misunderstood the contest they were in and is trying to catch up,'' Black said.

Negative campaign

As the campaign between McKinney and Johnson has become more visible, it also has grown more negative.

McKinney has gotten personal with Johnson, citing financial problems that include failing to pay taxes and filing for bankruptcy.

He said he has made good on the taxes he owed and learned some valuable lessons from going through bankruptcy, including gaining empathy for people who get caught in a financial bind.

McKinney also has highlighted Johnson's receipt of $16,000 in campaign contributions from Republicans.

She also played the Republican card back in 2002 when she blamed her defeat by Majette on Republicans "crossing over'' to vote against her in that year's Democratic primary.

"Republicans in Georgia want to dictate who the Democratic nominee in this election will be,'' she said.

Johnson responded that he is a "lifelong Democrat'' and that the money McKinney cited is a drop in the bucket compared to the $130,000 in donations he took in before the primary vote.

Turning the tables, he has criticized McKinney for bankrolling her campaign with out-of-state contributions from places like Los Angeles and New York, where she enjoys a high profile among wealthy liberals.

"My money comes from my constituents,'' he said. "Her money comes from out of state.''

Handicapping the race

As with any runoff, the result will be determined by which candidate does a better job convincing their supporters to come out and vote a second time.

Even though McKinney finished first on July 18, Black suggests that she faces a tougher challenge.

For one thing, incumbents generally go into primaries with an advantage but tend to fare poorly if they're forced into runoffs.

"More often than not, the challenger wins because the momentum shifts,'' Black said.

"Johnson's supporters will be very motivated to come back because they think he has a chance of winning.''

Over the years, McKinney has earned a reputation for getting her supporters to the polls when she needed them.

But Black said recent statistics show that she might be losing her touch.

While she scored an impressive win two years ago by staying out of a runoff in a race with multiple candidates, she still garnered just more than 50 percent of the vote.

That 2004 primary win was sandwiched between a 2002 primary loss and the July 18 vote. She only scored in the 40s among voters in those two contests.

"For three elections in a row, she's averaged less than half of the Democratic primary vote in her district,'' Black said. ... I doubt whether there is any incumbent in Congress with that record. ... That's a real challenge for her.''

Here are the candidates for the Democratic nomination in Tuesday's 4th Congressional District primary:

Hank Johnson Jr.

•Age: 51

•Residence: Lithonia

•Occupation: Attorney

•Education: Bachelor's degree, Clark Atlanta University; law degree, Texas Southern University

•Political Experience: Member, DeKalb County Commission (second term)

•Family: Wife, Mereda, two children

•E-mail: hand@hankforcongress.com

Cynthia McKinney

•Age: 51

•Residence: Decatur

•Occupation: Member, U.S. House of Representatives

•Education: Bachelor's degree in international relations, University of Southern California; master's degree in law and diplomacy, Tufts University

•Political Experience: Elected to Congress, 1992; lost 4th District seat to fellow Democrat Denise Majette, 2002; won back seat, 2004

•Family: Single, one child

•E-mail: cynthia@cynthiaforcongress.com