Will Georgia Voters Give Cynthia McKinney a Pass?

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Cynthia McKinney's reputation on Capitol Hill and elsewhere may have taken some shots in recent months. But in her Georgia district, the congresswoman known for testing, if not betraying, decorum enjoys solid support as she heads into the July 18 Democratic primary — the only election that much matters in her heavily Democratic district.

The stream of controversy following McKinney spiked this spring when she was charged with punching a cop who, failing to recognize the congresswoman, physically restrained her after she bypassed Capitol security. It's not the first time security has challenged her credentials — recurring mistakes that the African-American representative calls racist. (A jury declined to indict her after hearing witness testimony from four congressional aides.)

Asked about the scuffle in a local TV interview on April 22, McKinney demurred, then marched off the set and, forgetting she was still miked, called her aide a "fool." Last weekend, she skipped two televised debates. Yet none of this is likely to harm her candidacy. They may even help.

"This flap she had on Capitol Hill I believe helped her with her core constituency," that is, African-American voters, said Charles Bullock, the Richard B. Russell chair in political science at the University of Georgia. "They see this as her standing up for them. She's not going to be pushed around." Many of her constituents, he added, have likely had unpleasant dealings with the police and might have the desire to shove a policeman too.

Controversy has surrounded McKinney before. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, she sparked outrage when she challenged the popular decision by New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani to refuse $10 million in relief funds from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal because he linked the attacks to U.S. support for Israel. She wrote to the prince, apologized for Giuliani's rebuff and said she could use his money to help African-Americans. Fomenting more ill will, she later suggested that the Bush Administration may have had advance knowledge about the attacks. This energized pro-Israel activists, long critical of McKinney's voting record on the Jewish state, and in 2002 she was upset in the Democratic primary by Denise Majette. She regained the seat two years later after Majette opted for an unsuccessful Senate bid.

But the political climate has since shifted in McKinney's favor. Redistricting in 2004 strengthened McKinney's standing by removing some of her antagonistic white constituency. And anti-Bush sentiment is high. Crossover voting in Georgia's open primary (which helped defeat McKinney in 2002) is likely to be smaller than usual because of a heated Republican fight for lieutenant governor between former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and Georgia Senator Casey Cagle. Plus, it's tough to defeat an incumbent.

In her primary battle against Hank Johnson, an African-American former county commissioner, and John Coyne, a white businessman, McKinney is taking a low profile, which she successfully employed in 2004. "Can Cynthia McKinney be weird enough to lose that seat?" said one D.C. Democratic strategist who asked to remain anonymous. It would "take a lot of weirdness." The strategist added: "She has created this sense that she is a victim of persecution and that creates an identification between her and a lot of people in her district."

But she has also drawn fire for her effectiveness in Congress. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution slammed her in an editorial this week announcing its political endorsements: "Once again, the 4th District congresswoman has lost credibility, lost clout and lost the stature needed to effectively represent her constituents on Capitol Hill. Even her own party's House leadership and members of the Congressional Black Caucus seem to have had enough of her."

But McKinney's campaign website says she has brought home the proverbial bacon with an itemized list indicating hundreds of millions of federal dollars she has helped bring to Georgia since first elected in 1992. "She is a very, very smart woman," with "very strong and good political instincts," said Matt Towery, Georgia Republican pollster and former state representative. "Anyone who thinks Cynthia McKinney is stupid or crazy doesn't know the term crazy like a fox." Towery noted that McKinney has not been running ads in her campaign: "She knows this go-round that if she stays quiet, keeps to herself, that she's likely to get a pass." One indication of MicKinney's chances: Towery's firm is doing no polling on the race — which it would likely do, he said, if "we thought that there was any chance of an upset."