Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) is not mincing any words when it comes to his Democratic primary challenger, former judge Michael Johnson, who already has used some sharp language suggesting Lewis’ role as a civil rights icon means the Congressman is stuck in the past. Their race is starting to sound like a generational battle.
“I absolutely believe that this election is not about where we were 45 or 50 years ago in the past, but about where we want to be 45 or 50 years in the future,” Johnson told Roll Call in what seemed like a direct jab at Lewis, best known for leading marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., 46 years ago with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“What that means is: Who is going to provide the best plan and the best leadership and the best vision for moving us forward into the future? One of the things I’ve always believed is you can’t drive forward into the future looking back through the rearview mirror,” said Johnson, 42, who resigned as a judge at Fulton County Superior Court so he could run for Congress.
In an interview with Roll Call, Lewis, 71, swatted down the idea that his civil rights work only mattered decades ago.
“Forty-six years ago, I led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma for the right to vote and, you know, I gave a little blood there,” Lewis said.
“Fifty years ago, during the Freedom Rides, when I was 21, 22, I was putting my life on the line,” he added. “In order to know what a person will do in the future, you have to look at their past.
“If it hadn’t been for what I and others did 45 and 50 years ago, he wouldn’t be able to run,” Lewis said of his rival, who also is black.
“If it wasn’t for the bridge in Selma, there wouldn’t be a Barack Obama,” Lewis added, noting that he travels around the country talking to groups, white and black, Republican and Democratic, about his experiences in the civil rights movement.
“It was not just a struggle for African-Americans, but for all Americans to help make America a more perfect union,” he said. “I’m not going to run away from that. I’m going to build on it.”
Lewis, who won the general election in 2010 with 74 percent of the vote, stressed he wasn’t resting on his laurels.
“I never, ever stop campaigning. And I’ve always said no one will ever outwork me in a campaign,” Lewis told Roll Call. “Thirteen terms later, I feel very good, and I have the energy and the capacity to get out there and debate the issues and run on my record.”
One issue he brought up might be fodder for the primary campaign: his seniority.
“The people in this district have been very, very good to me,” Lewis said, adding that he had tried to be good to his constituents over the years.
He said that someone with less seniority might not be as helpful to the district. “I know my way around,” he said.
Lewis represents Georgia’s 5th Congressional district, which includes metropolitan Atlanta. The state’s Congressional lines will be redrawn by a Republican-controlled Legislature in August, when Gov. Nathan Deal (R) is expected to call a special session.
Lewis sounded confident: “I don’t have any doubt, any reservation, that I will prevail in the end,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.