Former Congresswoman Becomes Darling of the Left

By Josh Richman

Published October 24, 2003, issue of October 24, 2003.
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SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — A year ago Cynthia McKinney’s political stock hit rock bottom. The five-term Democratic congresswoman from Georgia suffered an embarrassing primary loss — never having recovered from her suggestion that the Bush administration had ignored warnings about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

But since McKinney’s August 2002 defeat — which some of her supporters blamed on pro-Israel donors — she has become for many on the far left a political martyr. And she has embraced the role with gusto.

“I put my entire body against the gears and the wheels and the levers, against the entire apparatus of the machine, and I tried to stop it,” McKinney said in an address earlier this month. She was speaking in San Rafael at the October 4 awards ceremony of Project Censored, which honors journalists who covered the last year’s “top 25 censored stories” — topics such as “The Neoconservative Plan for Global Dominance” and “U.S. Aid to Israel Fuels Repressive Occupation in Palestine.”

“If there ever was a politician who has earned the right to stand before Project Censored, I think I’m it,” she said.

The applause was thunderous.

McKinney’s fierce denunciations of the Bush administration have been enthusiastically received in speaking appearances across the country. She was given top billing at a May anti-war “teach-in” sponsored by the United for Peace and Justice coalition, her name listed in a press release above such left-wing luminaries as author Arundhati Roy, literary critic Edward Said and 2000 Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Now, Green Party activists are touting McKinney as a leading contender for their party’s 2004 presidential nomination.

“She’s a victim of this administration and its horrendous policies, and she’s a victim who is not going to be quieted,” said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the San Francisco-based activist group Global Exchange and the California Green Party’s candidate for the United States Senate in 2000.

“I think she’s become more outspoken, more determined, more vociferous,” she added. “She gets requests to speak all over the United States; she’s in great demand among people who are angry at Bush for his both foreign and domestic policies. She’s perhaps freer to speak out now that she’s not tied down by the compromises one has to make in office.”

At the Project Censored ceremony, McKinney told a radio interviewer that she is weighing whether to run to regain her old House of Representatives seat or to seek the Green Party’s presidential nomination in 2004.

McKinney declined to speak to the Forward at the Project Censored event, promising instead to e-mail a reporter. She had not done so as of press time. Efforts to contact McKinney at Cornell University, where she was recently appointed a visiting professor, were unsuccessful.

Long known for her fiery liberal rhetoric, McKinney became a lightning rod for criticism after a March 2002 radio appearance in which she accused individuals close to the administration of profiting from the war on terrorism and later asked: “What did this administration know, and when did it know it about the events of September 11?”

While her defenders maintained that she was simply speaking about intelligence failures, to others it seemed she was insinuating that President Bush had deliberately allowed terrorists to murder American citizens. A furor erupted, and McKinney issued a statement a few weeks later saying she was “not aware of any evidence showing that President Bush or members of his administration have personally profited from the attacks of 9/11,” although a “complete investigation might reveal that to be the case.”

Community leaders who had supported her wholeheartedly for years refused to be seen with her. Money from across the nation poured into the campaign coffers of her Democratic primary opponent, Denise Majette — some from traditionally Republican donors enraged by McKinney’s attacks on the Bush administration and some from Jewish donors who felt that McKinney was hostile to Israel. Meanwhile, Arab-American donors rallied to McKinney’s side.

Less than six months after her infamous interview, McKinney lost the primary, taking only 42% of the vote to Majette’s 58%. McKinney, who, like Majette, is black, was defeated despite having the backing of prominent black leaders, including Reverend Jesse Jackson and Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan, who came to Atlanta to campaign for her.

After her defeat, McKinney lashed out at groups ranging from Indian activists, who sparred with her on South Asian issues, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to Democratic officials who failed to support her. She ultimately blamed her loss in the open primary on Republican crossover voting, although an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution later found that only about one-sixth of Majette’s victory margin over McKinney was attributable to voters clearly identifiable as Republicans.

Her father, however, gave a different answer when asked by a local television reporter why his daughter lost, spelling out “J-E-W-S.” Jewish donors’ participation in the primary bids to unseat McKinney and a second black Democrat, Rep. Earl Hilliard of Alabama — who also lost to his black opponent, Artur Davis — also came under fire from some black members of Congress.

“The prevalent perception is that it was the Jewish lobby that came down on her” last year and caused McKinney to lose, Benjamin of Global Exchange said. Benjamin added, however, that she believed that Republican crossover votes were more significant in defeating McKinney.

Indeed, some leftists, such as Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, have placed the onus for McKinney’s defeat on Jewish activists. Other McKinney backers, however, counter that this was only one factor in her loss and say that her popularity is not attributable to a backlash against pro-Israel donors.

Green Party activists touting her as a possible candidate for national office praise her liberal policy stances and outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq, as well as her potential to attract the black support Greens have sought in recent years.

“I was impressed by her progressive views on labor, the environment and social justice, and also the fearless way she spoke her mind,” said Stephen Herrick, a Green Party activist who started a Web site to draft McKinney as a presidential candidate. “The fact that she is a black woman is a factor as well, though not an overriding one.”

“Greens have always had a warm connection with her,” said John Strawn, co-chair of the national Green Party’s presidential exploratory committee. “She’s a bright woman; we’re always looking for people who will not be afraid to be supportive of independent parties… and her strong opposition to the fomenting of war is near and dear to the hearts of Greens as well.”

While many on the left have fallen head over heels for the ousted congresswoman, at least one former McKinney backer is less enthusiastic.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing Tikkun magazine, publicly backed McKinney during her primary battle, sending an e-mail to members of his Tikkun Community accusing “pro-Sharon forces” of targeting McKinney for her “strong stance in favor of both Israel and Palestine.”

Since the election, however, Lerner has soured on McKinney. He said she had failed to disassociate herself from antisemitic remarks by supporters, such as her father’s post-primary comments.

“She has not developed a sensitivity to the legitimacy of Israel or to the oppression of the Jewish people throughout history… and I do not think this would be a good thing for the Jewish people or for the left for her to become a major national spokesperson,” Lerner said. “She was unfairly scapegoated, but that doesn’t mean she has a clean bill of health with regards to Israel and the Jewish people.”

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