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McKinney's District Divided on Lawmaker's Behavior

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Voters in Georgia's fourth congressional district are facing a familiar question in this Tuesday's primary: what to do with Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney? Earlier this year the controversial Democrat got into a scuffle with a Capital Hill police officer where she allegedly struck him with a cell phone. But do the dramas of the past matter back home? Charles Edwards of Georgia Public Broadcasting tries to find out.

CHARLES EDWARDS reporting:

Throughout her political career, Cynthia McKinney has never held her tongue. She once accused former Vice President Al Gore of having a low Negro tolerance level. A few years ago she implied that the Bush administration knew about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in advance. That incident was mostly responsible for her losing her seat in the 2002 primary. She regained it two years later. Sightings of McKinney on the campaign trail have been rare, though she has appeared in radio ads like this one.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Representative CYNTHIA MCKINNEY (Democrat, Georgia): Hello, this is Cynthia McKinney reminding you that you're right to vote is the cornerstone of democracy.

EDWARDS: But when it comes to debating her opponents, McKinney has been nowhere to be found.

Unidentified Female: The incumbent Cynthia McKinney was also invited but declined our invitation. And as is our policy, we will proceed with the debate with an empty podium where Ms. McKinney would have been.

EDWARDS: But for Dan Williams, a semi-retiree living in south DeKalb county, her failure to show up at the debate is no big deal.

Mr. DAN WILLIAMS (DeKalb County Resident): Well, everybody knows Cynthia McKinney, so she don't have to get on - I mean you know, everybody knows her already.

EDWARDS: Williams is voting for McKinney again this year because he says she's one of the few politicians in Washington who tells the truth.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Everybody knows the Bush administration wasn't telling the truth about the war. Cynthia was telling the truth when it came out.

EDWARDS: Retired teacher Sandra Harris says McKinney serves as a voice for people who feel shut out from the political process.

Ms. SANDRA HARRIS (Retired Teacher): She's verbal, she's outspoken-the issues, when she brings them forth she stands up for them and I think she means well when she speaks and serves us.

EDWARDS: McKinney's stance on issues such as equal voting representation for minorities endeared her among many African-Americans. But not everyone is enthralled with her. Insurance agent Walter White says he's grown tired of McKinney's style.

Mr. WALTER WHITE (Insurance Agent): Some of the public comments that she's made do not reflect, in my view, the position or the views of the people in the Fourth District. It's more her agenda and her viewpoints as opposed to representing the majority of the people of the district.

EDWARDS: And some say McKinney's recent altercation with the Capitol Hill police has not helped her image. McKinney allegedly hit an officer after he tried to stop her from avoiding security in a congressional office building. McKinney blamed the officer's actions on racial profiling. Hogwash, says Patricia Harris, a mental health nurse who lives in DeKalb.

Ms. PATRICIA HARRIS (Mental Health Nurse): It was just a total disgrace and a total act of rebellion on her part, and then when she tried to make it a racial issue I said enough is enough.

EDWARDS: Her opponents in Tuesday's primary, former DeKalb commissioner Hank Johnson and political neophyte John Coyne, may not be able to financially compete with McKinney but they still take heart from undecided voters like 52-year-old restaurateur Wilbert Richardson.

Mr. WILBERT RICHARDSON (Restaurateur): Still contemplating. I haven't really made a definite decision yet, no.

EDWARDS: What has made you become undecided?

Mr. RICHARDSON: Just the past performance of the incumbent. The incidents and with the Capitol police, I think a person in that position should never, ever lose their cool to that extent.

EDWARDS: Georgia's Fourth Congressional District is heavily Democratic. Whoever wins on Tuesday is assured a victory in November. For NPR News, I'm Charles Edwards in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charles Edwards