And no incumbents this fall are going to depend on those black votes more than Sen. Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes. Six years ago, for example, Cleland barely eked out a win against Guy Millner, winning by less than 2 percent of the vote. The likely difference between victory and defeat? The fact that Cleland landed nine out of every 10 black votes that were cast that day, a day that saw blacks make up more than 21 percent of the total turnout.
This year, his competition is just as stiff.
For Cleland to beat U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss, a man the popular Prez just loves to tout as an all-around stand-up guy, Cleland will need those black votes more than ever. And with popular black Reps. John Lewis and Sanford Bishop unopposed shoo-ins for re-election, Cleland needs McKinney and DeKalb's roughly 145,000 black voters more than ever.
Problem is, McKinney's got her own problems. There's a real (though still something of a longshot) possibility she'll lose the Democratic primary against Denise Majette, meaning that come election night in November, McKinney could be sitting home instead of exhorting her black constituents to come out to the polls. It'll be left to unproven talent such as DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones or Majette to coax the state's most monolithically Democratic voting bloc into the booth.
Sure, McKinney's got a rep for saying the outrageous -- witness her 2000 comment about Al Gore's "low Negro tolerance" -- but her deadly serious reputation for persuading black voters has probably muted potential backlash from Georgia officials, save for Sen. Zell Miller, of course. People respect her power and are scared to make her angry.
And while the official word from the state party is that it will sit out McKinney's District 4 race, the question of how much power she still wields in the minds of state politicians may be answered by whether she quietly receives money or help from Georgia's political powerbrokers.
Certainly, with Artur Davis' June 25 primary win in Alabama, more chinks have appeared in McKinney's armor. In ways that mirror the McKinney/Majette battle, Davis, a young, more conservative black Democrat, took on 10-year incumbent Earl Hilliard, who had a habit of bucking the pro-Israeli sentiment in Congress, just like McKinney. All that's missing from the Alabama race in the McKinney-Majette contest is the age difference.
Davis was heavily financed by out-of-state money from Jewish donors in a race that turned ugly. Hilliard used the now-typical tactic of trying to out-black his opponent, claiming that the only thing the ex-prosecutor Davis had done for blacks was put them in jail. When Davis won, however, it gave some hope to people who also would like to see McKinney defeated. Anecdotal evidence from inside and outside the Majette camp suggests those donors, flush with success and money, put Majette on their speed dials.
Black leaders in Congress seem to have learned from the Davis-Hilliard match-up, too. Congressional Black Caucus members accused House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) of failing Hilliard in his race, which prompted Gephardt to donate $10,000 to Hilliard's campaign and $20,000 to the get-out-the-vote effort in the district (so much for Democrats staying neutral in a Democratic primary). Black Caucus Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson says she took note of all the money from Jewish supporters outside the district that helped defeat Hilliard, and she says McKinney can expect to receive whatever she asks for from Caucus members.
"We have made it quite clear how strongly we support Cynthia to all concerned," Johnson says of the Black Caucus' conversations with Democratic leadership. And it doesn't matter, Johnson says, that McKinney is running against a black, female opponent. "When one is attacked, then all of us are attacked; that's how we see it," Johnson says.
State Rep. Billy McKinney, Cynthia's father, says California Rep. Maxine Waters will be in DeKalb July 13 to stump for his daughter; and Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson also will pop up in District 4.
The question, of course, is whether Waters or Thompson will convince anyone in south DeKalb to head to the polls Aug. 20. Not too likely.
There is one congressman, however, who could move some bodies -- Lewis, and he did campaign for Hilliard, an old friend.
Contacted about the possibility of Lewis stumping for McKinney, Lewis special assistant George Dusenbury says his boss doesn't get involved in primaries. When asked why, then, he campaigned for Hilliard, Dusenberry suggested CL call Lewis' Washington office. And Washington hasn't called back.
Billy McKinney makes no secret that he expects Lewis, the closest thing to a saint Congress can offer, to campaign for the Congresswoman. But his daughter's public courtship in 1999 of Rep. Nancy Pelosi over Lewis for a highly speculative House leadership position that Lewis wanted may complicate matters.
Lewis, however, isn't the only one being quiet. Few politicos want to get involved publicly in speculating on the District 4 race. And no one wants to anger the McKinney campaign, a group that puts out its own slate of candidates to direct black voters when they step in the voting booth. Billy McKinney is quick to point out his camp's power.
"We put out a ticket of who we think are the best candidates," he says. "It has worked in the past, and ... with Bush and the Republican Party, I'm sure we need it more than ever now."
And "we not only put out a ticket, but we try to get senior citizens to the polls, get out absentee ballots, I mean we go the whole route for mobilization and education of the black community."
And that certainly still occupies a significant place in the psyche of Georgia Democrats. One prominent field operative in Barnes' 1998 campaign swears by McKinney's effectiveness. The leadership of the Democratic Party in '98 decided it wouldn't just hand out money for the get-out-the-vote effort as it had in the past. Their reasons were simple: There was a prevailing feeling that many field operatives used get-out-the-vote money simply to line their pockets while doing very little actual field work. Party leadership wanted every nickel accounted for, and McKinney, the Democratic field operative says, was the only person who handled the job to the letter. And she got her people into the voting booth with the organized effort -- education to transportation -- that Billy McKinney describes.
Alan Secrest, the national Democratic pollster working for Majette, however, thinks it's time for a little healthy skepticism about McKinney's reputation, and he's got the study to suggest that the machine is weakening. In the 1992 race, for example, 74 percent of the voters in DeKalb's majority black (greater than 60 percent) precincts voted for U.S. Senate candidates, according to a study Secrest published in 1997. Then motor voter passed, which swelled the ranks of black registered voters in DeKalb by 62,000 people. Logically, one would expect a huge swell in numbers for Cleland. Instead, while nearly 20,000 more voters showed up at the polls, the turnout in DeKalb's majority black precincts slipped markedly to 58.4 percent.
Still, that might not deter some state Dems from helping McKinney because of the reputation she has for being important come November, as one longtime Barnes stalwart and current fund-raiser suggests.
"Some [candidates] don't have primary or even general opposition, so they're able to sit on the sideline," says the Barnes partisan, who asked that he not be named. "Max [Cleland] doesn't have that luxury. He's gotta do right or come general election time, they may not be there for them."
State Democratic head Calvin Smyre, though, says the state party will not get involved even though it may be dangerous for Cleland and Barnes in November. He says he's more concerned with putting the party back together once the primaries are over. Smyre concedes that McKinney has been effective in getting out the vote for Democrats, but no matter the outcome of the election, the party will have an apparatus in place to get black DeKalb voters to the polls.
"We've gotten a tremendous amount of support from DeKalb County, and we're going to depend on [it] in a big way in the future," Smyre says.
Folks in the Barnes and Cleland camps might be thinking the same thing about McKinney right about now.