The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Nikema Williams replaced an icon and helped flip Ga. But she’s not done yet.

Rep. Nikema Williams on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Williams won the seat in Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, which John Lewis represented before his death. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called, newly elected Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) wondered if she was in trouble.

Williams thought back to interviews she’d recently done on CNN and MSNBC. Could she have said something that caught the attention of the presiding officer of the legislative body she was about to join?

It turned out that Pelosi (D-Calif.) was calling to ask Williams to second her nomination for speaker when the Democratic caucus met to choose its leaders.

“I had the privilege of speaking before the entire House Democratic caucus to second the nomination of Speaker Pelosi and give brief remarks on why I was supporting her,” Williams said of the November meeting.

It was another high point for Williams, who, along with other Georgia Democrats, is enjoying the spotlight after delivering big in the state in the November election.

Williams, 42, was sworn in Sunday to the seat that had been held for 33 years by Rep. John Lewis (D), the civil rights icon who died of pancreatic cancer last year at age 80. Lewis was a political role model and personal friend to Williams, whose husband was an aide to the congressman.

She also is chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, which secured the state’s 16 electoral votes for Joe Biden in the presidential election. And Tuesday, she will be leading the charge to win two Senate runoff elections that will determine which party controls the upper chamber.

“So, no, I feel zero pressure,” she joked during an interview.

Williams’s political ascension coincided with the comeback of Georgia’s Democratic Party, which she joined when she moved to Atlanta after graduating from Talladega College in Alabama.

Democrats, Republicans race to finish in Ga. as Trump casts shadow over Senate runoffs

In 2019, Williams became the first Black woman to chair the state party, after working to help Stacey Abrams in her gubernatorial bid. Though Abrams lost, the close margin was a sign that Georgia was on the verge of turning blue after nearly 30 years of Republican dominance in statewide elections.

Snaring a Democratic victory in the November general election, and forcing Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler into runoffs, was the culmination of more than a decade of aggressively registering and engaging Black voters, the party’s largest and most loyal base of support. Turnout, particularly among Black, Latino, Asian American and young voters, will be key to the hopes of Democrats Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, and Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, on Tuesday.

Williams is spending Election Day in Washington, where Congress will certify Biden’s electoral college win Wednesday. But she said Tuesday that she is “confident in the power of Georgia voters.”

“In November, we turned Georgia blue not because we got lucky, but because of decades of organizing and fighting to make sure every Georgia voter’s voice is heard,” she said. “[T]hose same voters who demanded change in November are going to send Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the United States Senate.”

At the outset of the runoff campaigns, political prognosticators noted that Democrats historically have not fared well in such races in Georgia. In a Senate runoff in 2008, for example, the Democratic candidate lost by 15 percentage points after a steep drop-off among Black voters who had turned out in large numbers during the general election to support Barack Obama’s bid to become the first Black president. John McCain, the Arizona senator and Republican presidential nominee, won Georgia that year.

“Georgia has changed tremendously since 2008,” Williams said. “In 2008 Georgia would have never had a Black woman chair of the Democratic Party. But here I sit. 2020 is just so very different.”

DuBose Porter, a former state lawmaker and party chairman, said he handed the party over to Williams, who was his vice chair, confident that she would take it “to a new level.”

Ahead of Senate runoffs, an ambitious campaign to mobilize Black voters

“Nikema has come up through the Young Democrats, she’s helped rebuild the party,” he said. “It’s time for young voices and young faces to take the lead, and there’s none better than Nikema.”

Williams was born in Columbus, Ga., and raised just across the state line in Smiths Station, Ala., where she grew up on her grandparents’ farm.

“When people think about towns with one traffic light, well, we didn’t even have that,” Williams said. “We had one flashing caution light in front of the high school, not even a real traffic light. The home that I grew up in had no indoor plumbing and no running water.”

Williams said her upbringing has informed her work to improve the lives of women, people of color and low-income families. A few years after moving to Atlanta in the early 2000s, she went to work for Planned Parenthood, where she spent a dozen years and was vice president for public policy in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, before leaving in 2017 after winning a special election for the state Senate.

For the past two years, Williams has juggled multiple jobs: state senator representing Atlanta, deputy director of civic engagement for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and mother to Carter, her 5-year-old son. In March, she tested positive for the coronavirus and was sick for three weeks, although she did not have to be hospitalized.

For the domestic workers alliance, Williams developed a program that focused on identifying and engaging low-frequency women-of-color voters.

Ai-jen Poo, the group’s co-founder and executive director, said Williams pushed back against skeptics who said focusing on those voters would be too much work for too little return.

“Nikema said, ‘We know they can be reached,’ ” Poo said. “And we would knock on these doors, and people would be so grateful to hear from us and say that nobody ever comes around here.”

The alliance adopted the program across Georgia in 2018 and expanded it nationwide for the 2020 election. Poo said she was sorry to lose Williams, who recently left the organization, but is glad to have an ally in Congress.

The strategy of targeting low-frequency voters was the cornerstone of Abrams’s gubernatorial campaign. It helped her decisively win the Democratic primary and come within 1.4 percentage points of becoming the nation’s first Black female governor.

Williams was among many Black female political activists who worked tirelessly for Abrams’s election, so much so that when her toddler son saw campaign yard signs he would exclaim “Stacey!” In the days after the vote, when Abrams was protesting myriad election irregularities, Williams was arrested during a demonstration at the Capitol.

Abrams described Williams as “a champion for working families, [who] spent her time in the state legislature fighting for Georgians who are too often left out and left behind. . . . I will be proud to call her not only my friend but also my congresswoman.”

Williams’s husband, Leslie Small, was a top aide in Lewis’s Atlanta office, and she looked up to the storied civil rights activist. She said it had never occurred to her that she would assume his seat.

“He was like that figure that you just always assumed was always going to be there. Even after he was diagnosed with cancer, in my mind, he was still going to be here because he was just this larger-than-life figure,” Williams said.

When Lewis died, several mentors, including former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, encouraged Williams to add her name to the list of more than 130 people who applied to be the Democratic nominee in the general election.

“It took me awhile to come to grips that this was something that could actually happen and that I’ve done the work for so long that I am just as qualified as all of the other people who are putting their names in the hat,” Williams said. “This opportunity was presented to me to be able to fulfill the legacy of Congressman Lewis. I just — I don’t take it lightly.”

Williams won more than 85 percent of the vote in the general election against Republican Angela Stanton-King, an author and television personality who was pardoned by President Trump for her conviction in 2004 on federal conspiracy charges stemming from her role in a car-theft ring.

Pushing for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will be a top priority for Williams, who said she also supports Medicare-for-all, universal paid family leave and addressing climate change.

It is a decidedly liberal agenda, for which she doesn’t apologize, and not just because her seat is in the blue haven of metro Atlanta. Williams said her politics also are informed by her experience growing up in rural Alabama, where residents lack access to health care, broadband and economic development.

“I often say that I live my life out loud and on purpose,” Williams said, “and I hope to continue to do that as I navigate my way through the United States Congress, because there are a lot of people counting on us.”