Georgia Democrats tap new nominee as the U.S. Congress honors Lewis

A mural in downtown Atlanta has become a makeshift tribute to Congressman John Lewis, who died Friday. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Georgia Democrats overwhelmingly backed a state senator, who is also the first Black woman to lead the Democratic Party of Georgia, as the nominee who will replace the late Congressman John Lewis on the November ballot.

Sen. Nikema Williams, who became the party’s chair early last year, easily emerged Monday as the top choice for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District in a hurried process that left state party leaders scrambling to replace Lewis on the ballot while also grappling with his death.

Sen. Nikema Williams

“It’s surreal that we’re forced to endure this nominating process while still grieving,” Williams said Monday. “For me, Congressman Lewis was a personal hero, friend and mentor.

“My entire political life, I have considered myself a student of the John Lewis school of politics,” she said. “I studied Congressman Lewis’ work closely and practiced the art of getting into good trouble.”

Williams highlighted her Alabama upbringing and her advocacy work that landed her in Atlanta city jail in 2018 after she was arrested at the state Capitol while participating in a voting rights protest following Georgia’s midterm election.

Monday’s vote happened as Lewis was being honored in the U.S. House of Representatives, which observed a moment of silence. Georgia’s delegation also paid tribute to him.

“I’m better off because of John Lewis,” said Republican Congressman Tom Graves. “We are all better because of John Lewis. Our nation is so much better because of John Lewis.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the family will not release the plans for Lewis’ funeral until after fellow civil rights leader Rev. C.T. Vivian is laid to rest Thursday. The two men died on the same day.

“We all have a heavy heart today,” said longtime state Rep. Calvin Smyre, who is a Columbus Democrat. 

The rushed nomination process was the result of state law, which required Georgia Democrats to move swiftly to replace a primary winner for a general election. Williams will face Republican Angela Stanton King in November to decide who will represent the Atlanta-based district for the next two years. 

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp will also call a special election to fill the rest of Lewis’ term, which runs into January.

Some Democratic state lawmakers said they would push to change state law. Sen. Gloria Butler called the current law “flawed.”

“I think we can all agree that this put the party in a tough bind for a very important decision that needed to be made,” said Jason Esteves, a Democrat who chairs the Atlanta Board of Education. “As the party that champions voting rights and the opportunity to exercise our rights, we should be advocating for a change to this law moving forward.”

Others questioned whether Lewis would approve of a process that essentially leaves the decision in the hands of political insiders instead of voters. 

The party called for applications over the weekend after Lewis died late Friday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, and 131 applications were received by the Sunday evening cutoff.

Five people were named as finalists by a nominating committee. Rep. Park Cannon, Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens, former Morehouse College President Robert Franklin and Georgia NAACP President James Woodall were the other four.

Democrats debated procedural rules – and whether to go into executive session – in a virtual party meeting held at noon to pick a replacement ahead of the afternoon deadline. Without a successor named, the Republican would have stood unopposed in November to represent the heavily Democratic district.

“We are facing a ticking clock,” Wendy Davis, a member of the party’s executive committee, said at one point.

Monday’s meeting was kept open to the public and reporters after an unsuccessful attempt to go into executive session.