ATLANTA — After John Lewis held an Atlanta-centered congressional seat for 34 years, the next occupant may not be a member of Congress for even 34 days.
Five Democrats, an independent and a Libertarian will square off Tuesday in a special election in Georgia's 5th Congressional District to fill the vacancy left by Lewis' July 17 death.
If no one wins a majority, a runoff will be held Dec. 1. Lewis' successor will serve only until the current Congress ends on Jan. 3, and none of Tuesday's candidates are running in the November general election, which will determine who wins a full two-year term.
Democrat Nikema Williams and Republican Angela Stanton King are running in November, with Williams having been named by the state Democratic Party to replace Lewis.
Democrats in Tuesday's race include former Morehouse College president Robert Franklin, retiring state Rep. "Able" Mable Thomas, former state Rep. Keisha Waites, former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall and Barrington Martin II, who lost the Democratic primary. Also running are independent Steven Muhammad and Libertarian Chase Oliver.
The race often revolves around the legacy of Lewis, whose history as a civil rights leader and international celebrity made him far from ordinary in Congress. Though vying for just weeks in the U.S. House, candidates are promising to work on big issues and bring a moral voice to Washington.
It's unclear how many people will vote. More than 12,000 absentee votes had been cast by Tuesday, according to the Georgia Secretary of State's office, with two-thirds of those early voters casting ballots in person.
Franklin, now a professor at Emory University, has raised the most money of anyone running, almost $130,000 including $20,000 of his own. The 66-year-old promises to be a "moral voice amid ambiguity and fog" during his time in Congress, even saying he's already working on ideas for speeches.
"We know that if John Lewis was in Congress right now, America would hear from him," Franklin said, promising to focus his policy priorities on voting rights, reforming policing to reduce violence and providing more COVID-19 relief.
Hall, who lost a race for Atlanta mayor after three years on the City Council, says he's not running to revive his political career, with the 49-year-old pledging to go right back to the private sector after January.
"It's more of a personal obligation to continue the justice and leadership in the 5th Congressional District," Hall said.
He says he will move quickly to influence Congress to make the district a COVID-19 innovation zone and also a pilot site for investment by an infrastructure bank.
Thomas served 22 years in the state House over three separate terms, and ran unsuccessfully for the congressional seat twice against Lewis. The 62-year-old is stepping down from the state House, but argues her record there makes her the most qualified. She points to efforts she supported to expand Medicaid coverage for new mothers and mandate that private insurers pay for mammograms.
"I've always stayed with the little man," Thomas said. "The little man, the working class, the poor, even the homeless, deserve to have a voice in the community."
Waites, who lost a June Democratic primary in the 13th Congressional District to incumbent Rep. David Scott, plans to focus on COVID-19 relief. She says she hopes to influence any possible relief bill to expand which businesses are eligible for aid, do more to educate business owners who are eligible, and find ways to get unclaimed federal stimulus checks into the hands of individuals.
"Can we help the folks who are our most precious commodities, working American families and struggling small business owners?" asks 47-year-old Waites, an Atlanta resident who earlier served six years in the state House.