A Challenge From the Obama Generation

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A 21-year incumbent and an icon of the civil rights movement, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), is racing around his Atlanta district like a first-time candidate.

He has appeared at six or seven churches every Sunday, posed for cameras as he mowed a prospective voter's lawn, and donned a brown United Parcel Service uniform to deliver packages to his working-class voters.

Today, Lewis faces his first primary challengers since 1992, a pair of candidates who are promoting the "change" mantra of Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign and have organized their campaigns around a single, not-so-subtle message: Lewis's support for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) over Obama in the presidential primary.

Lewis is one of three House Democratic incumbents in Georgia who should be enjoying an easy run through today's primary but instead find themselves battling a wave of younger black politicians emboldened by Obama's success and intent on succeeding their elders in choice political posts.

The generational challenge in Georgia and several other states comes from black politicians who view Obama, 46, as a kindred spirit and are not steeped in the civil rights era.

"It took many members of the elder generation some time to catch up to the [Obama] mood. Some found themselves standing against the tide," said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), an early Obama backer who was elected to Congress in 2006 and faces no primary challenger this year. "I think the trend is irreversible."

In Georgia and elsewhere, some of the initial targets have been lawmakers who backed Clinton instead of the first black candidate to clinch a major party's presidential nomination. In Brooklyn, Rep. Edolphus Towns, 73, a Clinton supporter, faces opposition in a Sept. 9 Democratic primary from community activist Kevin Powell, 42, who once was a star on MTV's "Real World."

Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), 63, who did not endorse Obama until after he secured the nomination, faces two younger opponents in her Aug. 5 primary who also have made the indictment of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, her son, an issue in the campaign.

Lewis, 68, endorsed Clinton over Obama last October. A longtime ally of former president Bill Clinton, Lewis gave Hillary Clinton credibility among black voters nationwide because of his prominent role as an adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era.

Three weeks after Obama won Georgia's Feb. 5 primary, Lewis switched his support to him. But Lewis still was challenged by 31-year-old minister Markel Hutchins and state Rep. Mable Thomas.

Thomas makes no secret of her allegiance to Obama. The top item on her Web site's home page is an image of Obama that links to a YouTube video of the speech he gave June 3 after clinching the nomination.

Hutchins, in a telephone interview, pointed to the recent controversial remarks about Obama by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson as the reason for African American voters to support a new group of leaders.

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