The Crossover Candidate

Minutes before the candidates' forum began on a sweltering day at the South DeKalb Mall, incumbent U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) was just "Cynthia" to her beloved DeKalb County voters, kissing elderly ladies and hamming it up for the cameras. "Ding a ling! Ding a ling!" she shouted, announcing the free ice cream for kids. Then her challenger, Denise Majette, arrived, and the pair faced the audience, McKinney alongside Augusta's own Vernon Forrest, the World Boxing Council welterweight champion. McKinney seemed to own the crowd, but three days later Majette, a relatively unknown black judge, beat the five-term incumbent by 16 points -- with help from tens of thousands of Republicans.

One of the most outspoken black left-liberals in the U.S. House of Representatives, McKinney had dominated in five straight elections, surviving a redistricting that had put her in a seat with only a slim black majority. Nevertheless, she had gone on to win the seat handily. Now, however, her strident views on Iraq and on Palestine had made her a lightning rod, and McKinney was fighting for her political life. "I am a strong Democrat, I am a proud Democrat," McKinney told the forum on that sweltering day. "My opponent is a Republican who has given money to Republicans." Later, after delivering scathing condemnations of the Bush administration's "war drums," McKinney thundered of her opponent, "She's against the minimum wage. She's against affirmative action. She would condone racial profiling at large."

Speaking in front of voters she desperately needed to convince, Majette was unimpressive. "I'm proud of the way I have represented this community," she replied. On Iraq, she said that freedom demanded "sacrifice." Her volunteers gave that line a confused, half-hearted cheer.

With the candidates running even in the polls, McKinney's supporters relentlessly attacked Majette as a stooge for outside interests (Jews), a supporter of evil development plans (landfills) and, most importantly, one of them (Republicans). McKinney enjoyed the support of most local black ministers, as well as endorsements from Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan. But none of it saved McKinney. In the end, 45 percent of registered voters in DeKalb -- a huge turnout for a primary -- came out to give Majette the nomination, whether she was a Republican or not.

But could McKinney have been right about Majette? The American Prospect has learned that Majette actually considered running as a Republican for the 4th District. She also got a good deal of Republican help. Roughly a month before Majette resigned her seat in February as a state court judge in DeKalb County, she met with Eric Tanenblatt, a powerful Atlanta Republican who served as George W. Bush's state chairman in 2000. Tanenblatt refuses to say whether Majette asked for his blessing to run as a Republican in the 4th District. "I told her she needed to run where she was the most comfortable," he told the Prospect. "I think it would be impossible for a Republican to win in DeKalb." Tanenblatt confirmed that he met with Majette "several times" after she announced her primary challenge. (Majette, who provided plenty of access to the Prospect before her victory, wouldn't return calls about the meeting afterward.)

In a mid-July interview with liberal Frank Redding on radio station walr, Majette acknowledged that she'd voted for black Republican archconservative Alan Keyes. "She said she voted for him because she wanted to vote for a black man," said Redding, a family friend of the McKinneys.

It's a surprising vote from a Democrat. But then, Teresa Jeter Chappell, who says she was an informal adviser to Majette's campaign, was appointed by Bush to serve as regional liaison for community and faith-based initiatives in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Chappell became a Georgia elector after Bush won the state in 2000. Her husband, Bill, who says he also advised Majette, is a former state chairman of the Georgia Black Republican Council. "Teresa, do you think I could win as a Republican?" Chappell recalls Majette asking her last winter. Chappell urged her instead to campaign hard in the white areas of north DeKalb. And that's just what Majette succeeded in doing.

In past elections, white liberals supported McKinney while many white conservatives did not bother to vote. This time, as many as 35,000 voters who'd cast ballots for Bush turned out to support Majette, according to county gop Chairman Dale Renta. This made much of the difference in a campaign whose winning margin was about 20,000 votes. Whites had largely stayed out of previous Democratic House primaries altogether. "Their feeling in previous elections was that åwe don't have a whole lot at stake,'" said DeKalb County Commissioner Burrell Ellis.

But if moderate white voters in past primaries had been vaguely embarrassed by McKinney, the last two years had infuriated them. McKinney's April 2002 statement about the need for an ";;;investigation" into whether President Bush might have looked to profit from September 11, along with consistent comments against Israel, seemed to play poorly to the whites -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- in north DeKalb. Farrakhan's last-minute appearance likely didn't push undecided whites to rally around McKinney, and neither did the discovery that her campaign had recycled old radio endorsements from Andrew Young, Bill Clinton and Robert Redford without permission.

Did blacks desert McKinney? William Boone, a political scientist at Clark Atlanta University, says the results revealed a new DeKalb middle class that is "much, much different from the black middle class of the civil-rights era." In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ben Smith described the phenomenon as the "emergence of affluent African-Americans as an independent political base." But this is not quite right. A careful look at the precinct vote counts shows that even some of the most affluent black precincts -- think mansions, golf courses and Lexus suvs -- actually backed McKinney by a two-to-one margin. Her overall support in black precincts in south DeKalb was about seven-to-three, and she garnered more actual votes than she had in previous elections.

In fact, distrust for Majette ran deep in DeKalb's middle-class neighborhoods. "Which people is she working for?" Beverly Anderson, a black hospital worker, asked rhetorically as her manicure dried at a nail salon outside Redan, a black upper-middle-class area on the east side of south DeKalb. Majette was tepidly received at the three black churches she visited the Sunday before the election; only small fractions of the congregations even stood.

To much of black DeKalb, rich or middle class, Majette was a Republican, a trick played on the black Democrats of DeKalb County. "It's the 'okeydoke,'" said Lennie Ware, the black owner of a DeKalb limousine service, sitting in his shirt-sleeves at a Blimpie after church. (The expression "okeydoke" kept coming up, denoting a scam that one should have been able to avoid.) At a meeting of McKinney volunteers, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), railing against a repeat "of what happened in Florida," told a cheering room, "That's the 'okeydoke.'" The white kids from the Green Party looked confused.

In the end, however, white voters turned out at rates as high as 65 percent of registered voters, and in many areas they went eight- or nine-to-one for Majette. McKinney still might have won if she had hung on to nearly all of the black vote, but she didn't. Still, it would be a mistake to attribute McKinney's defeat either to a new politics of racial polarization or to the influence of outsiders. In the past, before expressing highly controversial views on volatile topics, McKinney had won enough white support to give her comfortable margins. In the end, McKinney lost because she gave her opponents plenty of grist. And though she was new and inexperienced, Majette won because she presented a competent alternative to McKinney, and because she benefited from a stealth Republican campaign. (McKinney got that part right.)

While diehard McKinney supporters may blame her defeat on the influence of outsiders, the lesson of all this seems to be a much simpler one: Regardless of race, candidates in closely divided seats would be wise to try to represent their entire districts.