It took one week and one poll to turn Denise Majette from a long-shot, little-known moderate into a serious contender for the 4th District Congressional seat held by Cynthia McKinney.
The Majette campaign is surely using every means of communication -- handheld to carrier pigeon -- at its disposal to get word out about the Cooper & Secrest poll that shows her leading McKinney 41 percent to 37 percent (with a hefty 22 percent still undecided). It should convince her prospective supporters to untie the strings on their moneybags -- the point of leaking early polls like this one.
While the small lead was surprising, McKinney's negative ratings are stunning, and if they are accurate, at a level that generally proves fatal for politicians. When former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell neared the crest of his unpopularity in Atlanta -- in the late winter of 2001 -- he still registered negative ratings of less than 40 percent among black voters. While that was the highest of any of the politicians mentioned in the survey except for the pre-Sept. 11, post-Florida-vote-debacle President Bush, it doesn't approach McKinney's 60 percent negative job performance rating among 509 likely Democratic primary voters.
Thus far, the only reaction from the McKinney camp has been to shrug off the Majette-commissioned poll as irrelevant and ill-targeted. The campaign attacked Majette, a black former DeKalb County judge, as a closet GOP case by saying in a news release that she has voted in Republican primaries.
Even though she's now been a member of Congress for 10 years, the statement also tapped the unimaginative Cynthia-is-oppressed vein: Majette "is being supported from the same conservative Republicans who have been trying to get Cynthia McKinney to sit down and shut up since she was elected to Congress in 1992," the McKinney campaign stated in the news release.
But the poll is probably an indication of bigger things to come, a race that will get nasty, and like a counterpart in Alabama, may use the candidates as proxies for pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian lobbying groups. Take one look at McKinney's list of contributors, filled with names that suggest Muslim and Arabic origins, and a recent fund raiser for Israeli causes that involved Majette, and you can see it's already happening.
In Alabama, an entrenched African-American incumbent who hasn't toed Congress' pro-Israeli line has cited the Jewish support provided his challenger, who is also black. That's unlikely to work in Georgia's 4th District where one of the things the Secrest poll points to is a fatigue with McKinney's intemperate comments.
And if a recent trip by Creative Loafing to the Brown's Mill Recreation Center in south DeKalb is any indication, McKinney's constituents don't give a damn about Ramallah or Hebron anyway. They just want a little economic equality.
Parents gathered at the rec center on a recent Wednesday evening. While watching their children practice T-ball on a scruffy football field converted into mini-diamonds, the adults talked about government services and education. These are the kinds of voters -- middle-class blacks -- who helped McKinney get into office.
If you accept the conventional wisdom -- that McKinney will retain a core of underclass, more radical supporters, and Majette will attract white voters and moderate upper-class blacks -- then the parents at Brown's Mill also represent the in-between group that will decide the election.
Jennifer Harvey, 28, seems to be exactly the kind of person the Secrest poll uncovered. Harvey voted for McKinney in the past. Come Aug. 20, she says she doesn't plan to do it again. Ten years ago, Harvey says she felt like McKinney was part of the community. When average folks in south DeKalb spoke, McKinney knew what they were talking about. Now, she's not so sure.
"I don't know if she's just lost touch with the reasons why we put her in office or what," Harvey says, echoing a number of residents who implied that McKinney has "gone Washington."
Most of the people CL spoke with still aren't sure how they'll vote come August and only one or two said they've even heard of Majette. But to a person, they all complained about the lack of services and options on the southside of town and the conditions of the local schools where one mother complained that her children are trying to learn the hands-on skill of operating a computer by watching the teacher use the one or two machines available to her class.
As Harvey, who grew up in the area, points out, there's only one decent sit-down restaurant in the community, and she, like many others, wants more options. If anything, Harvey says, things seem to be getting worse, what with the closure of the local Kmart, the imminent shutdown of the Wal-Mart and the continued decline of South DeKalb Mall. With McKinney in office, Harvey says she expected economic development to grow on the southside, not diminish.
"You can take a drive down any number of streets here and see there's just not much for us," Harvey says.
Of course, stores closing and the inequality between schools on the southside and the northside aren't problems McKinney caused, and she has limited influence over them even as a Congresswoman. But the continued southside stagnation will damage her, and Majette should be able to exploit it if she can convince voters she is someone who will listen to them and work as a compromiser in Congress -- McKinney's weakness -- to bring more money to the district. (As Secrest's poll illustrates, just not being the Congresswoman is a good start for Majette.)
It's tough to tell how worried McKinney is about the numbers in the poll and whether her camp believes her base has eroded. Some of her supporters dismiss the findings. To them, the poll has done little to diminish the formidable aura McKinney's political organization commands.
Activist Steven Muhammad isn't convinced McKinney is in trouble "having seen Cynthia McKinney before pull it off every time she's been an underdog -- from her first campaign running for Congress -- and every time, there were voters coming out of the woodwork."
He admits there is a bloc, filled with new DeKalb residents, who might not connect with what McKinney has to say, but Muhammad says a "silent majority" of people, folks who don't get polled, are still behind their Congresswoman.
"From what I've picked up on the street, I haven't heard anything with her having problems in her ranks," Muhammad says. However, he cautions that he is not involved in the campaign. "Basically, she looks to me like she's not even worried about this campaign. She's not taking any unusual steps to protect herself. To me, it looks like she feels that either she knows what she's doing or she's a shoo-in."
Some in the McKinney camp have seized on a conspiracy theory at which even the AJC's Tom Baxter seemed to hint: Secrest was U.S. Sen. Zell Miller's pollster in Georgia, and that in some way biased the survey.
Secrest bristles at the suggestion and dismisses any thoughts that he wasn't polling the "right" people, the folks who are likely to come out and vote for McKinney in August.
"That's just silly, with all due respect," he says, referring to the Miller theory. "I had not spoken to Miller in I don't know how long prior to the survey.
Secrest's reputation is impeccable. He's worked with anyone from Wyche Fowler and Campbell to Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Congressman John Lewis. Mayor Shirley Franklin used him during her 2001 run, and his numbers held true.
Secrest, who grew up in Decatur, explains that part of the decision to work with Majette was a moral choice, because of what McKinney has said in the past, the kinds of things that often resonate with her core supporters.
"I think it's better for Democrats as a whole if she doesn't hold the seat," he says. "In this instance, it's a win, win, win."
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