ATLANTA – Kendra Owens voted for Rep. Cynthia McKinney before, and she says she’s likely to do so again, despite the fact that the Georgia Democrat this week struck a Capitol Police officer after being stopped at a security checkpoint.
“Her apology was fine,” Owens said from the food court of the South DeKalb Mall, just east of Atlanta. “The media needs to put it to rest.”
A few tables over, plumber Marvaine Butts said the congresswoman was probably right to believe she was singled out by the officer because of her race. “I understand where she’s coming from as far as the racial profiling,” Butts said. “I get plenty of that.” He, like Owens and McKinney, is black.
The incident occurred last week in Washington, when McKinney tried to enter a House office building without wearing her identification pin. She failed to stop when asked repeatedly by a white officer, who then touched her on the shoulder. That is when McKinney hit him with her cell phone.
The fiery lawmaker has received little if any support from colleagues of either party, and a federal grand jury is considering whether to bring criminal charges.
In McKinney’s suburban Atlanta district, the altercation has created new doubts about her fitness for office.
Khalil King, a black businessman, said he wasn’t sure he’d be willing to vote for her again. “I just feel like she’s overreacting,” he said.
To many Georgia Democrats, there is more at stake than McKinney’s political future. Support from moderate white voters is seen as crucial to the party’s chances of winning upcoming statewide contests, and there is a fear that McKinney’s antics will paint the Democrats as a party of radicals.
“Her behavior puts a lot of Democrats on the defensive,” said Merle Black, a political scientist at Atlanta’s Emory University. “But she becomes very difficult for a lot of white Democrats to criticize in public, because they’re concerned they might lose African-American support.”
The 4th Congressional District covers much of DeKalb County. At more than 50 percent black, according to 2000 census figures, the county is a treasure trove of reliable Democratic voters.
The McKinney scuffle already has become an issue for the gubernatorial election, in which Republican incumbent Sonny Perdue is likely to face off against either Secretary of State Cathy Cox or Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor. Both Democratic challengers portray themselves as centrists able to appeal to the moderate white and rural voters who have been abandoning the Democrats in recent years.
This week, Georgia Republican Party Chairman Alec Poitevint called on Cox and Taylor to publicly admonish McKinney. When they failed to do so, Perdue drove the point home.
“I think the silence is deafening,” Perdue said, according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
McKinney has been a magnet for controversy since 1992, when she was first elected to Congress. She has questioned U.S. support for Israel and called the Iraq war “illegal.” She requested clemency for murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the former California gang leader who was executed in December.
Critics say she has a taste for conspiracy theories: After the Sept. 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, McKinney suggested President Bush knew about the attacks in advance.
Last year she called for the release of federal files on slain rapper Tupac Shakur. A news release on her Web site notes “many parallels” between Shakur’s death and FBI treatment of black leaders and entertainers of the civil-rights era.
McKinney was defeated in the 2002 primary by a more moderate black woman, Denise L. Majette. Majette went on to win the general election, but she abandoned the seat to make an unsuccessful run for the Senate.
McKinney won the seat back in 2004.
In the primary this July, McKinney will face Hank Johnson, a black attorney and elected county official who has promised to be a less polarizing figure.
Johnson initially shied from direct attacks on McKinney when he announced his candidacy in December.
Friday, however, he said the incident with the police officer “takes away the last vestiges of credibility that she has.”