Atlanta Journal-Constitution - Old Pro Lewis as Hungry as a Rookie
On a recent, blisteringly hot afternoon in southwest Atlanta, John Lewis was walking door-to-door, asking for votes, when he paused at a Greenwich Street home and offered to mow a constituent's lawn.
Taking the mower for a few turns, Lewis said it was a reminder of when he first ran for Congress 22 years ago and cut a man's grass to convince him that he was a "workhorse, not a show horse."
"I helped him. He helped me," Lewis said. "In the end, it brought me good luck."
Does the veteran Democrat, who ran his first campaign as an underdog in a field of 10 candidates, need luck this year to win Georgia's 5th Congressional District election?
Lewis, an 11-term incumbent and a venerated civil rights icon, holds one of the top leadership posts in Congress. He has a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax legislation and bills affecting Social Security and Medicare, among other programs.
Constituents say Lewis has made some mistakes, most recently in sticking too long with an endorsement of former Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton before switching support to Barack Obama, on track to be the first black Democratic presidential nominee. But when Lewis walks through his district which stretches from Forest Park to Sandy Springs he is still treated like a hero.
On July 15, the 68-year-old lawmaker faces his first Democratic primary challenge in 16 years. His two opponents say the congressman is out of touch, more dedicated to national causes than the needs of his district. They say he rests on four-decades-old laurels collected during the civil rights movement.
"You can never erase the work that he did as a young person in the civil rights movement," said state Rep. "Able" Mable Thomas (D-Atlanta), 50, one of Lewis' rivals. "But what you did for the movement doesn't guarantee you a seat in Congress for life."
"Public service is a lifetime assignment, but public office must not be," said Lewis' other Democratic challenger, Markel Hutchins, 31, a pastor and community activist who is making his first bid for public office.
'Trail of a hero'
Lewis began fighting for civil rights as a teenager. He is perhaps best known for his role as a leader of the March 7, 1965,
"Bloody Sunday" march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in support of voting rights for black citizens.
White state troopers wielding police batons attacked Lewis, civil rights activist Hosea Williams and the more than 600 marchers they led over the bridge.
Bleeding and with a fractured skull, Lewis stood in front of television cameras and called on President Lyndon Johnson to intervene. Johnson did. A few months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights of Act of 1965.
Many of Lewis' constituents don't forget that.
"He's left a trail of a hero. He took a lot of knocks on the head for us," said Roger Hicks, when Lewis made a campaign stop on a recent Saturday at Café Xpress, Hicks' southwest Atlanta eatery.
"You could have saved your steps, Doc," Hicks told Lewis. "You know you got my support."
Marvin Nesbitt made the same point as Lewis mowed a portion of his yard.
"He didn't have to do that to get my vote," Nesbitt said.
Lewis' opponents say he has work to do to persuade other voters to elect him to a 12th term in Congress.
"I've heard people say, 'What has he done for us?' " Hutchins said. "What have you seen or heard of the congressman that he has proffered to deal with problems with our schools, our economic crises, our energy and mortgage crises?"
So far, Lewis has not met face-to-face with his opponents at public forums. The congressman declined to attend a televised Atlanta Press Club debate last week, citing a schedule conflict.
Lewis has made himself available and visible to voters. He's visited union halls, churches and college campuses. He's attended neighborhood festivals and Eagle Scout ceremonies. Last Monday Lewis rode around Atlanta in a UPS truck, dressed in a brown uniform and delivering packages to customers.
He hasn't campaigned this hard in 22 years. That's because Lewis, during that time, has faced only token opposition or none at all. In four of 11 elections, Lewis was re-elected by default because no one signed up to run against him.
When asked about his accomplishments, Lewis often touts his national legislative successes. They include his successful push for a research center focusing on minorities at the National Institutes of Health.
He cites the key role he played in renewing the Voting Rights Act in 2006 and the "Lewis Amendment" he sponsored two decades ago to ensure businesses owned by ethnic minorities and women obtain more federal transportation contracts.
Lewis, both individually and in tandem with other lawmakers, brought home $15.1 million to Georgia's
5th District in 2007.
By comparison, House Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) helped secure $75 million during the same period. Bishop serves on the House Appropriations Committee and the central Georgia district he represents is home to Fort Benning, which receives a hefty share of federal funding every year.
Lewis says he is effective at securing federal funding for his district. He listed millions of dollars he's obtained during his career for MARTA, highway improvements, colleges and hospitals.
Republicans and Democrats alike credit Lewis with helping secure $114 million in emergency funding in 2007 for PeachCare, a federally subsidized health program for low-income children.
Earlier this year, Lewis succeeded at fast-tracking Grady Memorial Hospital's application for tax-exempt status. The financially strapped hospital could not accept a $200 million donation from the Woodruff Foundation without it.
"We got 501(c)(3) status for Grady," said Tharon Johnson, Lewis's campaign manager. "Normally that would have taken four months. He [Lewis] did it personally in four days."
Lewis is the fifth-ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and chairs the panel's oversight subcommittee. If Lewis loses, his supporters say, his district loses much of its influence in Congress.
"He's senior member on [a major committee], and those are people who can get things done," said state Rep. Bob Holmes (D-Atlanta).
Holmes said the primary reason for the candidacies of Hutchins and Thomas evaporated when Lewis ended the highly public endorsement flap.
Lewis angered many African-American voters when he endorsed Clinton for president last October. When Obama began racking up a string of primary election victories in January and February, including his overwhelming win in the Georgia Democratic presidential primary on Feb. 5, public pressure intensified for Lewis to change his endorsement.
On Feb. 27, Lewis reversed his endorsement and threw his support to Obama.
"I saw a lot of the same spirit of the civil rights movement in the Obama campaign," Lewis told a reporter at a Decatur forum on veterans' issues last month. "And I wanted to be a part of that spirit."
But, Lewis said, it was a "very, very difficult" decision.
"We go far back," Lewis said of the Clintons. "I knew [Bill Clinton] when he was attorney general of Arkansas and later when he became governor. And when he became president, we disagreed on a lot of things. It was a relationship. We were almost like brothers."
Rep. Artur Davis, an Alabama Democrat who was a law school classmate of Obama's, said he understood Lewis' dilemma. "John had to put loyalty and his commitment [to the Clintons] on the same table with this historical barrier being broken," he said.
In the district all may be forgiven, if not forgotten.
"I still love him," said Sheila Butler, a waitress at the Busy Bee Café on Martin Luther King Drive. "He's a good guy, but I still think he should have went with the people and endorsed Obama first."
David Bositis, a specialist in black electoral politics with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, said Lewis' biggest challenger is time.
"The clock is ticking on a lot of older members of Congress, and there are a lot of young, ambitious potential African-American candidates on the way," Bositis said. "And they're going to want their turn."
Lewis acknowledges that inevitability, even as he adamantly insists he's not ready to hang up his own career.
"These young people they represent our greatest hope and our greatest sense of optimism," Lewis said during a recent interview in his Capitol office.
Looking down on the Capitol grounds, Lewis pointed to the site where the next
U.S. president, perhaps an African-American, will be sworn into office.
These younger leaders have never seen a "whites only" or "colored" sign, Lewis said. "Their souls should be clean from the scars and stains of racism."
Lewis then added. "It doesn't mean that my generation should be put on some wall or put in some corner."