McKinney Rises Again

by Sam Muwakkil

In These Times magazine, May 2004


Cynthia McKinney's March 29 announcement that she would run for her old congressional seat gave a shot of electoral adrenalin to the body politic. McKinney represented Georgia's 4th Congressional District for five terms before being ousted in the controversial 2002 primary election. The prospect that genuine progressives like McKinney and soon-to-be U.S. Senator Barack Obama from Illinois will be members of the 109th Congress adds considerable cheer to this rather bleak political season.

McKinney became infamous for suggesting that members of the Bush administration might have known more about pre-9/11 intelligence than they previously admitted. That suggestion now seems a bit underwhelming in the wake of revelations from the 9/l1 hearings and the book Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke. At the time, however, McKinney's comments were seen as irresponsible and unpatriotic. She was excoriated and shunned, even within her own party.

McKinney's opponents in the far right skillfully used this controversy to build a national movement against her candidacy and-with the help of GOP voters in Georgia-she was defeated in the Democratic primary by a political neophyte, former state judge Denise Majette.

Majette's victory was secured by Republican voters who crossed political lines to vote in the Democratic primary: McKinney's opponents knew no Republican could win the general election in the Democratic district, so they openly promoted the crossover tactic to ensure her defeat. Crossover voting is allowed in Georgia's open primary system.

Following the election, State Rep. Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta introduced legislation to end cross-party voting. He argued it was unethical to have Republicans provide the margin of victory in a Democratic race.

David Bositis, senior analyst for the D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, agrees the system is unfair. The voting rights of AfricanAmericans in that district were harmed, he said, because post-election analysis made clear that McKinney was the overwhelming choice of the black electorate. Five voters in McKinney's district have filed a suit in U.S. District Court challenging the legality of the crossover vote under the Voting Rights Act.

Despite her defeat (perhaps because of it), McKinney, 49, has become even more popular among African-Americans and progressives in her district and beyond. Many now consider her a heroic figure, and revelations in the 9/11 hearings make her previous comments prophetic. The Green Party even mounted an attempt to draft her as its presidential candidate, an I offer McKinney reportedly was considering.

During her nine-year tenure, she served on a number of important committees. More important, she was an active member of the Congressional Black and Progressive caucuses, consistently speaking out against excessive military spending and inattention to domestic ills. She had a perfect labor and civil rights voting record, and during her last run she had endorsements of the National Political Women's Caucus, NOW-PAC, the League of Conservation Voters, Tikkun magazine and Jews for Peace, among others. Even Ralph Nader, who often argues that Democrats and Republicans represent a false dichotomy, speaks well of McKinney.

Her chances of regaining the district's congressional seat look so good they apparently have scared away its current occupant. The day after McKinney declared her candidacy, Rep. Denise Majette announced she would not seek reelection to run instead for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Zell Miller.

Several Democratic candidates have announced their candidacies for the 4th District post and others reportedly are on the verge of joining the fray. Whoever emerges as McKinney's strongest rival likely will attract considerable attention and resources. But her longstanding popularity and subsequent notoriety will be hard to beat.

And that's a good thing. According to a number of media sources (including the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Forward), much if not most of Majette's financial support was facilitated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which long opposed McKinney for her criticism of Israeli policy.

Many of those groups reportedly were caught off-guard when Majette announced she would not seek reelection. Consequently, "Jewish fundraisers are looking for ways to prevent former Rep. Cynthia McKinney from returning to Congress,' Matthew E. Berger wrote in the March 30 edition of JTA-Global News Service of the Jewish People.

Thankfully, those attempts are likely to fail this time. McKinney's and other progressives' voices are urgently needed in a Congress strangely mute while the Bush administration pursues imperial policies that sow the seeds of endless animosity.

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