McKinney struggles for re-election in Ga.

August 08, 2006|By JENNY JARVIE | JENNY JARVIE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ATLANTA -- As bleary-eyed drivers embarked on their morning commute, Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney stood at a busy suburban intersection belting out disco soul tunes on a recent Thursday.

Her bodyguard didn't flinch, until a white passerby leaned out of a car and waved at McKinney and her campaign supporters. "White people don't usually wave," the guard said.

Indeed, the outspoken McKinney - a Democrat whose campaign slogan is "backbone in politics" - is struggling to be re-elected to the House after a significant number of voters in the northern, predominantly white areas of her suburban Atlanta district voted against her in last month's Democratic primary.

McKinney, 51, who is black, had earlier been expected to win a seventh term in Georgia's 4th Congressional District. She won 47 percent of the vote, just 3 percentage points more than her main opponent, Hank Johnson. A moderate lawyer and former county commissioner, Johnson, who is also black, contends that McKinney is a "candidate of polarization and divisiveness."

McKinney struck an unapologetic tone last week as she scrambled for support in today's run-off.

"I am known as a truth-teller," she said during a brief interview. "Truth is controversial."

Acclaimed in many black neighborhoods as a tough advocate for the downtrodden, McKinney has long rankled some white constituents with her combative style. But her much-publicized altercation with a Capitol Police officer in March - McKinney allegedly struck an officer who stopped her for bypassing a security checkpoint - seems to have ushered in a fresh spate of anti-McKinney sentiment.

Although a grand jury declined to indict McKinney in the incident, many Georgia Democrats fear that she has become a political liability. In particular, they worry that she could jeopardize the party's chances of attracting moderate white and rural voters in November's gubernatorial election.

Already, Georgia Republicans have tried to seize on the Democrats' embarrassment, calling for Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, the Democratic nominee for governor, to explain his ties to McKinney. Taylor included McKinney near the top of his list of endorsements as he sought black votes in his own primary, but he has not endorsed her.

McKinney has suggested that her electoral setbacks are part of a Republican conspiracy. Yet McKinney's difficulties stem, in large part, from her declining ability to rally black voters to the polls. The number of overall voters in the primary dropped from about 96,000 in 2004 to 60,000 this year. Although McKinney continued to win in the predominantly black precincts of south DeKalb County, her stronghold, it was in these areas that she experienced the largest decline.

McKinney has not shied away from controversy since she was elected as the first black congresswoman from Georgia in 1992. She has questioned U.S. support for Israel, called the Iraq war illegal and suggested Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff should be charged with negligent homicide for Hurricane Katrina deaths.

In 2002, McKinney caused nationwide indignation after suggesting in a radio interview that President Bush might have had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. That year, Denise Majette, a former state judge, defeated her in the Democratic primary.

Two years later, when Majette mounted an unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat, McKinney returned to Washington after beating five opponents.

Jenny Jarvie writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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