ATLANTA – A Georgia special congressional election for a successor to the late John Lewis is likely to produce someone who will hold the seat only for a short time, possibly only weeks.
Seven candidates qualified Friday for the Sept. 29 election, but declining to run is replacement Democratic nominee Nikema Williams, a state senator and chair of the state Democratic Party. Also not running is the Republican nominee, Angela Stanton-King. They both said they're holding their fire for the Nov. 3 general election, which will decide a full two-year term.
If no one wins a majority on Sept. 29, a runoff would be held on Dec. 1. Lewis' successor would serve only until the current Congress ends on Jan. 3.
The veteran congressman died July 17 at the age of 80 and his funeral was Thursday. He was eulogized by three former presidents and others who urged Americans to continue the work of the civil rights icon in fighting racial injustice.
Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, led by the late Martin Luther King Jr. He was best known for leading protesters in the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he was beaten by state troopers.
The 5th Congressional District includes most of the city of Atlanta, as well as some suburban areas of Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic and Lewis rarely faced any serious challenge in his 17 terms.
Candidates who qualified Friday are Democrats Robert Franklin, former Morehouse College president and current Emory University faculty member; Kwanza Hall, a former Atlanta City Council member and mayoral candidate; Barrington Martin II, who lost the June Democratic primary to Lewis with 13% of the vote; “Able” Mable Thomas, who lost Democratic primaries to Lewis in 1992 and 2008 and is retiring from the state House after three separate stints totaling 22 years; and former state Rep. Keisha Sean Waites, who finished second to U.S. Rep David Scott in the June Democratic primary in the 13th Congressional District.
Also qualifying are Libertarian Chase Oliver and independent Steven Muhammad, an East Point minister. They will run together with the Democrats on an all-party ballot.
None of those candidates will be on the November ballot, which was set months ago, although any of them could still declare by Sept. 8 that they will run as a write-in candidate in the Nov. 3 general election.
When Democrats tapped Williams in the days after Lewis' death, some in the party had wanted a placeholder candidate who would agree to step down in 2022 and give all candidates a fair shot at the seat. But 37 of 41 members of the state Democratic executive committee voted to give the party nod to Williams, with the understanding that she would not be a placeholder.
“I am focusing my time on maximizing turnout, making voting more accessible regardless of ZIP code and delivering Georgia’s 16 electoral college votes for Joe Biden,” Williams said in a statement explaining why she wasn't running. "I will fight tirelessly to earn the support of voters in the 5th Congressional District and would be honored to serve as their voice in Congress in January.
A spokesperson for Republican Stanton-King, a reality TV personality pardoned earlier this year by President Donald Trump for her role in a stolen car ring, gave much the same rationale for skipping the Sept. 29 vote.
“She's 100% focused on the November election,” said Trevian Kutti. “She wants to show the voters they have a real choice.”
Franklin was one of the other four finalists chosen by a screening committee that the party passed over in favor of Williams. He and others are likely to campaign as continuing Lewis' legacy.
“I’m just the placeholder for every single person that lives in the district & believes a better future is possible,” Martin wrote on Facebook on Thursday.
“Please pray and help me continue the legacy of courage, valor and service to the people,” Thomas wrote Tuesday as she announced her candidacy.
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This story was first published on July 31, 2020. It was updated on Aug. 13, 2020, to correct the position of candidate Robert Franklin. Franklin is a faculty member at Emory University, not the school’s president.