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Ga. Newcomer Turns to Jews To Oust Rep. McKinney's Dad

by ELI KINTISCH, FORWARD STAFF Friday, Aug. 30, 2002 at 8:53 PM

ATLANTA — After mounting a successful campaign to encourage thousands of Republican voters to oust Rep. Cynthia McKinney in last week's Democratic primary, a small group of Atlanta-area political operatives are hoping for Jewish backing in their bid to unseat her father from his seat in the Georgia State House.

Georgia State Rep. Billy McKinney, 75, drew fire last week when he said in an election-day television interview, "Jews have bought everybody." When asked to explain his daughter's political difficulties, he responded: "J-E-W-S."

McKinney, a senior Democrat in the Georgia state house and well-known civil-rights leader, has held his seat for 30 years with little difficulty. But he was forced into a September 10 runoff after failing to gain the required majority. He beat 31-year-old political newcomer John Noel 48% to 46% in last week's Democratic primary.

The race follows two Middle East proxy wars in which Israel supporters helped bankroll the defeats of Cynthia McKinney and Birmingham, Ala., Rep. Earl Hilliard, who both received donations from pro-Palestinian backers. But with only a state house seat up for grabs this time, and opposition to Billy McKinney centering more on his controversial remarks than Middle East positions, it is unclear if Arab-American donors will enter the fray.

It seems more likely that the race will inflame black-Jewish tensions. Several African-American political figures are already charging that Jews are attempting to choose black leaders.

"I definitely have some feelings about any outside group exerting this kind of influence in a race, and I've been receiving angry calls from black voters all day, saying they should rally against Jewish candidates," said Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson last week in an interview with The New York Times. The Democratic chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Johnson added: "To have non-African-Americans from around the country putting millions into a race to unseat one of our leaders for expressing her right of free speech is definitely a problem."

The "problem" shows no sign of going away — Noel told the Forward that Jewish donations to his campaign have increased since Billy McKinney's controversial television interview. "The number of Jewish folks who have called me and offered financial support has been nothing short of outstanding," Noel said. "I think it's a one down, one to go feeling."

In a press release last week, the Anti-Defamation League's southeastern director, Deborah Lauter, condemned Billy McKinney's "J-E-W-S" remark, labeling it "classic antisemitism." He caused a similar stir in 1996 after calling his daughter's opponent a "racist Jew," a comment Cynthia McKinney repudiated.

Members of the ad-hoc group which helped derail the younger McKinney, using a Web site registered to the name, say they expect to mobilize Republicans to crossover in the primary runoff and vote for Noel, an electrical contractor who has done much of his campaigning door to door. Since no Republican qualified for the general election, the winner of the September runoff will represent the state house district, which covers part of Atlanta and suburbs in Cobb County.

"I'm grateful for their support," Noel said, referring to Republican voters. "When the choice is as stark as Billy McKinney or myself, and the showdown is solely in the Democratic primary, it seems logical that Republicans would cross."

While there is no party registration in Georgia and voters can choose in which party primary to vote, observers estimate that 40% of McKinney's district would identify themselves as Republican. But few participated in the GOP primary last week, making the majority eligible to vote in the Democratic runoff.

Some Republicans may have helped Noel register his surprise showing last week, in which he held his own against an Atlanta institution. "No one thought this guy had a prayer," said Noel aide John Garst, a political consultant with Atlanta-based Rosetta Stone Communications.

At a press conference this week, high-profile supporters of McKinney announced that they would be introducing legislation in the state House to bar crossover voting in Georgia, a freedom enjoyed by voters in a number of other states.

McKinney's office did not return a call seeking comment.

The activists behind the effort introduced this week in preparation for the runoff. Mark Davis, a Republican political database specialist in Deluth and a key organizer of the bipartisan effort, said that the group raised money through its first Web site from American Jews across the country who opposed what they felt were McKinney's anti-Israel positions, and Republicans angry over remarks she made suggesting President Bush might have known about September 11 before it happened.

Davis estimated that half the donations to the effort were from Jews. "We couldn't have done it without them," he said.

That money was used for mailings, phone banks and Web site expenses to encourage Republicans and swing voters in DeKalb County to vote for "anybody but Cynthia" — and the efforts appeared to play an important role in Cynthia McKinney's 16-point loss to Denise Majette, a Democrat with nearly 20 years under her belt as a local judge.

"Everybody involved in this effort is offended by the mouth of his," Davis said, referring to the senior McKinney. "I can't believe we have a sitting legislator who would get on TV and make comments like, 'It's the Jews.'"

Davis predicted an even greater level of American Jewish support following McKinney's televised remarks. Noel estimated that Jews, many of them Republican, make up 5% of the district.

A number of DeKalb County Jewish groups and volunteers helped Majette with her effort, including supporters who handed out fliers at Atlanta's expansive Marcus Jewish Community Center, located in Dunwoody in Northern DeKalb County.

Assistant Rabbi Noach Shapiro, of Ahavath Achim Synagogue in the Buckhead section of the senior McKinney's district, said that a number of his congregants were "outraged" by the state representative's comments. But, the rabbi added, he hadn't yet heard of an organized effort by members of the Jewish community to vote for Noel.

"I supported John Noel before McKinney made those remarks," said Leon Goldstein, a civil and workplace mediator in Atlanta. "Those remarks were the icing on the cake."

Goldstein, who identified himself as a Democrat, is a board member of the ADL southeastern region.

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