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Georgia on Their Minds

Majette’s Surprise Decision Has Mixed Reaction on Capitol Hill

One day after Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.) stunned colleagues by announcing a Senate bid, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus pledged to give the freshman lawmaker the same level of support the group is giving Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama (D).

Even as the state and national party establishment remained cool to Majette’s candidacy, CBC Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said Tuesday that the organization would “definitely” support its colleague’s effort to become only the second black woman to serve in the chamber.

“You cannot let that critical, historical moment go by, I don’t think,” Cummings said Tuesday.

“We’re going to support her as much as we can,” he added. “I think Congresswoman Majette would make a great Senator.”

The CBC is mounting an eight-month offensive to help elect Obama, who is slightly favored to win the seat of retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) in November and become only the third black Senator to serve since Reconstruction.

But just as Illinois has trended Democratic in recent years, Georgia, like many other Southern states, has trended equally Republican over the past two cycles. And with the absence of a well-known or well-funded Democrat in the race at this point, the GOP is heavily favored to pick up the seat of retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.).

Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins as well as former Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain are battling for the Republican nomination in the July 20 primary.

Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), who is widely considered to be a likely Senate candidate in 2006, also pledged to help Majette.

“I don’t know what the CBC’s going to do, but Denise is my friend and I’m going to help Denise,” Ford said.

Privately, however, some CBC Members were less upbeat about Majette’s prospects.

“I think a lot of people feel that this may be premature,” said one Member, who requested anonymity. “This is a tough race for a freshman Member.”

Majette, who ousted outspoken Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) in a 2002 primary, has acknowledged she faces an uphill battle in the Senate race. McKinney is now running for her old seat again.

Cummings, meanwhile, downplayed the notion that Majette’s relative inexperience will hinder her in the campaign and he said he expected her to have similar support from organizations and people who had backed her primary bid against McKinney.

“I’m assuming Denise Majette will have the support of Zell Miller and the Jewish community,” Cummings said. “She’s positioned herself to do very well. I think a lot of us are excited.”

Miller, who appointed Majette to a judgeship during his tenure as governor and subsequently cut her campaign a check in 2002, has said he will remain neutral in the race to choose his successor.

At the same time, members of the Jewish community expressed disappointment and frustration about Majette’s decision to vacate the majority black 4th district seat, a move that sets up another bitterly contested primary featuring McKinney.

Middle East politics played a prominent role in the Majette/McKinney race two years ago, after the then Congresswoman infuriated the Jewish community with comments she made after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Pro-Israel and Arab interest groups helped steer hundreds of thousands of dollars to each woman, who spent a combined $1.7 million in the primary. In the end, Majette defeated McKinney by 16 percentage points.

One official tied to the Atlanta Jewish community, who asked not to be quoted by name, praised Majette for doing “an admirable job” but expressed dissatisfaction with her decision to leave the seat.

“I think people are really disappointed,” the official said. “We think she has an uphill battle. … I think there’s a lot of disappointment that she’s giving the seat up.”

What, if any, support CBC Members will give McKinney is still uncertain.

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) who was elected with Majette in 2002 and is also a member of the CBC, said he hadn’t had time to sort out the changed political situation involving Majette and McKinney in his home state.

“I have no comment whatsoever,” Scott said.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said Tuesday she had not spoken with McKinney yet.

“I’ll hold my statements until I talk to her,” Waters said when asked if she planned to support her former colleague.

Aside from McKinney, who will have to garner more than 50 percent of the vote in order to avoid a runoff, a number of prominent DeKalb County Democrats are looking at the race to replace Majette.

Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard (D), who is white and openly gay, became the first candidate to officially enter the race on Tuesday.

In her announcement, Woolard alluded to McKinney’s outspoken and often-controversial posture that made her a sometimes unwelcome lightning rod for Democrats and an effective fundraising tool for Republicans.

“The nation needs leaders … who build consensus, not commotion,” Woolard said.

Also eyeing the race are state Rep. Teresa Greene-Johnson, DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, and state Sen. Liane Levetan.

State Sen. Nadine Thomas (D), who represents a chunk of Majette’s DeKalb County base, is expected to announce soon, possibly as early as today, whether she plans to stay in the Senate race or run for the open 4th district seat.

State Sen. Mary Squires and attorney Gary Leshaw round out the four Democrats who are seeking the Democratic Senate nod. Wealthy businessman Cliff Oxford, the party establishment’s choice, is also still considering entering the race.

State Rep. Doug Teper (D), who is active in the state’s Jewish community, said Tuesday he too is considering entering the 4th district race. Teper, first elected to the state Legislature in 1988, helped carve some Jewish communities out of the 4th district during last cycle’s redrawing of Congressional lines because, he said, those constituents did not want to be represented by McKinney.

Just as McKinney was the sole issue of the 2002 campaign, Teper said the same will be true of the this year’s race, sans incumbency.

“She will be the issue,” Teper said. “So it is very likely that those who participate and those who are concerned about responsible representation very well may end up coming together to back a candidate, not in a necessarily formal endorsement. But when the word gets out they may very well circle around a candidate so that they can make sure that former Congresswoman McKinney does not get her platform back.”

Regardless of whether the Jewish community chooses to focus again on McKinney, the same interest groups that helped Majette in 2002 are not likely to devote similar resources to her Senate bid, several sources indicated.

“Majette never fully seemed to realize what happened in 2002,” explained one Democratic observer in the state. “She seemed to think that her election had something to do with her instead of who she was running against. Ultimately it was more an anti-McKinney vote, than it was a pro-Majette vote. The same thing with fundraising.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday there was further evidence of dismay with Majette’s decision on the other side of the Capitol.

Following Tuesday’s Democratic policy luncheon, Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered a series of praise for a host of the party’s recruited candidates, including Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama and Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.).

“Except for Georgia, our recruiting has been outstanding,” Reid said.

Reid said that Majette’s entry did not do much to clear up the picture in the Peach State, where Democrats have not come close to finding a top-flight contender as the state’s April 30 filing deadline looms.

“I don’t know how that’s going to play out,” Reid said. “That’s the only race where we’re not positive yet we have the right candidate.”

By contrast, Senate Democrats heaped praise on Obama, who met with them at their weekly Caucus luncheon Tuesday. While Majette was still struggling to gain a footing of support among Democratic leaders, Obama was making fundraising calls Tuesday with Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and collecting checks from Democrats such as Reid, who said he gave Obama a check from his Searchlight Leadership political action committee.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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