Johnson offers sharp contrast to McKinney

WASHINGTON - When Hank Johnson ran fellow Democrat Cynthia McKinney out of Congress last year, Republicans rejoiced at the political demise of one of President Bush's sharpest critics.

Many Democrats were quietly relieved that McKinney, a lightning rod who drew negative press for inflammatory remarks and episodes like her run-in with a Capitol police officer, would be out of office.

Both groups were grateful that Johnson had the audacity to give up a seat on the DeKalb County Commission to challenge the six-term congresswoman.

Now, approaching the end of his first year representing Georgia's 4th Congressional District, even McKinney's strongest supporters - while still smarting from her defeat - like what they've seen from Johnson.

"He impresses me with his diligence," said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, who was McKinney's campaign chairman throughout her tenure. "His voting record is impressive.

"I give Hank good marks so far. We've put the past behind us."

Republicans in Georgia's congressional delegation haven't voted with Johnson any more often than they sided with McKinney. But he's won their respect, too, for taking an approach to the job that's far different from that of his predecessor

"He hasn't hit any police officers or had any marches up here," said U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Grantville. "He has done it without all the hoopla and fanfare."

It's a style that Johnson, 52, learned as a lawyer and continued to cultivate as a two-term county commissioner.

"What I've striven to do is create harmonious working relationships with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle," Johnson said during a recent interview in his Washington office. "I feel that's required to be effective."

Role model

Johnson's demeanor resembles that of Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, a longtime civil rights leader and veteran lawmaker who is highly respected by Republicans despite his liberal voting record.

In fact, Lewis, the senior member of the Georgia delegation, has become a mentor for Johnson.

"We talk from time to time," Lewis said. "He's smart. He's a quick learner."

The ability Johnson has shown to get along with Republicans doesn't mean he hasn't been a partisan Democrat on major issues facing Congress.

He has voted with his party's leaders against continuing to fund the war in Iraq without setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Johnson argues that Bush and congressional Republicans are out of sync with the American people, who elected Democratic majorities to the House and Senate last year to end U.S. involvement in Iraq.

"The president has talked about the troops being in Iraq for 10 years," he said. "We can't afford as a country to occupy Iraq for the next 10 years while our country is falling apart fiscally."

Johnson said that as long as America is bogged down overseas, there won't be enough money for pressing domestic needs, including a $35 billion expansion of children's health insurance being pushed by Democrats.

"(Republicans) don't want to have a plan where everyone has access to affordable medical care," he said. "They view (expanding children's health insurance) as a precursor to universal health care coverage. ... Even at the expense of the health of poor children, this administration buries its head in the sand."

Johnson put himself to the left of Democratic leadership last summer when he cosponsored a resolution calling for the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney.

He got involved in the issue through his work on the House Judiciary Committee. After receiving a waiver to serve on three committees instead of the usual two, he also was appointed to the Armed Services and Small Business panels.

Message sent

Johnson said he understands why House Democratic leaders refuse to pursue a divisive impeachment process that has no chance for success.

Still, he said it was important to get the Bush administration's attention.

"They have embroiled this country in a war of choice, and I saw they were heading us into another war, a preemptive strike against Iran," he said. "To derail that track I saw we were heading down, I wanted to send a strong message."

It all adds up to a record likely to appeal to most voters in the heavily Democratic 4th District, which includes most of DeKalb and Rockdale counties and western Gwinnett.

"I like the way he's standing up on the issues," Brooks said.

Westmoreland, whose 3rd Congressional District extends into southern Rockdale and borders Johnson's, said that while the freshman's voting record has been similar to McKinney's, he seems to have done more bridge-building with business leaders than his predecessor.

"Constituents who come in here, whether from the chamber, the medical association, or Southern Co., all say Hank met with them," Westmoreland said. "That's far different from Cynthia. She was more staff-driven and didn't take the time."

Keeping touch

Johnson also meets regularly with constituents on weekends in visible locations across the district, an initiative he calls "Congress on Your Corner." The sessions are open to anyone who drops by and wants to talk to their congressman.

"It helps me stay focused on the needs, approaches and viewpoints of the people in the 4th District," he said. "You can never be accused of staging something, so you never just hear people who agree with you."

Despite the resentment among McKinney's allies Johnson stirred up by running against her, no Democrat has come forward to challenge his expected bid for a second term next year.

McKinney, who had been considered a likely opponent, has moved to California and registered to vote there.

"I think Democrats are very satisfied with his voting record," Brooks said. "I don't anticipate any serious Democratic opposition."

But Johnson said he's taking nothing for granted.

"I remain expectant of a challenger," he said. "I'll be running on my record."