By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008
They're "probably" in the room, she says ominously.
Listening. Conspiring. Taking it all down.
Cynthia McKinney thinks we're being watched, and she says so, leaning into the mike. The crowd of several hundred in this Atlanta public library auditorium -- graying Black Panthers gathered for a reunion, a pamphleteering Revolutionary Communist Party guy, Pan-African liberationists -- mostly nods in agreement.
Someone in the back of the room calls out, "Teach!"
McKinney -- almost three years removed from her smackdown with a Capitol Hill policeman, out of Congress, out of the Democratic Party -- has been in a teaching mood as she wages a kind of un-campaign for president on the Green Party ticket.
As she says in an interview at a secluded table in the library: "We define what victory is," explaining that the campaign is not so much about getting votes but "finding kindred spirits," something more than the simplistic media folks look for. "This is far bigger."
Bottom line, though, why run?
"Why not?" she says. "It was former comptroller general David Walker who said, 'Now is the time for leadership, not lag-ship.' "
What's that mean?
"I'll let you figure that out," she says.
McKinney travels in a rented Hyundai Sonata, taking turns driving with an aide who has accompanied her on at least one all-night drive from Maryland to Louisiana. Her skeleton staff frequently has no idea where she is. The calendar on her campaign Web site is empty. Her phone goes unanswered; the box for her voice mail is full.
She is a Candidate of Mystery.
When she surfaces, as she did for two appearances and a live Internet discussion one recent weekend in Georgia -- the state that sent her to Congress six times and kicked her out twice -- she's got a lot to say about a lot of things, but not much about running for president. (She's on the ballot in 32 states, but not here in Georgia, where she blasts "restrictive ballot laws" and asks followers to write in her name Nov. 4.)
She believes there are "credible reports" that the U.S. military dumped 5,000 prisoners -- each with "a single bullet wound to the head" -- in Louisiana swamps using Hurricane Katrina as cover.
She believes that Jeb Bush -- the president's brother -- facilitated Colombian drug shipments into the United States when he was governor of Florida.
She believes the "corporate media" are censoring stories about the United States "restarting dirty wars in Latin America" and about "Bush's real problem with Eliot Spitzer," a head-turner that she dangles without specifying which Bush she is talking about or explaining.
"We don't really know who killed Martin Luther King," she says, rolling now as she addresses the Panther group in the auditorium. "We don't really know who killed Bobby Kennedy. We don't really know who killed John Kennedy. We don't really know who killed Tupac Shakur."
She delivers most of her remarks in a sweet, honeyed, almost girlish voice. When she isn't talking, she's smiling. Her face is enviably unlined, making her appear younger than her 53 years. She's mad about so many things, but she looks so happy.
Gone is the cyclone of hair that Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan once described as somewhere "between a polished Afro and a head of funky twists." Now her dark locks are pulled back tightly in braids knitted at the back of her head. Her thick pantsuit jacket has small holes in the sleeves, but it's a crowd-pleaser. A man grabs her elbow as she walks into the auditorium -- "Green jacket for the Green Party!"
She is joined onstage for a panel on FBI spying by Ward Churchill, a former star University of Colorado professor who provoked outrage by writing that Sept. 11 victims were "little Eichmanns" and not "innocent civilians." For her part, McKinney was ridiculed in the months after the attack for suggesting that the Bush administration knew more than it let on before planes hit the World Trade Center.
Churchill says he has never voted for president, not wanting to validate an "occupation" government that seized land from Native Americans.
But he voted this year.
For Cynthia McKinney.
"She's got integrity," Churchill says.
In the hallway, the local Green Party boss is waiting, hoping for an audience with McKinney.
"Cynthia's candidacy has brought some real vibrancy and energy to the party," says Thano Paris, a 20-something dishwasher and co-chairman of the Green Party in DeKalb County, which McKinney represented in Congress.
Paris, in his beret and army surplus jacket, reveals that his chapter more than doubled since McKinney joined the ticket -- from four or five members to 10 or 12. The chapter has $10 in the bank; Paris and pals spent $300 of their own money to promote McKinney's appearance. They couldn't reach her to confirm, so they sent an e-mail to the campaign Web site and hoped for the best.
The site, where McKinney's campaign seems most alive, carries Roseanne Barr's picture and endorsement: "Since I will vote for a woman before I will vote for a man any day . . . I am going to vote for Cynthia McKinney." On Roseanne's blog, an entry says, "Vote Cynthia McKinney -- Green Party," and runs through her policy positions: Supports gay adoptions. "End the death penalty; it's based on race & class." Legalize medical marijuana and needle exchanges. Declare the United State carbon-free and nuclear-free.
Though the Green Party is generally associated with environmental issues, McKinney has tried for a broader appeal, often citing the party's "four pillars: ecological wisdom, social justice, grass-roots democracy and nonviolence." She accepted the nomination in July after a curious primary season in which she competed against consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who had not officially announced his intentions and eventually decided to run as an independent. Nader got more than 2.8 million votes -- 2.7 percent -- as the Green Party candidate in 2000 when some thought his presence on the ballot cost Vice President Al Gore the election. In 2004, the Green candidate, activist David Cobb, garnered just under 120,000 votes, or one-tenth of 1 percent.
McKinney moved to California after losing her seat in Congress. She hopes to pursue a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, focusing on COINTELPRO, an FBI operation that spied on Black Panthers and civil rights-era leaders between 1956 and 1971. McKinney believes it still exists.
Now she's back home in Georgia, addressing the crowd in the library auditorium.
There is a stray Barack Obama T-shirt or two. When Obama is mentioned, McKinney's father, Billy McKinney, calls out from 10 rows back: "How many black people have you seen in his campaign?"
One of Cynthia McKinney's fellow panelists says Obama, indeed, has black staffers.
Bill McKinney calls out again: "I haven't seen anyone."
The father -- one of the first African Americans on the Atlanta police force -- is interwoven in the daughter's trajectory. He nudged her into politics, and for four years they were the first father and daughter to serve simultaneously in the Georgia House of Representatives.
She was elected to Congress in 1992. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times called her "the startling new face of Congress" and noted her "uncommon poise."
But her promise was later undermined by complaints that she focused too much on unearthing conspiracies and not enough on her district. She unsuccessfully sought to impeach President George W. Bush, and to force the government to release documents related to the killings of King and Shakur, whose mother lives in her district.
"I don't think she deliberately set out to sabotage her career, but if you give them fodder, they'll use it," says the Rev. Kenneth Samuel, a longtime supporter and admirer who leads a church in Stone Mountain, Ga. "People expect their representatives to bring home the bacon. There are those, honestly, who questioned whether Cynthia was suited to do that."
She first lost her congressional seat in 2002 -- after a decade in office -- following her Sept. 11 remarks. Her father, speaking on a radio program, blamed McKinney's campaign troubles on "J-E-W-S," unhappy about her support of Palestinian causes. After regaining her seat in 2004, she lost again in 2006 amid fallout over punching a Capitol Hill police officer who stopped her from entering a congressional office building without going through a metal detector, a privilege granted members of Congress. She had changed her hairstyle and the officer said he did not recognize her.
"She has been an embarrassment," Len Walker, a Republican Georgia state legislator, says in a telephone interview. "Her political life is very much over here. She's pretty much done."
But, for a brief instant, surrounded by the Black Panthers, she's a local girl made good.
"We were glad to see her punch the heck out of whoever put his hands on her," Mukasa Dada, a Pan-African liberationist, says during a break at the Panther event.
As for her future, McKinney hints to the audience that she has a "plan," but needs financing.
What could it be?
"I certainly won't tell you," she says after stepping down from the stage. "It's not for public consumption."
Asked whether she has any regrets, McKinney responds: "It's been a wonderful journey. That's the way you can title the story."