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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE | POLITICS

Election Set to Test Race Boundaries

Black Georgia Democrat is running in a new majority-white district.

July 09, 1996|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — It felt more like a vintage outdoor version of "Soul Train" than a political rally. Democratic Reps. Cynthia McKinney and Maxine Waters boogied in the grass with McKinney supporters as a classic song by Martha and the Vandellas thundered from a boombox.

Later, Los Angeles' Waters told a crowd of about 150 supporters Saturday that there will be "dancing on the floor of Congress" if McKinney wins reelection to a third term.

McKinney, a black woman known for her combative liberalism, has been waging what amounts to a feel-good campaign in advance of today's Democratic primary as she seeks election for the first time in a redrawn Georgia district that now is majority white.

In a landmark ruling last year, the Supreme Court struck down the practice of drawing district boundaries to maximize black voter strength. After the Georgia Legislature failed to redraw lines, a three-judge federal panel devised a map that leaves the state with only one majority-black district.

McKinney and Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) are seeking reelection in districts in which African Americans make up slightly more than a quarter of the voters. Both face strong opposition from white candidates in the primary. The voting will be the first test of the impact of the high court decision--the first look since the ruling at whether it is possible in the South for blacks to win substantial white support.

"The Supreme Court has given America a challenge," McKinney said in an interview. "They have given us an opportunity [to see] if we are able to protect the right of everybody to have a seat at the table and if voters can choose candidates based on their abilities rather than their race."

If McKinney wins, it may say as much about the power of incumbency as it does about the state of race relations. Her main opponent, Comer Yates, a 43-year-old lawyer, has won endorsements from a sizable share of the white Democratic establishment. But McKinney, 41, has benefited from her national contacts and the high profile she has earned as one of Congress' few women. Her $475,000 war chest also is bigger than Yates' by a third.

As would be expected in a contest that comes on the heels of such a controversial ruling, race has been a factor in the campaign.

McKinney accused Yates of race baiting when he commissioned a poll that asked if voters would support her knowing that she refused to back a resolution condemning the racial rhetoric of an aide to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

University of Georgia political science professor Charles S. Bullock said the issue is a potent one that threatens to cost her the Jewish vote in her district.

Yates accuses McKinney of injecting race into the campaign by proclaiming early on that it would be a battle between the old and the new South.

But if McKinney loses, Bullock said, it will likely be because of her liberalism, not her race.

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McKinney, who wears braids and sneakers on the floor of Congress, acknowledged the difficulty of appealing to white moderates who may be turned off by her liberalism and unorthodox style.

"I've been in Congress four years, and I still get stopped by guards at the Capitol," she said. "I know firsthand what it is to be stereotyped. Quite frankly, I'm glad I don't fit the mold. If I did fit the mold I would be of no use to anybody."

Georgia's 4th Congressional District contains a part of what was once McKinney's 11th District. It also includes areas that had once been part of districts represented by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. John Linder, both Republicans. Yates ran a credible race against Linder two years ago and so is known in part of the district. However, he said he continues to meet people who are confused about what district they're in.

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