On a blazing-hot Monday afternoon in early June, the Rev. Markel Hutchins sits in his cavernous campaign headquarters on Northside Drive, looking every bit the aspiring politician: dark pinstriped suit, crisp white button-down, monogrammed cuff links, buffed and polished shoes. His voice is surprisingly quiet. He's serious to the point of being solemn. Aside from the telltale circles under his eyes, he comes across as alert and intense. All of this makes him seem older than his 31 years.
Though it's six weeks shy of Georgia's July 15 Democratic primary, Hutchins is surprisingly relaxed. Never mind that he's campaigning against U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a man he considers both an icon and a mentor. Forget that, according to the most recent campaign disclosures, Hutchins has raised $5,000 to Lewis' $550,000. Forget that no one thinks he has a prayer of winning.
Hutchins believes he has a chance. To reach the voters of the Fifth Congressional District – a liberal, majority-black area that covers the city of Atlanta – he's says he's using alternative means: text messages, e-mail blasts and a fund-raising event with a guest list that includes Ludacris and Lil Jon. He says he's counting on the support of young people to challenge the old guard from which he sprang.
That strategy makes for a rather quiet headquarters. "Hutchins for Congress" signs plaster the window, but the only other indication of the battle at hand is a quote painted on the room's pale blue wall: "In the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it." The words are attributed to the man whose campaign occupied the building prior to Hutchins' arrival – and whose historic race for the presidency serves as inspiration for Hutchins' unlikely congressional bid: U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
Hutchins first crossed paths with Obama three years ago. They met, ironically enough, at Lewis' 65th birthday gala. Coretta Scott King introduced them. Hutchins was transfixed by the message Obama offered in tribute to Lewis.
"When I was first asked to speak here, I thought to myself, 'Never in a million years would I have guessed that I'd be serving in Congress with John Lewis,'" Obama told the crowd that night in 2005. "And then I thought, 'You know, there was once a time when John Lewis might never have guessed that he'd be serving in Congress.' How far we've come because of your courage, John."
The symbolism of Hutchins' headquarters extends beyond Obama. And it's location is far from accidental. The building is situated in the neighborhood where one of Atlanta's most heinous acts of police brutality took place – an act that Hutchins helped bring to light and which elevated his name from near-unknown status to regular rotation on the evening news. It also happens to sit directly between the Northside Drive campaign offices of Lewis, a 22-year incumbent, and the third candidate in the race, feisty state Rep. "Able" Mabel Thomas.
Compared to Hutchins, Thomas is the stronger candidate. She's an experienced campaigner who's won eight races – and was thrashed by Lewis when she challenged him back in 1992. She has a firm base of support in Vine City and on the Westside. And simply by virtue of her gender, she's likely to win support from some women voters.
It would be a shock if Hutchins even managed to beat Thomas for second place – much less if he came in first.
Yet Hutchins believes he'll defy the odds. He says he'll provide a young, energized constituency a voice that more closely resembles their own. And he complains that while Lewis and other leaders from the Civil Rights era have made precious contributions to American life, they've left little room for succeeding generations to make their mark.
"After the 1950s and 1960s, there were no young people emerging to deal with the pressing social issues of their time," Hutchins says. "I think it had to do with the fact that many in the Civil Rights generation spent so much time and energy trying to open doors for our generation, they didn't recognize that the struggle for a better world wouldn't end with them."
There's a generational tug-of-war in the black community between the entrenched Civil Rights leadership and the fresh faces who aspire to leadership on the grounds that their elders are out of touch. Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist who's studied the evolution of black leadership, says the race for Lewis' seat is indicative of that wider trend.
"It's not like the Julian Bonds or Maynard Jacksons, who were challenging whites for power in majority-black communities," Gillespie points out. "Now you basically have younger blacks challenging older blacks under the guise that they haven't been effective leaders."
All of which raises several questions: In a new age in African-American politics, where blacks are less frequently challenging whites than each other, what does it take for young black leaders to assume power? Is there a right time to wrest control from the old guard? And if neither of Lewis' current challengers stands a chance of coming anywhere close to beating him, what kind of candidate could?
Do I understand correctly that due to the "proactive" commitment to affordable housing on the…
Considering that Georgia has great difficulty teaching school children to read, write, and add, how…
I went to the quarterly briefing last night and several points that are mentioned in…
Sarcasm check on Aisle 13.
Nomadologist: When I went to the southwest planning meeting last year, they said that the…