In a race against the clock on Monday, a committee of Georgia Democrats chose State Sen. Nikema Williams (D-Atlanta) to replace the late Rep. John Lewis on the ballot in November. She received 37 of the 41 votes that were cast. The 41-year-old Williams, who currently chairs the Georgia Democratic Party, is now the overwhelming favorite to win the general election in this solidly Democratic district. Her selection was praised by her Democratic colleagues in the Georgia Senate. “Sen. Nikema Williams is a passionate voice for justice and equality,” said State Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta). “She is hard-working, an excellent listener, and a proven leader.”
Who is Nikema Williams?
In choosing Williams, Georgia Democrats selected a longtime party insider, a protege of Stacey Abrams and the first black woman to ever chair the Georgia Democratic Party. In her speech to the committee, she said that she was still grieving the loss of Congressman Lewis. “It’s surreal that we’re forced to endure this nominating process while still grieving”. “For me, Congressman Lewis was a personal hero, friend and mentor.”
She made a detailed political and personal case to win the nomination, going all the way back to her childhood in Smiths Station, Alabama her attendance at Talladega College, where she joined the prestigious Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority and obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Biology.
After graduating, she moved to Atlanta and became involved with the Young Democrats of Georgia. She joined the southeast chapter of Planned Parenthood, working her way up to Vice President for Public Policy. She served as a pledged delegate for Barack Obama at the 2008 and 2012 Democratic National Conventions, and for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 convention. She briefly served as acting chair of the Georgia Democratic Party following the resignation of chairman Mike Berlon, who was accused of fraud.
In 2017, she ran for a liberal Atlanta-based State Senate seat in a special election after the incumbent, State Sen. Vincent Fort (D), resigned to wage an unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of Atlanta. Williams ran for the seat and finished first in the jungle primary with 34% of the vote. The second-place finisher was a local perennial candidate named Linda Pritchett. Because no one finished with more than 50% of the vote, the election was forced to a runoff in December, where Williams prevailed 51%-49%.
Williams made headlines in 2018, after she and other protesters were arrested at the State Capitol during protests over the handling of the 2018 elections. She said that she was singled out in the protest because she is a black female senator. The charges against her and the other protesters were eventually dismissed.
In early 2019, Georgia Democrats were still recovering from the 2018 elections. They made major inroads in northern Atlanta state legislative seats, but they did not win any of the statewide offices. Longtime chairman DuBose Porter, a former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, announced that he would not seek another term as chair of the organization. Williams, the party’s vice-chair, announced her candidacy for the post and positioned herself as the early frontrunner. She won the election in a landslide, by a vote of 191-53.
Changing the Process
Over the weekend, the country learned that Congressman John Lewis had sadly lost his battle with stage 4 pancreatic canceron Friday at the age of 80. Almost immediately, questions began swirling about who would replace him on November’s ballot and how his replacement would be chosen. Since Lewis had already won the June primary, state law required the Georgia Democratic Party to decide whether to keep Lewis’ name on the ballot or submit another name.
The Secretary of State told the Georgia Democratic Party that they must submit a name by 4:30PM on the next business day, which would be Monday. Over the weekend, the Georgia Democratic Party asked all Democrats interested in replacing Lewis on the ballot to fill out an online application (Gov. Brian Kemp used a similar process following the resignation of Sen. Johnny Isakson). The application remained active for 24 hours and a total of 131 people applied. A group of high-ranking party officials chose 5 applicants as finalists: Williams, City Councilman Andre Dickens, State Rep. Park Cannon, Georgia NAACP President James “Major” Woodall and former Morehouse College President Robert Franklin. The party held a Zoom meeting Monday afternoon to vote on a nominee. Each finalist had 5 minutes to make their case to the committee. Afterwards, the committee conducted an informal straw poll which Williams won handily.
There have been calls from those close to Congressman Lewis for the nominee to step aside in January to trigger a special election. Tharon Johnson, a Democratic Party strategist who once served as Lewis’ campaign manager, issued a written statement on Sunday night calling for the nominee to step aside: “Out of respect to Congressman Lewis’s legacy, his successor should be chosen and elected by the Democratic voters of the 5th Congressional District of Georgia, not party officials.” Others, however, believe that the state party must follow the law. State Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) said in a Twitter thread that anyone can run against the new nominee in 2022. “Two years is nothing,” she tweeted. “Whomever it is will face multiple challengers in ’22.”
Though most Democrats in the state legislature agree that there needs to be a change in the process. House Minority Leader Bob Trammell (D-Luthersville), who sits on the Governmental Affairs Committee, echoed relief from his Democratic colleagues that the process began to unfold on a Friday. If this had happened in the middle of the week, Democrats would have had one day to pick a replacement candidate. In a telephone interview, Trammell encouraged both Georgia Republicans and Georgia Democrats to be better prepared for situations like this. While it may not be often for congressional seats to become vacant following the death of a longtime Congressman, he said that it wouldn’t hurt for both parties to have plans in place in case something like this does happen again. He also said that he is open to reviewing and making changes to the ballot replacement process in the next legislative session, which begins in January 2021.
Williams is all but guaranteed to win the November general election. Georgia’s 5th district is one of the bluest districts in the southeastern United States, giving Kemp just 11% of the vote in the 2018 race for Governor of Georgia. But while Williams will replace Lewis on the November ballot, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is required to call a special election for the remainder of his term within 10 days of his death. The winner will serve until Lewis’ term expires in January. Williams has not stated whether she would run in the special election. She also has not announced whether she would remain the chair of the Georgia Democratic Party after she is elected to Congress.
Regarding her State Senate seat, Georgia Democrats say that there will be a special election for the seat on election day in November. Because no Republican filed to run for the seat this year, no Republicans can run in the special election. “Unlike the Fifth Congressional District, there is no Republican nominee on the ballot for Georgia’s 39th Senate District on November 3rd. Therefore, Georgia law requires that the vacancy be filled by a special election that will only be open to Democrats,” said Georgia Democratic Party communications director Maggie Chambers in a news release.