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Georgia Democrats choose Nikema Williams to replace the late John Lewis on the November ballot

People walk near a makeshift memorial to the late congressman John Lewis, a pioneer of the civil rights movement. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)

Georgia Democrats on Monday chose Nikema Williams, a state senator and chairwoman of the state party, to replace the late congressman John Lewis (D) on the November ballot.

Lewis, who died Friday at the age of 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, had won the June primary for the 5th Congressional District seat in his bid for an 18th term. Under state law, the Georgia Democratic Party was required to choose a replacement nominee on Monday, the first business day since Lewis’s death.

The state Democratic Party’s executive committee, which consists of 44 members, selected Williams after a high-profile panel of Georgia Democrats had narrowed the list of applicants to five.

In a statement, Sachin Varghese, the state party’s general counsel, said that members of the executive committee agreed that Williams’s “years of service to the Fifth District and commitment to justice make her the best possible candidate for this role, with a very important legacy to uphold.”

He added that “this was a very difficult decision to make so soon after Congressman Lewis’s passing.”

Williams, 41, was first elected to the Georgia State Senate in 2017, and two years later, she became the first black woman to chair the Georgia Democratic Party.

Williams was among 15 demonstrators who were arrested at the Georgia Capitol in November 2018 amid a protest organized by a local Black Lives Matter group demanding that state officials tally all absentee and provisional ballots in that year’s gubernatorial election. The charges were later dropped.

In remarks to the executive committee, Williams said she was grieving for Lewis, whom she called “a personal hero, friend and mentor.”

“Nobody could possibly fill the shoes of Congressman Lewis,” she said, adding, however, that she has a long record of standing up for what’s right, as Lewis did.

“It would be the honor of my life to serve as the voice of the 5th Congressional District,” she said.

John Lewis, front-line civil rights leader and eminence of Capitol Hill, dies at 80

Williams will be the strong favorite in November to win in the heavily Democratic district, which includes Atlanta.

The Democrat will face Republican Angela Stanton-King, an author and television personality. In February, President Trump pardoned Stanton-King for her role in a stolen vehicle ring, for which she was sentenced in 2007 to six months in home confinement.

In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the district with 85 percent of the vote over Trump.

Lewis’s seat will remain vacant until January unless Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) calls a special election for the remainder of the late congressman’s term. Kemp has not indicated whether he plans to do so.

Before Monday’s vote, a nominating committee that included Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams pared down a list of 131 applicants to succeed the civil rights icon in Congress.

The four others who made the cut included: Park Cannon, a state lawmaker; Andre Dickens, an Atlanta City Council member; Robert Franklin, an Emory University professor and former president of Morehouse College; and James “Major” Woodall, head of the Georgia NAACP.

John Lewis tributes pour in from leaders across the country

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the state party’s executive committee held its meeting Monday via videoconference. Members held several hours of discussion over procedural concerns, heard from the five nominees and eventually voted overwhelmingly for Williams.

Varghese noted that Williams recused herself from her role as state party chairwoman after deciding to seek the nomination and did not participate in Monday’s vote.

Early Monday afternoon, the U.S. House honored Lewis with a moment of silence and a bereavement resolution. A visibly emotional Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) presided over the chamber.

Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.), dean of the Georgia delegation, called Lewis “our hero, our colleague, our brother, our friend.”

“The world is a better place because John Lewis pursued freedom,” he said.

Earlier Monday, several members paid tribute to Lewis on the House floor, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

“Even at 80, John Robert Lewis had the heart and fiery soul of a young protester for a righteous cause, an organizer for the community and country he served,” Hoyer said. “Every day of his life, John marched for justice, civil rights, peace and equality. On every step on his journey, he brought all of us and this country he loved with him.”

Lewis also received bipartisan tributes from members of the Senate.

“Whether the day’s issues found you on his side of a policy debate or on the opposite side, his warmth, friendliness and dedication to his neighbors in Georgia’s Fifth District made an impact on everyone,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said as he opened Monday’s session.

He added: “Our society has only marched toward justice because great figures like Congressman John Lewis took it upon themselves to lead the way.”

Pelosi said Monday that “the appropriate way to honor John Lewis is for the Senate to take up the Voting Rights Act and name it for John Lewis.”

The House passed legislation last December restoring protections of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that were undone when the Supreme Court struck down federal oversight of elections in states with a history of discriminating against minority communities.

McConnell has failed to act on the legislation and Trump has threatened a veto.

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