“Never meet your heroes,” so the advice goes. They can only fall off the pedestal you placed them on, only disappoint you with the flaws all humans have.
Unless that hero was the late civil rights icon John Lewis, says Rep. Nikema Williams. “He was exactly what you would have expected him to be,” she told Heard on the Hill in September.
Williams majored in biology in college, but since then has made a science out of politics. As chair of the Georgia Democrats, she saw her state go blue in the presidential race and then in two Senate runoffs. She shared her advice on how Democrats could replicate those results and rebuild the party’s withering roots in rural areas.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Q: You were elected the freshman class president for Democrats for the 117th Congress. First, what is that? Second, how’s it going?
A: I’m the person who’s supposed to bring the class together for social events. A lot of politics is about people getting to know each other and building relationships, and it’s my job to create opportunities for that. We have gotten together to just hang out, going to different members’ homes, and we support each other. We came in at a difficult time when we couldn’t really socialize with anyone because of COVID.
That’s the fun part, but then I also have to coordinate special order hour, which is where people in the evenings get to do one-minute speeches or five-minute speeches on the floor. The freshman class president coordinates members of the freshman class to preside. The bad part about that is if people don’t show up, I have to do it.
Q: You grew up on your grandparents’ farm in rural Alabama, and your grandfather was very active as a Democrat there. What is the party doing now in places like that? Realistically, can Democrats do anything to woo rural voters again?
A: It was the big city of Smiths Station! I think it’s all about showing up and meeting people where they are. For far too long, we lost our way and just focused on where there was a multitude of voters, in our urban centers. Now we’ve found success in Georgia by making sure we talk to everyone about the issues that matter to them. I’m the only person in my family who lives in a major metropolitan area. Everyone else lives in the country. And so when we talk about talking to rural voters, we’re talking about my family members. We have to make sure we get back to having those direct voter conversations.
Q: You succeeded the late great John Lewis, and I understand you knew him pretty well. Your husband worked for him for a number of years, and you considered him a mentor. What’s something about him that most people don’t know?
A: Mr. Lewis loved to shop, and our favorite was catching up in the clearance at Dillard’s, the local department store in Atlanta. We would always go to Atlantic Station and shop. He was also just this bigger-than-life person, who was silly and loved to joke. You often have an idea of who someone is in their public persona, and then when you meet them, they’re not that great of a person. But he was exactly what you would have expected him to be. He was absolutely one of the most genuine people you’ll ever meet.
Q: You’re the chair of the Georgia Democrats, and the party had a pretty solid 2020 election cycle. What advice do you give to your peers in other states?
A: Don’t let people tell you what can’t be done. And don’t forget that every vote counts the same. Like, there are some parts of the state I know we aren’t going to win, but there are some voters there that if we turn them out, we can make an impact on our statewide races. Meet voters where they are, invest in the field game, invest in organizing. It matters. I mean, you can win when you have authentic candidates meeting the moment. Authentic candidates are key.
Q: You majored in biology. Do you ever use that knowledge now?
A: When the pandemic hit and people were talking about how vaccines work, and will your DNA be altered, I was like, “Oh, let me pull some of this back off the shelf here.” I went to college and I was told by a professor that I was too smart to not major in math or science, and so I changed my major to biology.
I thought I was going to go to medical school and quickly realized that was my family’s dream for me and not mine. I have not looked back ever since I got involved politically. I remember during the campaign last year, one of my advisers from undergrad — she’s chair of the biology department at Talladega College now, Dr. Alison Brown — was introducing me on a Zoom meeting of TRIO students. (I was a Ronald McNair scholar in undergrad.) She said, “If you ever told me I would be introducing Nikema Williams as a world-renowned researcher and biologist, that’s what I would have thought. I never thought I would be introducing her as a member of Congress.” But she couldn’t be more proud.
Last book you read? “Arthur’s Adventures.” I have a 6-year-old, and I do bedtime stories by FaceTime. I don’t know if that counts.
In politics, can the ends justify the means? In politics, we should always center the people. And if that results in the ends justifying the means, then yes.
Least popular opinion? I’m a Southerner, but I hate sweet tea.
Best perk of your job? It sounds really quirky, but I’m a people person. I love people and seeing the impact of the things I’m able to do for my community.
Closest friend across the aisle? Oh, probably Byron Donalds. I knew him before we got to Congress. He has not yet listened to me when it comes to how to advance policy here, but I’m still working on him.