Johnson's low-key style seen as strength vs. McKinney 

The fight for the 4th Congressional District

Hank Johnson doesn't exactly claim to be the anti-Cynthia. After all, the former DeKalb commissioner agrees with many of the veteran congresswoman's hot-button positions, such as that the Bush administration led the country into a disastrously unnecessary war in Iraq and has trampled on basic American rights and freedoms at home.

Rather, he's offering himself as the non-Cynthia -- similar in political slant, but worlds apart in personal style.

For a prime example, look no farther than McKinney's notorious proclamation that she was the target of racism by a Capitol policeman who stopped her at a security check point in March.

Hank wouldn't have handled it that way.

"I refuse to see racism as the reason behind every problem that I face," he says. "Racism exists in our society, but I'm beyond being victimized by it. My personal philosophy is to make friends and win over enemies."

That's certainly a quantum leap from McKinney's habit of courting controversy; critics say her style involves polarizing her friends and demonizing her enemies.

So far, being the non-McKinney is paying off in a big way for Johnson. A day after last Tuesday's poll results vaulted him into the Aug. 8 runoff race for the Fourth Congressional District, his campaign was swamped by donations -- more than $10,000 from 95 separate contributors from as far away as Oregon.

On the other hand, Johnson isn't an obvious choice for the national political spotlight. For starters, his speaking style is maddeningly slow and deliberate, punctuated by long pauses and marked by a flat delivery in which each word is given equal emphasis. His voice rarely rises in pitch or volume, which can lull listeners to sleep or leave them with the impression that Hank lacks the passion to be a truly effective public servant.

Commissioner Kathie Gannon says Johnson's manner of speech reflects his approach as a politician. He takes the time to understand all aspects of an issue before arriving at a decision based on the evidence, she says, not on emotion or political expediency.

"Hank is a very calm and deliberate thinker," agrees friend and fellow defense attorney Dwight Thomas. "He doesn't speak until he's really thought something through."

While Johnson isn't a shouter or table-pounder, he's made controversial statements of his own. After the 2002 mid-term elections, in which Republicans made gains in Georgia, Johnson brandished a bull whip at a commission meeting, suggesting that black voters should get more involved in politics to make sure the state won't be "going backward."

"I like to use humor to get my message across," says Johnson, who admits that his delivery could use some polishing.

Part of Johnson's recent success comes from being in the right race at the right time against an incumbent who may finally have alienated too many of her core supporters. But Johnson also credits long hours and shoe leather.

"We campaigned throughout DeKalb," he says while taking a rare breather in his campaign office. "We left no area untouched."

By most accounts, that kind of thoroughness, attention to detail and willingness to work hard is just the way Hank rolls. Community leaders say Johnson, 51, was a fixture at neighborhood meetings long before he was first elected to the DeKalb Commission in 2000. And his fellow commissioners praise his dedication to public service.

"Hank was not a Tuesday-only commissioner," recalls Judy Yates, who served four years on the commission with Johnson before retiring in 2004. "He didn't take any shortcuts with his time."

Johnson says his experience as a criminal defense attorney and 12 years on the bench as a magistrate court judge -- where part of his job was serving as "referee" between claimants -- have helped him develop his skills of persuasion and to understand both sides of an argument. Succinctness, on the other hand, is a talent he's still working on, he concedes.

"I've learned that credibility comes from sticking by your core values," he says, "but you should be prepared to change your position when confronted by logic."

Perhaps that's why Johnson enjoyed a reputation as the swing vote on the commission, an independent thinker who avoided being intimidated or marginalized by flamboyant CEO Vernon Jones. Even when Johnson has been the lone dissenter in an otherwise unanimous vote -- as when he opposed an eminent domain resolution allowing the county to take blighted property -- Gannon says it's clear he's voting his individual conscience and standing up for constituents.

Johnson's success in the primary is a strong testament to the confidence that voters in south DeKalb -- long a McKinney stronghold -- have in their former district commissioner.

Says neighborhood leader Gil Turman: "I'm a Cynthia supporter, but I think a strong race is good for the community and I don't have a problem with Hank's abilities."

The deciding factor for many voters will be whether they've had enough of McKinney's combative style and are willing to throw their vote to a relatively low-key candidate who specializes in building consensus, not in stirring up controversy.

"I been with Hank at town hall meetings where he's managed to calm down an angry crowd ," says Gannon, who counts herself as a disillusioned, former Cynthia supporter. "Hank isn't going to alienate people the way Cynthia has."


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