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Majette Shaking Up Ga. Politics

Freshman Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.) on Monday tossed her hat into the race to succeed retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D), a move that largely blindsided Democrats from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., and creates an opening for controversial former Rep. Cynthia McKinney’s (D) return to Congress.

Majette, hailed by establishment Democrats for ousting McKinney in a bitterly fought 2002 primary, becomes the fourth Democrat to enter a Senate race that Republicans are at this point considered heavily favored to win.

Meanwhile, the open-seat race to succeed Majette in the Atlanta-based 4th district is expected to draw a large field of candidates before the state’s April 30 filing deadline. The majority-minority district is heavily Democratic and whoever wins the July 20 primary or Aug. 10 runoff is all but guaranteed a seat in the 109th Congress.

McKinney, who had speculated about a comeback for months, announced Saturday that she would seek her old seat again. The 2002 primary pitting Majette against McKinney devolved into a nasty race, with Middle East politics playing a large role in driving the fundraising of each candidate.

Majette, who campaigned as a rational alternative to the colorful and vocal McKinney, ended up winning by 16 points.

In an interview Monday, Majette said she considered the prospect of McKinney’s return to Congress in her decision to run for Senate. But ultimately she determined that the run would not “jeopardize” the work she has done in her district.

“It was something that I thought about very seriously, and I would not have taken this step if I were not confident that there would be a candidate that could take on the challenge and keep continuing to do the work that we have done in the 4th district,” Majette said. “It’s obvious to the people of the 4th district now that what they had was nowhere near as good as what they have right now, and I am confident that they will do just as they did before and reject the failed politics and policies of the past.”

Among the other leading names mentioned as possible or likely contenders for Majette’s seat are former state Rep. Teresa Greene Johnson, Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard and DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones.

Johnson is perhaps closest to Majette, who backed her bid to become chairwoman of the 4th district Democratic Party.

Other possible candidates mentioned include state Rep. Stan Watson, state Sen. Connie Stokes, DeKalb County Sheriff Tom Brown and Atlanta attorney Mike Williams, a one-time Majette chief of staff.

With the state in the final stages of approving new legislative maps, a number of other state legislators could also look to a Congressional run. The state was forced to redraw legislative district lines after a court threw out the lines penned by the state Legislature during last cycle’s redistricting effort.

The two legislators most likely to look at the 4th district race are state Sen. Liane Levetan and state Rep. Nick Moraitakis.

Levetan, who under the new map is facing a primary against a fellow Democratic incumbent, formerly served as DeKalb County CEO from 1992 to 2000 and as a member of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners.

She is described as a formidable fundraiser whose appeal transcends racial lines.

Meanwhile, Moraitakis’ new district is much less hospitable to Democrats and he faces an uphill battle for re-election.

Moraitakis, Levetan and Woolard are all white. Woolard is also openly gay.

Majette joins state Sens. Mary Squires and Nadine Thomas and attorney Gary Leshaw as the Democrats in the Senate race.

There is some speculation that Thomas could now enter the race to succeed Majette. However, there was no indication Monday that Thomas was considering the House race.

On the Republican side, Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins and pizza magnate Herman Cain are the leading contenders for their party’s Senate nomination.

Democrats have struggled to field a big name candidate in the race ever since Miller announced in January 2003 that he would not seek re-election.

The leading Democrats in the state, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, passed on the race months ago and are expected to square off instead in a 2006 gubernatorial primary.

Just earlier this month, state and national party insiders had been hopeful that millionaire businessman Cliff Oxford was about to enter the race. Oxford, who attended the Democratic National Committee’s unity dinner last week in Washington, D.C., and was squired around town by former President Jimmy Carter, is still interested in running, sources said. It is unclear whether Majette’s announcement will impact his ultimate decision, which is expected to come after April 1.

Meanwhile, Majette’s announcement appeared to catch almost all of the party’s establishment — and even her staff — off guard Monday.

A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said the committee had no comment on Majette or the Georgia race.

State party officials were also not consulted before Majette’s announcement and well-placed sources indicated that Majette’s staff only learned of her Senate plans through speculative news accounts as word began to leak out over the weekend.

Meanwhile, neither state nor national party strategists rushed to embrace her candidacy as they privately acknowledge the reality that the Peach State’s Senate race is not likely to be pivotal to determining control of the Senate come November.

“We obviously want to win Georgia — both parties do,” said a Democratic strategist. “But we don’t need Georgia to take back the United States Senate. Georgia hasn’t been in our math to take back the Senate in six months.”

Majette’s announcement left many in the party scratching their heads and wondering whether the first-term Congresswoman has the ability to put together the grassroots and fundraising networks to make a statewide campaign competitive.

“I don’t think she has the experience or the political base or the ability to finance a race of this magnitude,” said another Democratic strategist familiar with state politics. “I think she’s grossly underestimated what it takes to run and win” a Senate race in Georgia.

But Majette, a former state judge, dismissed the notion that her limited Congressional experience will hurt her Senate campaign, noting she brings not only one term in the House but also 25 years in public service to the table.

“I had a very good sense of what the challenges are and what the challenges would be and how people felt about that,” she said.

“But at the end of day that has to be a decision and it is a decision that I made based on what I believe I need to do, what I’m capable of doing and what the people of Georgia need at this point. I certainly hope that I will be able to have the support of my colleagues and my peers here in Washington and back home. But having said that, I intend to pursue this with great vigor and I intend to be Georgia’s next Senator.”

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