Audacity of Hope, Redux?

Minister Challenges Lewis in Part Over His Clinton Endorsement

Posted February 25, 2008 at 6:27pm

In his upstart bid to defeat the living legend who is known simply as “St. John” to many voters in his Atlanta Congressional district, minister Markel Hutchins (D) said that he’s not running a campaign to unseat Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), but rather “a campaign to seat hope. … I’m running for change.”

If that kind of campaign language sounds a bit “Obama-esque,” be assured Hutchins means for it to come across that way.

The reason the 30-year-old Atlanta-based minister and civil rights activist decided to challenge the civil rights icon is because Lewis is backing Sen.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) rather than Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in this year’s Democratic presidential primary contest.

Almost 90 percent of black voters in Georgia supported Obama in the Feb. 5 primary, and the Illinois Senator won the 5th district by an almost 3-1 ratio. Yet despite some recent media reports to the contrary, Lewis’ spokeswoman has said that the Congressman is not reconsidering his endorsement.

And therein lies the basis of Hutchins’ campaign.

“When you have Congressional leaders … whose districts voted overwhelmingly for one person to be the Democratic nominee for the presidency and these elected representatives … have committed to vote for someone different, I think that shows a real problem in Washington, D.C., politics,” Hutchins said in an interview Monday.

So how do you beat a man who has never earned less than 69 percent of the vote in 11 elections, hasn’t even had a Republican challenger during the past three cycles, and, by the way, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into Selma, Ala., where he suffered a concussion from a state trooper’s billy club?

The short answer, according to several Georgia political consultants and scholars, is you don’t.

Even though the Democratic presidential nomination fight is the issue du jour, Lewis “is a huge name in Atlanta and in the civil rights movement,” said Bobby Kahn, the former chairman of the Georgia Democratic party. “Even if people disagree with John Lewis on his presidential choice, he’s so much bigger than all that.”

Other insiders say Hutchins can’t just run on the presidential primary endorsement issue, especially if the White House nominating contest is decided before Georgia’s July 15 primary. If that happens, party activists will coalesce behind one candidate and look past the nasty dust-up between Clinton and Obama and focus their venom and change message on Republicans.

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor and one of the state’s top political scholars, estimated that the best Hutchins might be able to do this cycle would be to expose some chinks in Lewis’ armor, which could open the door for a younger politician to take on the 68-year-old civil rights lion in 2010 or further down the road.

Hutchins “doesn’t have much chance of winning, but if he shows some vulnerability on Lewis’ part we may see a stronger challenge in two years,” Bullock said.

But even then, Bullock doesn’t see Hutchins as the man to knock off Lewis.

“What I’ve observed in other contests is the person who exposed the weakness is often not the one benefiting,” Bullock added. “The next time around a better name, a more powerful, more experienced candidate who can more readily raise funds will push that initial challenger aside.”

On Monday, Hutchins said he understands what an incredibly steep political climb he faces.

“I am not crazy. I realize I’m not only running against a powerful incumbent, I am running against the Washington, D.C., political establishment,” he said.

But Hutchins argues that after too many years in Washington, Lewis is suffering from too much “political indebtedness.” He said that one of the reasons why Lewis has not been defeated before now is because “those of us who have the public visibility have been too afraid and too tied in our own political indebtedness … to Congressman Lewis.”

The public visibility to which Hutchins is referring is his work to expose police corruption on behalf of the family of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, the Atlanta woman who was shot and killed by police in November 2006 during a drug raid gone wrong.

Hutchins became the family spokesman after the shooting and the pubic face of the case during an ensuing federal investigation and a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

“I think on some issues Congressman Lewis has been so slow to respond because of his political positioning and posturing,” Hutchins said, adding that he received more support from former Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D) from Georgia’s 4th district than he did from Lewis during the Johnston case.

Hutchins said he hopes his high-profile work in that case and the current change environment that Obama helped create will help him find the resources he’ll need to face Lewis. In 2006, the Congressman spent $700,000 on his campaign despite the fact that he was unopposed and Lewis’ cash-on-hand total at the end of 2007 stood at just under half a million dollars.

“We may have to have a campaign where my supporters have to sell fish and chicken and whatever else has to happen,” Hutchins said. However, “in this environment around change I suspect there are a lot of resources available. … We are now 40 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and it is time for another leadership generation to arise and present ourselves as public servants … the way that they did in their generation.”

For his part, Lewis seems content to let his record speak for itself.

“Leadership cannot be given. It has to be earned with respect and integrity,” Lewis said in a statement last week after news of Hutchins’ announcement broke. “There is no question that something is happening in America. There is a movement, a movement that I helped give birth to, that creates the conditions and the climate for change. … I want to assure the people of the 5th Congressional District that I will continue to fight for what is right, what is fair, and what is just in the halls of the U.S. Congress.”