Foes Take Aim At McKinney In Surprise Georgia Race

By Jennifer Siegel

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.
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A surprisingly close race involving one of the pro-Israel community’s least favorite lawmakers, Rep. Cynthia McKinney, is poised to become a Middle East proxy fight.

McKinney, a left-wing Georgia Democrat with a long history of criticizing Israel, finds herself in an unexpected run-off election after failing to win a majority in her July 18 primary. A defeat in the August 8 runoff would be McKinney’s second ouster from Congress in four years and cap a series of major gaffes, including her delayed apology after allegedly hitting a Capitol Hill police officer in March.

For months, McKinney, whose district includes parts of the Atlanta suburbs, has been raising out-of-state money from Muslim and Arab Americans. Now, with her stumble in the primary, the legislator’s pro-Israel critics are quickly rallying behind her rival, former DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson. Like McKinney, Johnson is an African-American.

“He’s just sky-rocketing in popularity,” said Rabbi Neil Sandler, the religious leader of Atlanta’s Ahavath Achim Synagogue, which hosted Johnson at a pro-Israel rally on July 23. According to Sandler, the audience gave Johnson a “tremendous ovation,” the most enthusiastic response of any of the politicians in attendance.

After learning of McKinney’s unexpected runoff, several of the country’s largest pro-Israel political action committees are rushing to make contributions, with an eye toward arming Johnson with sufficient cash to purchase valuable television and radio advertising.

Officials at pro-Israel PACs told the Forward that they were likely to make contributions in the coming days, with the Washington PAC already committed to giving the maximum $5,000 and the National Action Committee PAC committed to give at least $1,000.

With both candidates reporting depleted campaign war chests of under $50,000, Jewish donors could prove to be a decisive force in the weeks leading up to the runoff.

If McKinney loses, it won’t be the first time that pro-Israel activists have contributed to her defeat: In 2002, after a decade in office, she lost the Democratic primary to former judge Denise Majette, who received significant support from Jewish donors nationwide. McKinney reclaimed the seat in 2004 when Majette launched an unsuccessful bid for the Senate.

The 2002 race stoked considerable tensions between pro-Israel activists and black lawmakers, who were upset that McKinney was one of several black incumbents targeted that year. In the wake of the election, McKinney’s father, longtime Georgia State Rep. Billy McKinney, further inflamed matters when he blamed his daughter’s defeat on the “J-E-W-S” who “bought everybody.”

The racially and ethnically charged tumult of the past has left some supporters on both sides reluctant to discuss their current involvements. Officials at the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, which gave Mc-Kinney $5,000 for both the 2002 and 2004 elections, did not respond to the Forward’s inquiry about whether they had recently supported McKinney, or were planning to help her in the run-off. In an interview with the Forward, Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat from New York who contributed $5,000 to McKinney in 2002 through the National Leadership PAC, also declined to say whether or not he was backing her, financially or otherwise.

“I have no idea whether the Arabs, the Muslims or the Jews are supporting her, and I think it’s offensive to ask what large groups of people are doing,” Rangel said. “I think what you’re doing is politically insensitive as relates to the Jewish and the black community.”

Several pro-Arab PACs did not respond to inquiries from the Forward.

Brian Wertheim, a lead volunteer for the Johnson campaign, also refused to comment. “This is very, very sensitive politically,” said Wertheim, a Jewish attorney in Decatur, who also volunteered for the Majette campaign in 2002.

This time around, McKinney’s current problems began before pro-Israel donors started focusing on the race. In the primary election two weeks ago, turnout in her usual strongholds was lower than in 2002 and she won by smaller margins, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In addition, several prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus have criticized her publicly or failed to rally behind her after the primary. “It’s called ‘avoidingitis,’” said Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, in an interview with the Beltway newspaper The Hill. “We avoid her. Cynthia won’t approach people beyond her real friends.”

In the Jewish community, McKinney has lost the support of one of her most prominent backers from the 2002 campaign, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the leftist Tikkun magazine. Four years ago, in response to the push by pro-Israel activists to defeat McKinney, Lerner issued a call to followers to rally to her support, saying the race would be a “bellwether for feeling safe to raise criticisms” of Israel. But this week, commenting through a spokeswoman, Lerner told the Forward that he would not support McKinney because he “hasn’t been sufficiently convinced that her criticisms of Israel are not mixed with antisemitism.”

Johnson is painting himself as a politician who at the very least would not be an embarrassment to liberals or the Democratic Party. Recently, he has been using the slogan “It’s time to restore respect to progressivism” in Internet advertisements running on Daily Kos, a leading liberal Web site.

McKinney’s reputation has suffered considerably in the wake of her scuffle with a Capitol police officer, during which she struck him with her cell phone after he did not recognize her and asked to see her identification at the entrance to a House office building. McKinney alleged she was the victim of racial profiling before eventually apologizing. A grand jury declined to indict her.

McKinney did not attend two televised debates leading up to the primary, but is slated to debate Johnson before the runoff.

In the past, McKinney has taken a number of positions that angered Jewish groups and pro-Israel activists, including her opposition to a House resolution condemning the incendiary speech of the late Nation of Islam representative Khalid Muhammad in 1994; her objection to the Bush administration’s 2001 decision to pull out of the Durban racism conference in the wake of allegations of rampant antisemitism; and her call, in an April 2001 radio interview, for an investigation into whether President Bush might have had prior knowledge of the September 11 attacks and looked to profit from them.

In May 2002, McKinney was one of the few House members to oppose a pro-Israel resolution that put the bulk of the blame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Palestinians. McKinney said the measure would “undermine America’s vital role as peacemaker,” stressing that she supported a “safe and secure Israel.” Soon after she supported a July 9 resolution condemning European antisemitism, a measure that passed in a unanimous vote.

McKinney did not respond to the Forward’s questions about whether she supported current Israeli operations in Lebanon. She was one of 10 House members who were absent for the vote on a resolution in support of Israel on July 20. The measure was opposed by eight lawmakers.

McKinney’s Middle East positions attracted the attention of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists during her 2002 race. In that race, McKinney received $20,700 from pro-Arab PACs, making them the seventh highest contributing industry to her campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The center also found that pro-Israel donors gave $55,250 to Denise Majette, ranking them sixth among industry groups supporting her.

In the current campaign cycle, no contributions from pro-Israel or pro-Arab PACs were registered for either candidates as of June 28, but more than 60% of McKinney’s individual contributors — many of them with Arab or Muslim surnames — were from out of state, compared to less than 5% for Johnson, according to data compiled by the Federal Election Commission.

During this election cycle, McKinney refunded the donations of 31 individual contributors, mostly from backers with Arab or Muslim names. The list includes several activists with alleged ties to suspected terrorist organizations, including Mahmoud Nimer and Allam Reheem, who had connections to the Islamic Academy of Florida in Tampa, Fla. The school’s leader, Sami al-Arian, was indicted in 2003 for using the school as a basis of support for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

A number of politicians, including Bush and Senator Hillary Clinton, have returned campaign donations to individuals suspected of having ties to terrorist groups. But the large number of refunds by McKinney’s campaign is highly unusual, according to Steve Emerson, who monitors the activities of Islamic militants in the United States.

The McKinney campaign did not respond to questions about the matter.

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