It's "Georgia on my mind" for many Jewish political activists this campaign year, and it's giving them a headache. In the peach state's fourth congressional district, a political battle is brewing that could pit a Jewish candidate against someone widely considered to be anti-Semitic.
The two are women and they're leading a field of six in the race for the Democratic nomination to represent a part of the Atlanta area in the House of Representatives.
The contest is a disappointment for some Jewish politicos because they thought the matter was settled two years ago when the vituperative Rep. Cynthia McKinney was defeated in a bitter campaign.
The woman who won the 2002 race, former judge Denise L. Majette, had a great deal of support from Jewish activists around the country along with many others fed up with the polarizing McKinney, who may be best recalled for suggesting that President Bush had advance warning of the 9/11 attacks but failed to act because administration friends could benefit financially.
Majette, like McKinney, is African American. That's where the similarities end. Majette is more in the mold of the highly respected Rep. John Lewis (D) from the neighboring 5th district: an influential voice for reconciliation and someone working to improve black-Jewish relations. Majette, in her first term, has been a strong supporter of Israel inside the Congressional Black Caucus.
The Georgia 4th race won't change the balance of power in the Congress, but it can change the temperament, particularly in the Black Caucus if a voice for conciliation is replaced with an angry and divisive one.
With Americans increasingly convinced the war in Iraq was a disastrous mistake, the danger is that McKinney could demagogue that sentiment as an opportunity to point the finger of blame at the Jews not unlike Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-SC), who have suggested President Bush went to war under Jewish pressure to protect Israel's interests.
On the record, few will criticize Majette for giving up a safe House seat to take a long-shot chance on the Senate. But privately they're puzzled, disappointed and a bit angry that she opened the way for a McKinney comeback something that would be difficult if Majette were still running.
An official of one pro-Israel lobby group said many people around the country who played a critical role in her 2002 election victory feel let down, and Majette can't expect the same kind of support she enjoyed two years ago.
Another political operative said if McKinney wins, "we'll get an anti-Semite back in the House who is carrying a grudge."
When McKinney was unseated two years ago, her father, Billy McKinney, who lost his state legislature seat in the same election, spelled out just who he held responsible: " J-E-W-S." There were no objections or apologies from his daughter.
Six candidates are in the Democratic 4th district primary; the two front-runners are McKinney and Liane Levetan, a state senator who is the former DeKalb County chief executive officer. The district is considered strongly Democratic, but if McKinney winds up as the Democratic nominee, the Republican candidate will be competitive, analysts say.
Majette is one of eight seeking the Democratic nomination for the seat being vacated by Sen. Zell Miller. Jewish activists want her to win the primary, and if she does, they will pitch in with money, but it won't be like two years ago. First, the Democrat is a long-shot in the general election, and the Republican contenders, including two incumbent congressmen, have good records, according to pro-Israel lobbyists.
The 4th District is heavily Democratic so the House race is likely to be decided in the primary (if, as expected, no one gets a majority in the July 20 vote, a runoff will be held on Aug. 10). McKinney is considered likely to make the runoff because of her strong base among blacks, but she is also a polarizing figure who could motivate Republicans to cross over and vote in the Democratic primary along with black moderates and Jews.
Majette was just endorsed by the state's largest labor union for her Senate bid, but the Georgia State AFL-CIO is also supporting McKinney to succeed her. The group also backed McKinney against Majette two years ago and lost, so let's hope that repeats itself.
Pundits consider Levetan the most likely of the other candidates to wind up in the runoff because of her name recognition and ability to raise money. She is best positioned to tap into the national Jewish political network, but her opponents also have ties to the Jewish community. Levetan, 68, was born in pre-war Austria and came to America in 1951; she has strong family connections to Israel and has been active in her Jewish community.
Although the district is 53 percent black and 32 percent white, she has repeatedly won elections in that racially divided area for state senate and county CEO.
A Levetan spokesman shrugged off suggestions that the race would be a referendum on support for Israel or the Palestinians. McKinney has so far been avoiding discussing the Middle East this time, but that didn't stop the Arab news service, Al Jazeera, from declaring, "Cynthia McKinney is running again defying pro Israel lobbyıs efforts to control Black agenda."
A McKinney-Levetan runoff could be very nasty in light of McKinney's hostility toward Israel and its supporters. If the former representative returns to Congress, her victory would reverberate on several levels, all unpleasant for the Jewish community.
Politically it would be a slap at pro-Israel activists who played a major role in her defeat two years ago, and it would create a perception of a weakening of Jewish power.
More important, it would mean replacing a friend and conciliator in Washington with a divisive figure harboring resentment McKinney can be expected to stir up anti Israel sentiment in the Black Caucus.
With an anti-Iraq backlash developing around the country, she could seize the opportunity to other critics of administration policy who say Bush invaded Iraq under Jewish pressure to protect Israel's interests.
This is one contest that could reverberate across the political and racial landscape, and where who wins is not as important as who loses.