State Sen. Nikema Williams was tapped by Georgia Democratic leaders Monday to run as the party’s nominee to replace Congressman John Lewis in the upcoming Nov. 3 election, following the civil rights icon’s death on Friday.
Lewis’ death at age 80 precipitated a frantic search over the weekend to pick a new nominee to run for his 5th Congressional District seat in November, since the civil rights leader had already won the Democratic primary in June and therefore needed to be replaced.
Williams, who currently chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, touted her background as an activist and seasoned lawmaker during a party meeting Monday, which resulted in her selection as the nominee for the Atlanta-based congressional seat Lewis held for more than three decades.
She cast herself in the mold of Lewis as a fighter who would push for voting rights and follow up on her work in the Georgia Senate, to which she was elected in 2017. Beyond the state Capitol, she holds executive positions in the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“I have a long career in activism, advocacy and policy to serve as a strong fighter for our communities and values nationally,” said Williams, D-Atlanta. “I believe my experiences, accomplishments and proven record of fighting for my constituents and party values make me the ideal candidate for this seat.”
Williams will need to drop her re-election bid for her Atlanta-based 39th state Senate District seat in order to run for Congress. The Senate district, like Lewis’ congressional district, leans heavily Democratic.
Lewis, a prominent civil rights leader who was beaten by police in Selma, Ala., during a protest march in 1965, served 33 years in Congress before his death following a seven-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
Lewis was poised to defend his seat for an 18th consecutive term against Republican challenger Angela Stanton King. But his death sparked a complicated and quick-moving process for state Democrats to pick his replacement to square off against King rather than let Republicans claim the reliably blue district.
Under state law, Democratic leaders had until Monday at 4:30 p.m. to hand in their replacement nominee to the Secretary of State’s office, prompting a hectic round of weekend inter-party wrangling to winnow down a list of 131 people who applied for a chance to be the nominee.
By Monday, those applicants were trimmed to five finalists: state Rep. Park Cannon, D-Atlanta; Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens; former Morehouse College President Robert Franklin; Georgia NAACP President James Woodall; and Williams.
Party leaders picked Williams by a near-unanimous vote during a meeting that ran close to the deadline. Before voting, they took turns to honor Lewis, praise the five finalists and slam the state law that forced them to submit a replacement nominee within one business day.
Speaking at Monday’s party meeting, Williams recalled growing up just across the Georgia line in Smiths Station, Ala., where she hitched rides on her grandfather’s truck to help hand out slate cards for voters in her neighborhood on Election Day.
She reminisced over reading about her great-aunt, Autherine Lucy, who was the first Black student to attend the University of Alabama in 1956. Williams noted joining a union while in college, teaching in Fulton County schools and working for Planned Parenthood Southeast as public-policy executive.
Williams also described being arrested during protests after the controversial 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, framing the event as an example of the fighting spirit similar to that which Lewis showed in his life.
“He showed me the value of putting myself, sometimes physically, in between the dangerous policies that the most vulnerable communities are hurt by,” Williams said. “His leadership and fighting spirit are needed now more than ever in this country.”