4th Congressional District 

Majette: The better of two lessers

You're out there somewhere -- a tough, principled candidate with the statesmanship Cynthia McKinney lacks and the vision her challenger, Denise Majette, can't conjure.
You're out there, but you're not running this time. In your place, we have something of a non-choice in the Democratic primary: a challenger not ready for prime time versus an incumbent with a spotty record for constituent service and a reputation for divisiveness that approaches demagoguery.

First off, we like iconoclasts. McKinney was right to insist that the government investigate what George W. Bush knew about a terrorist strike before Sept. 11 (even if she overstepped by implying there was a tie to Bush family business dealings). Moreover, McKinney has value as one of about 10 people in Congress who argues a contrarian viewpoint on the Middle East; with due respect to her critics, democracy isn't served by eliminating every voice on the other side.

The problem with McKinney is that her comments always come in reaction to an event. And she does it so often and so brashly that it amounts to grandstanding. The effect is that it has burned her political capital, so that now when she speaks, her voice doesn't have the resonance of someone who is respected -- John Lewis, for example. Oftentimes, what she says actually seems to rally people to her target -- the prime case being Bush.

The district deserves someone who can effectively advocate solutions. One measure of a member of Congress is whether she's done right by the people of her district. After 10 years in the House, McKinney has, at best, a mixed report card. She says she's brought $350 million in federal grants to her district, but that contention largely depends on who's doing the counting.

How do you count the grants that didn't arrive in DeKalb because McKinney lacked the clout or competence to secure the money? Take a $1 million education grant available to the district that would have helped track DeKalb students as they made their way to school on county buses. DeKalb schools tried to interest McKinney, but she didn't respond. So education officials had to appeal to senators Max Cleland and Zell Miller.

Where is the outspoken McKinney when it comes to defending her record? She has yet to face her opponent in a debate. Local media have had a hard time corralling her for a simple sit-down. Maybe she's doing the smart thing politically; an appearance elevates the challenger to the incumbent's level. Such calculation is contemptuous of democracy, however.

In lieu of debate, McKinney deploys red herrings she's used in every other race: calling her challenger a Republican, suggesting Majette isn't black enough. Why not attack something of substance? There are plenty of targets.

Majette, a former judge, shows potential, but her only theme is that she's the un-McKinney. She acts like the kind of person who will be embraced in Congress. And that would likely mean more money for her district.

The most disturbing thing about Majette is, by contrast, McKinney's strength: You know how the congresswoman is going to vote. During her decade in office, McKinney compiled a near flawless record on labor and environmental issues.

Majette appears ready to float in any direction, and in Congress, monied interests stand ready to help undecideds on nearly every vote. Moreover, she's exhibited a poor command of national issues. Where she states opinions, they often are to the right of her constituents.

Look at Congress' repeal of the estate tax as an example. Very few people in the 4th would be helped by eliminating a tax that endeavors to keep America's wealth from accumulating in fewer and fewer hands. Majette, though, wants to make last year's repeal of this very fair tax permanent, jeopardizing Medicare and Social Security in the process. It seems like a decision she made after listening to wealthy contributors, not her potential constituents.

Majette also stands ready to work for a prescription benefit that would largely be decided by drug companies, an industry whose track record is to work only for their own profit. And she dismisses entirely the idea that reparations are due blacks for past discrimination and slavery, even though many people in the district believe the concept worthy of discussion.

Thus, people of the 4th have a true dilemma: Return McKinney with her abrasive style but solid record on environmental and economic issues, or send Majette, more personable but lacking the fire of conviction. The voters can either have more of the same or can gamble that Majette won't turn out to be another seat for sale. Unfortunately, they don't have the option of "none of the above."

We don't like Majette's pandering on some issues and her lack of knowledge on others. But, forced to pick, we believe she could grow -- something McKinney is determined not to do. If she wins and advocates positions that work against her district's interests, it won't be that hard for another candidate to unseat her in two years.

Majette or McKinney will face token opposition in November in the heavily Democratic district, which includes most of DeKalb and the western corner of Gwinnett.



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