When US representative John Lewis of Georgia, a legend in the civil rights movement, died in mid-July, 130 people filled out candidate forms to run for his seat in the November election. A committee narrowed the list down to five potential candidates and then selected one: State Senator Nikema Williams.
Williams is deeply grateful to her famous predecessor.
“I feel a deep sense of responsibility because Congressman Lewis has paved the way,” Williams told Tekk.tv. “He has opened doors for me and so many other colored people to vote for me as number one, but also to run for this seat.
And she is determined to continue the work.
“I look forward to continuing his legacy,” Williams said, “building on it and creating my own path.
Lewis represented his district in Congress for more than three decades and was ready for another term after winning the primary election in June, but died the next month at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Williams is considered a virtual lock to win the 5th Congressional District, which is based in Atlanta and is strongly democratic. Lewis won all but one of his re-election motions with at least 70 percent of the vote. Williams will run against Republican Angela Stanton-King, an ally of President Donald Trump, in the general election on November 3.
Stanton-King said her candidacy is the first step in providing the African American community on both sides of the aisle with much needed representation. She also said she was an example of “what can happen with second chances. Stanton-King was recently pardoned by President Trump after she was convicted in 2004 on federal conspiracy charges for her role in a car theft ring.
“Our approaches are different,” Stanton-King said of her campaign against Williams. “Mine is personal to the people of the district and hers is old school politics that no longer works.
Stanton-King also criticized Williams for not participating in a virtual debate last month. But the Democrat said she does not take the 5th district for granted and is leading a full campaign.
“People automatically assume that you don’t need the support, but I really need to introduce myself to the voters in the district,” Williams said.
Williams, 42, is a veteran activist with deep roots in the Democratic Party. Before becoming state senator in 2017, she worked at Planned Parenthood for a decade, advocating for women’s rights to make personal, private medical decisions throughout the Southeast. In 2019, Williams was the first black woman ever elected to the leadership of the Democratic Party of Georgia.
In addition to educating voters about her background, Williams said she had a responsibility to rally and increase voter turnout in her area to support other democratic candidates across the country. Georgia has become an unexpected battlefield in both the presidential contest and the race for the majority in the Senate. Polls show that Joe Biden and Trump are neck-and-neck and the two Democrats are competing for the Senate ahead of the Republican incumbents.
“We are the only state in the country where so much is at stake right now,” Williams said.
Georgia has already registered a record turnout during the state’s early voting process. Videos posted on Twitter showed eager voters waiting in long lines for hours to cast their votes on the first day of the election opening. Foreign Minister Brad Raffensperger has already predicted that up to 6 million voters could cast their votes in this year’s elections, up from 4.1 million four years ago.
Williams said voters are more determined to participate in the 2020 election after the gubernatorial race between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams two years ago. Allegations of electoral fraud – something that has plagued Georgia throughout its history – dominated the race, which Kemp won before all the votes were counted.
“People looked at what happened in 2018 and saw that their votes were powerful, that their votes were powerful, and that they were energized again,” she said, “Here we are in 2020, where people simply refuse to remain silent.
During her years in the Georgia State Senate and as Chair of the State Democratic Party, Williams has made access to free and fair elections a key political initiative. She introduced laws covering everything from same-day voter registration to the establishment of independent committees for redistricting.
One of its main messages is that access to voting should be standardized in all areas. In rural Alabama, where Williams grew up and much of her family still lives today, her relatives have no opportunity to vote early. A 2018 study, which ranked the difficulty of voting in each U.S. state, found that Alabama ranked 12th and Georgia 16th.
Moreover, Williams does not shy away from what Lewis called “good trouble. Tekk.tv first interviewed the state senator in 2018, when she was arrested in the state capital for protesting that every uncounted ballot in the gubernatorial campaign would be counted.
“I am a constant reminder to her and myself that I am working in a system that was not designed for me, not for someone who looks like me,” Williams said at the time.
Williams and nine others arrested that day filed a federal lawsuit against a state law that makes it illegal for any person to “recklessly or knowingly commit any act that could reasonably be expected to prevent or disrupt a Senate or House of Representatives meeting or session. Demonstrators fear being arrested again if they participate in protests against the repression of voters in the November elections.
If they are elected in November, Williams said that among her top priorities will be the development of a national response to the pandemic (she signed the COVID-19 treaty in early March) and advocacy for universal health care. However, all these things depend on fair elections, she said, which is why she will work for the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
“When I think back to the 2018 arrest, I never thought that this would be our next conversation,” Williams told Tekk.tv. “I have come a long way in two short years.