Published on Thursday, June 6, 2002 in the Washington Post
Mideast Fuels 2 Democratic Primaries
by a Washington Post Staff Writer
Two House Democrats are struggling to win renomination this year, dogged in part by their controversial remarks on Middle East policy.
Reps. Earl F. Hilliard (Ala.) and Cynthia McKinney (Ga.) face surprisingly stiff challenges from fellow Democrats, even though both are entrenched, five-term incumbents. They represent heavily Democratic districts, so the primary winner in each case will be favored to win the November general election.
While Hilliard and McKinney have come under attack for several reasons, both of their opponents have seized on their foreign policy positions to question the lawmakers' judgment and to tap campaign contributions from Jewish donors.
McKinney, facing an Aug. 20 primary, has not endured a serious intra-party contest since 1996. But she generated headlines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by offering to accept for black charities the donation offered for the victims by a Saudi prince who at the same time said the United States should reexamine its strongly pro-Israel Middle East policy. Several months later she suggested Congress investigate whether the administration ignored warnings about the Sept. 11 attacks because President Bush's supporters stood to profit from the resulting war against terrorism.
For Todd Zeldin, a marketing and real estate consultant who lives just outside McKinney's district, the congresswoman's unsuccessful overture to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal for the donation rebuffed by New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani pushed him into action. Zeldin has invited McKinney's Democratic opponent, former state court judge Denise Majette, to address Jewish and black business executives next week. McKinney and Majette are black, as are Hilliard and his Democratic challenger, Artur Davis.
"The Jewish community is basically rallying behind [Majette] because we don't understand the behavior of Cynthia McKinney at times," said Zeldin, who has given money to Majette's campaign. "There has been an overall exasperation with Cynthia McKinney's insensitivity to issues that are important to the Jewish community."
Majette still trails McKinney in fundraising. But her campaign has enlisted the support of several prominent Jewish business executives, and she is holding two fundraisers with Jewish donors next week.
Last week Bernard Marcus, former chief executive officer of Home Depot, was joined by Majette as they worked the crowd at an event to raise money for Israeli organizations. Charles Ackerman, who runs a real estate and home security business in Atlanta, raised nearly $15,000 for Majette at a May breakfast.
According to Majette, the district's Jewish voters "feel as if they're not being represented. That community is excited about having someone who will listen to them and take a more balanced approach to issues that concern them."
Majette released a privately commissioned poll showing her beating McKinney among likely primary voters 41 percent to 37 percent, despite the fact that only 28 percent of those polled recognized the challenger's name.
"It's a referendum on Cynthia McKinney," said Merle Black, a politics professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "She'll have to work to win reelection."
McKinney has time to make up ground before the August primary, however, and she has proved her electability in the past. A statement by her campaign emphasized that Majette's poll was taken in early May, before a string of stories appeared suggesting the Bush administration mishandled advance warnings of possible terrorist attacks last year.
"Denise Majette's candidacy is a Trojan Horse for the good old boys from the bad old days, and our campaign has confidence that the people of the 4th District, black and white, will continue to support Cynthia McKinney's principled and courageous representation," the statement said.
In Alabama, Hilliard faces a more immediate threat: a June 25 runoff with Davis, a lawyer. Davis, who attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference in Washington this spring and held a series of fundraisers in New York, outraised Hilliard by more than $20,000 and managed to win 44 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary. Hilliard received 45 percent.
Two years ago, Hilliard beat Davis by 24 percentage points, despite controversy concerning the congressman's trip to Libya in 1997 and a House ethics committee probe of his campaign finances. This year, Davis launched an extensive television ad campaign publicizing those matters.
"We managed to get that message out this time," Davis said in an interview yesterday. "Obviously, being on television was a major advantage."
The source of Davis's financial support became a campaign issue a few weeks ago when an anonymous flier titled "Davis and the Jews" began circulating in the district. Each side has accused the other of producing the inflammatory missive.
While the Middle East issue has provided Davis and Majette with a potent fundraising tool, both challengers say their opponents deserve to lose primarily because of poor constituent service.
"When it comes to challenging an incumbent, that person's record is the issue," said Davis, who accused Hilliard of "10 years of failure" in Congress.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company