Anyone But Cynthia McKinney?
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The August 8 run-off race between Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Former DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson is being closely watched by the legion of McKinney lovers and haters nationally. C-SPAN will televise their pre-election day debate nationally. The race is a referendum on McKinney and a cautionary message for other black politicians.
When Denise Majette booted her from office in 2002, McKinney's supporters claimed that packs of white Republicans crossed over to vote for Majette and that Jewish groups bankrolled Majette as payback for McKinney's shoot-from-the lip quips, her perceived pro-Palestinian tilt, and her conspiracy stoking inference that Bush may have had a hidden hand in the September 11 terror attacks. McKinney got her seat back when Majette ran for the Senate two years later. But even then she barely escaped a run-off.
McKinney didn't miss a beat and quickly stirred the controversy pot again with her well-publicized swing at a Capitol police officer, a profanity laced tirade against an aide that was caught on camera, and her drum beat attacks on Bush administration polices. The McKinney bashers got another chance to dump her.
With much public fanfare, the Fraternal Order of Police contributed $1000 to Johnson's campaign, and implored police groups nationally to pour money into his campaign. The pro-Israel Washington PAC reportedly pumped $5,000 into Johnson's coffer and urged other pro-Israel PACS to contribute to him. An undetermined number of Republicans in her district stricken by rabid "anyone but McKinney" fever again may have crossed over in the primary to vote for Johnson. But bushels of police, pro-Israeli lobby money and Republican anti-McKinney votes wouldn't have meant anything if McKinney had retained the solid backing of black voters who in the decade before Majette bumped her from office dutifully pulled the lever for her. This go-round, many of them are plainly embarrassed by what they regard as McKinney's media grabbing antics. In exit interviews on primary night, they minced no words in expressing their disappointment with her. Johnson, in fact, did even better than Majette in districts that were once considered rock solid McKinney vote turf.
But there is much more to the dissatisfaction and defection of former McKinney backers than rage over a congressperson they regard as a loose cannon. McKinney is not just reviled by the public, and the press. She is also reviled by House Republicans who quickly passed a resolution praising the Capitol police, and is kept at arms length by many House Democrats. In a press conference immediately after the tiff with the Capitol cop, McKinney screamed racism. Yet, not one member of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which she is a long-standing member, stood with her and defended her. McKinney quickly read the political tea leaves, and with the possibility of a federal indictment looming, reversed gears and apologized for the incident. The Caucus, which donated to her campaigns in 2002 and 2004, has been conspicuously MIA on McKinney this time around.
It was too little, too late for many blacks in the district. She was widely perceived as damaged goods and as ineffectual in getting legislation passed, and providing funds, programs, and services to her district. This is crucial. Black voters, even more than other voters, must and should demand that black elected officials present quiet and thoughtful solutions to the problems of poverty, failing public schools, crime, gang and drug violence, and the near pandemic of HIV/AIDS.
These are the bread and butter issues that black voters want and demand that their elected officials pay attention to. That's what they put them in office to do.
When a black elected official stumbles because of character taint, wrongdoing, or simply indifference, the ones hurt the most are the voters that expect them to be an effective advocate. That's the dilemma that now confronts the mostly black voters who put scandal plagued Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson in office term after term. He's up for reelection in November, and with the possibility of a bribery indictment hanging over his head, Jefferson could spend more time fighting to stay out of jail than fighting for the needs of his constituents.
McKinney has not taken the prospect of another defeat, and the possible end of her political career lying down. She's a tough campaigner, and many blacks still thrill to hear her pillory Bush policies, and make militant racial appeals on the issues. Her supporters even credit her with bringing some programs and services to the district. She will play hard on this and frantically try to rally black voters to storm the polls on August 8 and reelect her.
But guilt-tainted racial appeals by her for black solidarity and voter registration caravans and buses into black neighborhoods won't make blacks dash to the polls to vote for a politician that picks media-grabbing empty fights over issues that many black voters regard as remote and foreign to their needs and interests. Whether McKinney again dodges the political bullet and triumphs, or goes down to inglorious defeat, her saga is a cautionary lesson that black elected officials must take care of business at home.