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Here in Georgia's 5th Congressional District, we're still mourning the loss of the civil rights icon John Lewis, who represented us in the U.S. Congress from 1987 until his death this year on July 17.

It's fitting we need not one, but two elections to replace him. And even more fitting that the broken system he devoted his life to fixing is causing confusion around that replacement.

On September 29, voters will choose an interim congressperson to finish what would have been Lewis' current term until the end of 2020. That very brief political stint will be cut even shorter if no one from the crowded seven candidate field wins 50 percent of the vote. If that happens, we're back to vote in a December run-off.

Meanwhile, on November 3, voters go to the polls to choose the next congressional candidate for the next full two-year term.

During his 30 years on Capitol Hill, Lewis developed a reputation as the "Conscience of Congress." In the '90s, he led the opposition to military intervention in Iraq. Following the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, he staged a sit-in at the House of Representatives to demand a vote on gun-safety legislation, calling on his civil rights era organizing roots. He sparked a nearly 30-year campaign for the creation of a national museum of African American history.

His home district—the Georgia Five as it's known locally—is majority (58 percent) African American, and encompasses most of the city of Atlanta and parts of surrounding counties. Home to more than 750,000 residents and the headquarters of Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia Tech, and Emory University, Georgia Five is force in the state.

Local activists are looking for a representative to bolster their work in pushing for ground-up policy to roll back statewide voter suppression tactics, resist aggressive gentrifiers profiting off of vulnerable Atlantans, and hold police accountable. 

The Democratic Party has chosen State Senator and former Planned Parenthood executive Nikema Williams to take on Republican Angela Stanton-King for the district's seat on November 3. 

In the June 9 Senate primary, statewide Democratic voter turnout was three times higher than it was in 2016. Known as "a little blue island in a big red sea," pollsters anticipate high turnout here for the special election to replace Lewis.

Here's what you need to know about the race:

1. Yes, we're electing two replacements for one Congressional seat—but only one for the full two years.

News of Lewis' death from pancreatic cancer was only a few hours old when Georgia Democrats faced a legal deadline to decide who would replace him for the remaining months of his term. 

Lewis was re-elected unopposed in 2018, and having won the June primary against challenger Barrington Martin II, would have faced Stanton-King on November 3. 

Now, because the Georgia 5th has no representative in Congress, there will be a special election on September 29 to choose a representative to fill the remainder of Lewis' term—which would have lasted through January 3. Then, on November 3, voters will elect a new Congressperson for the full two year-term. 

Williams was quickly selected by the executive committee of the Democratic Party of Georgia in July to replace Lewis' name on the ballot as the district's Democratic candidate in the November election, a seat that has remained in Democratic control for almost 47 years. She has opted to bypass running in the interim election to put all her resources into winning a full term in Congress. 

Of the 131 candidates who applied to fill the interim role, lasting only from October to January, seven candidates will compete in the special election. 

2. Everyone expects Nikema Williams will win against Stanton-King.

A well-known legislator, activist, and mother, Williams is a top Democratic fundraiser and Chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. She currently represents Atlanta in the Georgia Senate. Perhaps most importantly to longtime residents of the district, political insiders note that she is a protégé of both Lewis and Fair Fight founder and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. (Williams' husband, Leslie Small, previously worked as an aide to Lewis.)

She's the first Black woman to chair the state's Democratic Party.

In 2018, Williams was arrested in the Capitol rotunda with more than a dozen others participating in a peaceful voting rights demonstration following the midterm elections. The charges have since been dropped, but the moment resonated with voters looking for someone to further Lewis' legacy. Williams says Lewis was a family friend, mentor, and supporter.

A Democratic stronghold, the district's voters have voted for Lewis every cycle for more than 30 years. Pollsters, voters, and political insiders assume Williams' victory is all but assured.

This week, Williams, running with the campaign motto to "moving the needle forward," declined to debate her long shot Republican opponent.

3. The seven interim candidates are focused on preserving Lewis' legacy as a champion for civil and human rights. They might have enough time to do something.

Early voting has already started to select the interim congressperson on the September 29 ballot.

If there's no clear winner of more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff election in December. Despite the fact that a runoff would mean they'd be in office for less than a month, procedure in the Georgia state constitution specifies the need for a runoff to ensure fair representation.

The Democratic candidates include: 

  • Former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall.
  • Former president of Morehouse University and current Emory University professor Robert Franklin
  • "Able" Mable Thomas, who is retiring this year after 22 years as a Georgia State Representative
  • Former State Rep. Keisha Waites, the only openly queer Democratic candidate in the race, who has a 20-year public service record in Fulton County and also ran for election to represent Georgia's 13th Congressional District in this year's primary
  • Barrington Martin II, an educator who ran against Lewis in the June 9 primary and lost with only 13 percent of the vote 

Running as an independent is minister and activist Stephen Muhammad. Businessman Chase Oliver is the Libertarian candidate.

4. Following a wave of protests against racism and police brutality nationwide and here in Atlanta, a new generation of 5th District residents want to see changes on the ground in the district and nationwide. 

Most of the district lies within the Atlanta city limits, the epicenter of Georgia's protests this summer following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Activists are still demanding police accountability after the city's police chief was forced to resign in the wake of fury over Atlanta police shooting and killing Rayshard Brooks.

Chase Oliver has specific goals in mind when it comes to criminal justice reform, including ending cash bail and passing a qualified immunity bill that would end the rules that shield government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations, including excessive police force.

Williams is also an advocate for criminal justice reform. As a state senator and chairwoman of Georgia's Democratic Party, she helped craft the "Justice for All" package in the Georgia legislature, which included passing hate crimes laws, repealing the citizen's arrest law and stand-your-ground laws, requiring widespread use of body cameras, and banning police use of chokeholds.

She said this legislation would only start to fix "the deep inequalities in our system and statutes like the citizen's arrest law that put Black communities in danger." 

5. Resisting voter suppression continues to be a central concern for voters here.

District residents want their representative to continue Lewis' voting rights activism to ensure free and fair elections across both the district and state, pushing for election reform as they have been for more than a decade. 

During the June 9 primary, polling locations saw long lines and system snafus across the state and in the 5th District in particular. Fulton County, for instance, is notorious for malfunctioning voting machines and polling places that seem to vanish in the night.

In 2018, Republican Brian Kemp narrowly beat democratic state legislator Stacy Abrams in Georgia's gubernatorial contest amid charges of widespread voter suppression. Voters are understandably nervous about how fair and accessible the process will be not just in November, but in all elections to come. 

Younger voters want to see their next representative take positive steps against climate change and show support for the Green New Deal. According to Generation Progress Action's Brent Cohen, climate change, mass incarceration, gun violence prevention, immigration, protections for the DREAMers and the student debt crisis are their top priorities.

And voters hoping to flip the state's other long-held Republican seats want the next representative from the 5th to make sure voters who want to vote in Georgia can and do vote.

Frances Katz

Frances Katz is an Atlanta-based journalist writing about the intersection of media, culture, law, and technology. She has written for The Atlantic, Fast Company, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Week, Marie Claire, and many others.