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Civil rights icon draws challenger
Jones on Georgia

ATLANTA --- As if 25 years in Congress isn't enough to make a person unbeatable for re-election, John Lewis also has the distinction of being a historic leader of the civil rights movement.

For Georgians and blacks across the country, Lewis is considered an icon.

So, it's noteworthy that he faces his most formidable primary challenge to his re-election next year.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson has stepped down from the bench to try to unseat Lewis. Johnson gave up what mostly likely would have been essentially a lifetime position to take on an incumbent with $268,000 already in his campaign war chest and who raised $1 million last year for a token opponent.

Lewis raised two-thirds of his funds last year from political-action committees, and with a seat on the tax-writing Ways & Means Committee in this economic environment, he clearly has the ability to raise more next time.

At 71, he says he's not too old for another term.

"I plan to continue to serve," Lewis told a luncheon crowd at the Atlanta Press Club in April. "I'm not in any ways tired."

Johnson, however, says it's time for a change.

He said he respects Lewis' service and his courage during the civil rights movement -- from beatings as a Freedom Rider to arrests and water hoses on the march to Selma. But he isn't content to wait until Lewis decides to retire."I don't believe in waiting to serve the district if you think about where waiting has gotten us," the judge said.

According to Johnson, Lewis is a one-song jukebox in an iPod-shuffle world of complex issues.

"I believe we need a broader perspective. ... It's going to take someone who can work with both sides of the aisle."

And that phrase, "work with both sides of the aisle," will make an interesting race all the more fascinating.

Johnson, a Morehouse College graduate who's studied at Oxford University and represented corporate clients before becoming a prosecutor and then a judge, is likely to appeal to the urban voters in the 5th Congressional District as well as some Republicans from outside the district.

Johnson has already proved he can win elections in Fulton County, which is essentially the 5th District. That gives him valuable experience campaigning, raising money and credibility.

With 12 months before the primary, Johnson is already campaigning full time, and he's beginning to pick up some support.

Take, for instance, a May 12 column on by one of Lewis' fundraisers from the last election, Shelley Wynter. She switched her allegiance to Johnson, she said, because she thought Lewis was resting on his past accomplishments.

She argues that Lewis' congressional seniority provides little benefit to the 5th District because he doesn't bring home funding.

Actually, the 5th District is tops in Georgia and ranked 42nd out of 435 districts in federal contracts performed in the district during 2008, according to's most recent ranking.

Elections don't hinge on history or even political accomplishments. They boil down to what voters expect in the future from the candidates.

So Wynter's perceptions and the age-versus-youth dynamic of the candidates contribute to the potential for an upset. And Lewis' stature guarantees the contest will draw national attention.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He can be reached at, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.

Web posted on Thursday, July 21, 2011

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