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Cynthia McKinney: Georgia on Her Mind

October 31, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
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REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY, (D) Georgia: Good morning! Good morning! Give us some energy, that’s right. Toot your horn. Toot your horn!

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Cynthia McKinney is the only black woman ever elected to the House of Representatives from Georgia. She served two terms from a majority black district drawn to give voice to minority voters, but last year, a federal court citing a Supreme Court decision ruled McKinney’s district was unconstitutionally drawn based on race.

REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY: Yeah.

KWAME HOLMAN: Now, McKinney is running a closely-watched campaign in a newly-drawn district in the Atlanta suburb.

MR. ARMSTRONG, CBS Radio: The new district, though, is far more white than your old district, is that–have you reached out to the white community?

REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY: If I expect to win–and I fully expect to win–I’d better do that.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the high court decision that struck down McKinney’s and seven other so-called majority-minority districts, Justices said they wanted to encourage minority politicians to reach out to white voters.

MAN: You’re doing a great job, and we’re behind you 100 percent.

REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY: Thank you. I try my best, you know. I try my best.

KWAME HOLMAN: McKinney says she already was doing that in her old district.

REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY: We brought the races together. In fact, we had what we called unity receptions after we won because, of course, it was in some cases dangerous, in other cases just, um, uh, we were unwelcome in the rural parts of our district. And, um, so we wanted to bring people together. We had these unity receptions. And one woman whispered in my ear that I even brought out the segregationists.

KWAME HOLMAN: McKinney’s former district stretched 250 miles from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean and contained pockets of rural environmentally contaminated black neighborhoods. The 41-year-old daughter of a prominent state politician, McKinney and her supporters fought in court to keep her district.

REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY: In my old 11th district, I found people who don’t have running water in their homes. I found communities dying from environmental contamination. I found communities situated in areas where they should never have been located. I found people who had been totally thoroughly, utterly neglected. Now those people went to the polls every two years, and they did it for a member of Congress. They voted for a representative, but they did not have representation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Arriving in Washington in 1993, McKinney quickly became a rising star. She’s an unapologetic liberal who earned a reputation for exuberance, bordering on outrageousness and an uncompromising nature some saw as confrontational.

REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY: We know that right now Medicare as a program is under siege, and it’s under siege because we have people who were elected to Congress who don’t care anything about Medicare, and they want to cut Medicare.

KWAME HOLMAN: But to fight again in the next Congress, McKinney must win in a district that contains less than 1/3 of her former constituents, a district that has as many whites, 65 percent, as her old district had blacks.

SPOKESMAN: People call you a liberal, but I never hear you use that word to describe yourself. Why not?

REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY: Well, I am not afraid of the word “liberal.”

KWAME HOLMAN: And McKinney has not changed her liberal firebrand style, despite running in a new district, says Merle Black, a political scientist at Atlanta’s Emory University.

MERLE BLACK, Emory University: The type of politics that Cynthia McKinney is doing right now is politics that gives no quarter to any conservative sentiment whatsoever, you know, within the district, and so her style of politics reminds me a little bit of white politicians who are not going to concede anything. A conservative white political wouldn’t concede anything, would rather go down to defeat representing their true views on this issue.

KWAME HOLMAN: Georgia’s new 4th congressional district essentially is DeKalb County, a dynamic, mostly prosperous Atlanta suburb. Residing in its Northern end are affluent whites who formerly supported a very conservative Republican. At the opposite end of the district, are moderate income and some of Georgia’s wealthiest blacks, considered McKinney’s base. Between the two is the central county dominated by the sprawling campuses of Emory University, an expensive private school that embodies Atlanta’s progressive new South image. In addition to her base of black support, Cynthia McKinney needs substantial support from these mostly white traditionally Democratic voters.

SPOKESMAN: Welcome to Debate ’96–

KWAME HOLMAN: The job of opposing Congresswoman McKinney was passed up by veteran Republican politicians. Thirty-four-year old lawyer John Mitnick, a first-time candidate, took up the GOP banner nine months ago. Much of his stump speech is spent trying to distinguish himself from the conservative wing of his party.

JOHN MITNICK: I am a Republican, but I’m a moderate Republican. I’m pro-choice, and I support gun control, and I’m independent enough to have told House Speaker Newt Gingrich that I’d disagree with him on those issues. I will take that independent streak with me to Washington. This is an important election, and I’m confident after this debate you will recognize that I am the voice of reason who can best represent this district.

JOHN MITNICK: The district leans Democratic; everybody knows that. And, therefore, a substantial number of Democrats have to vote for me. And they’ve put some tough questions to me. And I’ve been able to explain to them that my positions on the issues more closely represent them, whoever they are, whatever race, than Cynthia McKinney’s positions on the issues.

KWAME HOLMAN: Teacher Nancy Clark is one of those Democratic-leaning white voters both John Mitnick and Cynthia McKinney are trying to win. Last week, she said she didn’t know enough about Mitnick but was receptive to McKinney.

NANCY CLARK, Teacher: I’ve been wrong before, but I don’t think she’s too liberal for this district. I think this is a very–I don’t know that liberal and conservative are terms that I particularly want to use at this point, but I do think the–that politically this is a very open area, open-minded area and a very progressive area, so that’s–if that’s liberal, then we are perhaps more liberal than, um, neighboring counties or areas, and certainly we are.

MERLE BLACK: Mitnick’s type of politics is the one that’s been far more popular throughout the South than the style politics that McKinney is doing. It just so happens that the numbers in this district are such that you could make a case that, that both of these styles could win.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Black adds McKinney ostracized some white supporters by accusing her white Democratic opponents during last summer’s primary of being part of the old Confederacy and a lynch mob.

REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY: Ever since the beginning of, of my political experience in Georgia, I have been fighting the good fight, a real good fight, against the good old boys from the bad old days. And I will always have that fight to fight. And those comments were made with specific reference to my fight against the good old boys which will not stop.

KWAME HOLMAN: Louis Farrakhan also became a campaign issue when Mitnick criticized McKinney for refusing to condemn the speech of a lieutenant of the Nation of Islam leader. Two weeks ago, McKinney’s father, Billy, a longtime state representative and adviser to her campaign, called Mitnick, who is Jewish, a racist Jew.

JOHN MITNICK: It was very hurtful, uh, to be called a racist and particularly a racist Jew, as if the word “Jew” were somehow part of the insult.

REP. CYNTHIA M KINNEY: My father made a mistake and got too emotional, and, and he’s apologized for that and acknowledged that he did make a mistake.

KWAME HOLMAN: Jews make up 7 to 8 percent of the district’s population. Some, like Samuel Lubin, a 40-year resident of DeKalb County, now are undecided about McKinney.

SAMUEL LUBIN, McKinney Constituent: I know, I have friends in the Jewish community who have very firmly supported Cynthia, and they have even held meetings in their homes and invited in speakers to support her, so that we’re going through a very difficult time, trying to determine what is the path that we’re going to take in this particular campaign.

KWAME HOLMAN: No independent polls exist on the race for Georgia’s new 4th District. Republican John Mitnick says he’ll go after every vote, including among the district’s 1/3 black population.

JOHN MITNICK: I want to restore the American dream for everybody in this country, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. And that’s my main goal in Congress.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, McKinney seems steadfast in her refusal to concede to more conservative positions that might attract more white support. But analysts admit she needs only about two in ten white votes to go along with her solid black support.

MERLE BLACK: She’s doing it kind of the hard way, and she may be successful in this district in doing that, but it would probably guarantee continued opposition over a series of elections from the almost half of the district that would feel completely unrepresented under her style of politics.

KWAME HOLMAN: As for what a McKinney victory would say about the need for majority-minority districts, McKinney rejects the idea her winning would demonstrate such districts no longer are necessary.

REP. CYNTHIA MCKINNEY: I’m not the real test. The real test is in the second generation of African-American would-be members of Congress who will run in non-majority-minority districts. Will they be able to win? Will they be able to garner the trust? Will they be able to raise the money–the hundreds of thousands of dollars that it takes to run a congressional campaign–will they be able to succeed when the odds are stacked so high? When they succeed, then we can truly say that the Supreme Court was right.