After 25 Years, Is It Time For Rep. John Lewis to Leave Congress?
Meet Michael Johnson, the guy who says he'll replace civil rights icon Lewis
Michael Johnson, the former Fulton County Superior Court Judge in Georgia, is running for Congress against Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who participated in some of the most impactful demonstrations during the 1960s to end the Jim Crow era. Since then, Lewis has served in Congress for nearly 25 years representing the 5th District of Georgia. There have been ups and downs, particularly in recent years when Lewis took criticism for originally supporting Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama in the 2008 elections, and then just last month when he was refused a chance to speak at the Occupy Atlanta protests. Johnson believes it’s now time for new leadership. Some are saying that Johnson has the youth and vigor to take the Georgia district in a new direction. We spoke with Johnson to hear directly what his plans are for unseating Rep. Lewis and why the battleground is not the picket line, but the unemployment line.
Loop 21: Why are you running, and why now?
Michael Johnson: The way I look at it is I’m not running against John Lewis, I’m running for the office. I know who he is and have a tremendous amount of respect for him. However, I think it’s time for new leadership, and to explore opportunities to bring more money back to the district. There are issues that have plagued the country and our district for decades. We’ve had the same leadership for nearly 25 years. The approach so far has been from a civil rights perspective. I think that’s an important perspective, but i think we need a multifaceted approach when looking at these issues.
Loop 21: What are some of the negatives and positives of the “Civil Rights approach”?
Johnson: I don’t know if I feel there are any negatives to the civil rights approach. Many in previous generations opened up opportunities for many young people today, and even people such as myself. Fact is, the battleground is no longer the picket line; it’s the unemployment line.
There comes a time when we have to pass the baton. Reverend Joe Lowery was speaking at a banquet honoring the Freedom Riders. He said “The ride ain’t over.” From that I took that in order for the ride to continue not only must we allow the next generation of riders to ride the bus, we must also allow the next generation of leaders to drive the bus. It’s up to our generation to take advantage of opportunities.
Loop 21: Do you think your experience as a judge could assist you in any way as a legislator? If so, how?
Johnson: Let me tell you, I think it’s fantastic for me. I continue enjoy bipartisan support. I had an opportunity on the bench to listen to some of the greatest litigators in the country. I had to make some tough decisions. One of those things that I did as a judge was assess how the law should be applied and how the legislature meant for the law to be interpreted. I had a reputation as being a tough but fair judge who made some good decisions. Congress for decades has refused to make tough decisions. We have known for some time that the U.S. Postal Service was running out of money, that social security and Medicare were running out of money. We need people who are able to make those tough decisions.
Loop 21: How will you adjust to the fact that your tough decisions as a legislator will be criticized from all sides? As a judge you are insulated to a fair degree from consequences stemming from the decisions you make.
Johnson: As a judge you have to do the things that you believe are fair and just. I have always done that. You learn to deal with the criticisms. I knew that my decisions were not always going to be pleasing to everyone. I will continue to do that when I get to Congress. I believe my views are largely in line with the majority of voters here in the 5th district. I’m a Democrat but I’m going to listen to everyone in the 5th district.
Loop 21: Your campaign site lists your signature initiatives as being jobs, water (local issue), Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, taxes, and transportation (local issue). Do you currently have any proposals for job programs or tax reform?
Johnson: I am in favor of keeping the payroll taxes low. I believe that will assist small business, which are the backbone of Georgia. America isn’t really making products anymore. We are a service-oriented country. Not necessarily a good thing, but it’s our reality. I’ve spoken to many small business owners and they’ve mentioned that they’re access to capital is the biggest issue. So we’ll have to look at ways to assist in that.
We have to reform our tax code. We’ve seen a tremendous erosion of the middle class. I’m interested in lowering the top income tax rate, and to simplify the code as well. We can do that by doing away with a lot of these tax loopholes. At the same time we need to put into the tax code incentives for small businesses.
We have a number of corporations that have billions of dollars overseas and have said that they are not going to bring the money home because of our tax code. Imagine if they were able to repatriate the money here? Imagine how stimulative that could be for the economy?
Loop 21: Additionally what are your thoughts about Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan? While we’re on the topic of Cain, any thoughts on the sexual harassment allegations and what they mean for our national politics considering they’ve dominated the news more than the supercommittee’s inability to strike a deal?
Johnson: I think that it’s an interesting plan. It’s obviously simple and therefore appealing. Our citizens do want something that’s simple and easy to understand. It brings forth clarity. I don’t think it could pass Congress or bring in the type of revenues that we would need to sustain our country. However it has stimulated debate, and that’s a good thing. We need to talk about the changes that must be made to our tax plan. I don’t think the plan is fair to a majority of our citizens.
I think the allegations are very unfortunate for both the ladies involved and Herman Cain. I’m a student of the law and do not rush to judgment. I have to make sure I have all the facts on hand before I make a judgment. I went to Morehouse and so did Herman Cain. I don’t agree with his politics, but it’s just unfortunate that this has occurred. It also speaks to the fact that when you’re running for national office people will look for any little thing to discredit you. With the large access to information we now have it’s very easy to dig up many things. Some are saying his popularity is waning but on the other hand he’s supposedly raising more money. So I don’t want to suggest how the allegations may affect the race.
Loop 21: Last month, John Lewis attempted to address Occupy Atlanta and was rebuffed. First, what are your thoughts about Occupy Atlanta specifically, and Occupy Wall Street and their mission to shine a light on income inequality in general?
Johnson: First of all, there are a number of folks in the Occupy Atlanta movement and the movement has some valid points. They may not be going about it the right way, considering the amount of violence in Oakland, and here in Atlanta. I thought it was interesting that they did not allow John Lewis to speak. Maybe it was because some leaders have been in Congress far too long, and additionally maybe they perceive him as part of the problem.
The lack of jobs has brought about tremendous inequality. Congress refuses to work together. The rare instances where Congress has come together is for short-term solutions. They don’t come up with any long-term fixes. I think these points that Occupy Atlanta make are substantive.
Loop 21: What has your response been from the Democratic Party of Georgia? And from big time donors to the party’s state efforts?
Johnson: In the Democratic Party I have some supporters and there is some excitement. I have been well received and suspect that I will get some support. With respect to donors in the 5th District, I out raised my opponent by about $40,000. I think that’s saying something. I believe that people appreciate all that’s been done but are also thinking about who will be the best leader five years from now, 10 years from now.
I’m not interested in becoming a career politician. I think the equivalent of 12 years is more than enough time to get it done in Congress. And if you can’t get it done then maybe it wasn’t meant for you to get it done. One citizen shared with me what he would ask John Lewis: What are you going to do in the next five to 10 years that you haven’t gotten done in the past 25 years? It’s interesting to hear the opinion of not only the younger generation, but also the older generations that believe it is time to pass the baton. Less famous people who also participated in the civil rights movement like Congressman Lewis have said that it’s time to pass the baton, and I’m ready to take it.