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"The American people appreciate being told the truth," announced Cynthia McKinney, as she and her cheering supporters celebrated what the former Georgia congresswoman described as "one of the greatest political comebacks in history."
Swept from office in a 2002 Democratic primary that saw thousands of Republicans cross party lines with the specific goal of defeating the woman whose fierce criticism of President Bush shocked Republicans and frightened timid Democrats, McKinney on Tuesday won the Democratic nod to retake her Atlanta-area seat. Running against a field of five other Democratic contenders that included a former Atlanta City Council president and a prominent state senator, McKinney stunned pundits by securing 51 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary election.
Because she won more than 50 percent of the vote, McKinney will not have to face a run-off election against a more moderate Democrat. In an overwhelmingly Democratic district, McKinney's chances of returning to the Congress next January look exceptionally good.
And McKinney's got some issues she would like to discuss with her former colleagues -- and the American people.
"We've got to make America, America again," McKinney declared in a victory speech that echoed the themes of the poet Langston Hughes. "We've got to reject backsliding on civil rights and human rights. We've got to get our troops out of harm's way and bring them home. We've got to turn around this Bush economy and get the American people back to work. In fact, while we're at it, let's just turn the whole Bush administration around and install a new resident in the White House!"
McKinney's antipathy toward the Bush administration made her a target in 2002, after she charged the president had failed to respond to warnings of terrorist threats and that allies of the president and vice president would benefit financially from a war in Iraq. Campaigning less than a year after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with much of the Democratic political establishment arrayed against her, with Jewish groups criticizing her for supporting Palestinian rights, and with Republicans taking advantage of open primary laws to cross over and vote against the president's noisiest Congressional critic, McKinney lost the primary that year. After her defeat, she was written off by most political observers as a "conspiracy theorist" who was too radical and too outspoken on hot-button issues to ever make a comeback.
But a funny thing happened between 2002 and 2004.
Many of the concerns that McKinney had been attacked for addressing two years ago fit comfortably in the mainstream of the political discourse this year. Indeed, after former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke testified before the national 9-11 Commission about how the president and his aides had neglected warnings that Osama bin Laden and his followers intended to attack the United States, and after all the revelations regarding no-bid contracts and war profiteering by Dick Cheney's former employees at Halliburton, McKinney was able to campaign as truth teller who had been punished -- and then vindicated.
Still, most Democratic party leaders and her primary opponents presumed that McKinney could not secure the nomination. Two of her opponents raised more money than McKinney did, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the dominant newspaper in the region, continued to editorialize against her with a vengeance. McKinney eschewed television advertising and relied instead on an army of volunteers that concentrated on getting out the vote among African-Americans and white progressives, and on her flair for highlighting the issues.
McKinney and her backers campaigned at theaters that featured Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 911," a showing of which the candidate attended with a crowd of backers that included the mother of a Georgia soldier killed in Iraq. Outside the theater, McKinney told reporters that Moore's movie was "a truth celebration." And, at screenings of the film in Atlanta, crowds cheered when the former congresswoman appeared to decry voter disenfranchisement during a segment dealing with the contested Florida presidential vote of 2000.
In an election that did not see substantial Republican cross-over voting -- a contested GOP Senate primary kept partisans in line -- McKinney ran well not only in African-American neighborhoods where she has traditionally been strong but in white precincts where many Democrats have come to see her as someone with the courage to take on the Bush administration. "She has the guts to speak truth to the government, and she's trying to help poor people and youth," Jesse McNulty, a teacher from Decatur, Georgia, explained when asked why he had voted for McKinney. "If Bush was to win. God forbid, at least we have McKinney up there (in Washington)."