The history train – Georgia’s first African American congresswoman Cynthia McKinney

The history train – Georgia’s first African American congresswoman Cynthia McKinney – includes related articles on Cynthia McKinney’s television spots

John Rowley

How a Black Congressional Incumbent Won a Landslide Renomination in a New Majority White Georgia District

It is 5:20 a.m., July 2, on the streets of Atlanta. The early morning stirring of construction workers preparing for the Olympics is ignored by a solitary figure in a phone booth scanning a copy of the Atlanta Constitution.

He’s reading the editorial page. On the phone listening is Democratic U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney and Nashville-based media consultant Bill Fletcher.

As they listen, the staffer struggles with his emotions as he reads that, for the first time ever, after two terms in the Georgia House of Representatives and two terms in Congress, his boss has been endorsed by the morning newspaper.

But, unless this endorsement is quickly integrated into McKinney’s advertising, few people will ever know it happened.

Because of the pending Fourth of July holiday, there is a narrow window of opportunity to cut through the Independence Day clutter and maximize this important endorsement.

Tracking polls show that McKinney is teetering just above 50 percent. A slip below this mark will force an uncertain runoff election played out through the media muddle of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta (one of the most expensive broadcast TV markets due to the games).

Including the endorsement in the campaign’s TV and radio commercials could provide the push needed to win the primary outright. But there’s a hitch. Any new media needs to air immediately to have a significant impact. By 5:45 a.m., Fletcher’s recommendation that the campaign integrate the endorsement into all communications is accepted.

We put into motion the creative, management and technical chore of producing new radio and TV spots touting the endorsement.

As we began the process we didn’t know that the afternoon newspaper in Atlanta was preparing to endorse Comer Yates, McKinney’s principal challenger in the primary. And, we didn’t know even after it happened whether or not Yates’ team would air the endorsements on television or radio.

By the end of the day on Tuesday, a new flight of radio commercials had been written and produced in Nashville. They were transferred to an Atlanta production house via state-of-the-art 3D2 equipment from a studio on Music Row and were airing in Atlanta during afternoon drive time. A new TV spot was delivered the next morning.

Twelve hours after the endorsement hit, the campaign’s paid ads had been totally changed to highlight it and the momentum needed to push McKinney toward a primary victory – without the need for a runoff – had been set into motion.

Yates received the endorsement of the afternoon newspaper the same day McKinney was endorsed by the morning newspaper. Unlike McKinney, they did not incorporate the endorsement into their paid advertising. Most voters never knew that Yates received the endorsement.

The maximization of this newspaper endorsement is not the only story of the McKinney campaign – but it is a prime example of how old-fashioned coalition politics blend with modern campaign techniques to produce a dramatic victory.

In Trouble

In 1992, Cynthia McKinney became Georgia’s first African American congresswoman in the newly drawn 11th District which had a 64 percent black electorate. In 1995, the Supreme Court declared her district unconstitutional saying political boundaries could not be drawn based primarily upon racial makeup. Many observers thought that would end McKinney’s congressional career, figuring she wouldn’t survive a two-thirds white district.

In the July 9 Democratic primary, McKinney faced three white male challengers in the new district where only 33 percent of the voters were black. Her campaign played out against the backdrop of Georgia’s racially-charged political environment. Conventional wisdom – especially in Washington and downtown Atlanta – was reinforced that McKinney was in trouble.

In one of McKinney’s late radio spots, voters are asked to “ride a train called ‘History.'” On primary day, voters in Georgia’s new 4th Congressional district did just that.

Shafting Attacks

To attract the broad coalition of moderate and liberal men, labor groups, small business owners, women, African Americans, senior citizens, members of the gay and lesbian community and environmentalists, McKinney needed a compelling and unifying positive message.

The campaign went up early on cable television and Atlanta radio with a message focused on McKinney’s support of the minimum wage and anti-crime measures, as well as her opposition to Medicare cuts and tax breaks for the rich.

The spots also included the story of McKinney’s fight for poor Georgia landowners who had been abused by a huge mining conglomerate and her work to get better housing for a 108 year – old woman.

These stories reinforced her image as a solid Democrat voting for mainstream issues and illustrated her record of constituent services and advocacy.

Several weeks earlier, the creator of the theme from “Shaft”, pop icon and music legend Isaac Hayes, literally walked into McKinney’s campaign office and volunteered to help. By the end of the next day, production for television spots, radio spots, footage for a television program, audio for phone bank messages, all featuring Hayes, was in the can.

After one week of positive television on cable, a 30-second TV spot featuring Hayes was added to the media mix. The ad was designed to soften the blow of anticipated attacks. Hayes’ message: “Don’t be fooled by the negative campaign and all this mud throwing. Cynthia McKinney is a fighter for justice, for people and for the future – and America needs her compassion and experience in Congress.”

The McKinney campaign ignored the attacks of her primary opponents and let “Black Moses” do the talking.

15-Minute Special

As the campaign prepared for late attacks and intense local and national media coverage, consultant Fletcher recommended the production of a long-form video to deliver Cynthia McKinney’s messages and career history.

Creating a positive diversion, the 15-minute program was aired over a dozen times on cable TV during the last week of the campaign. Air times were advertised heavily by literature drops and in local newspapers.

“The Pride of Georgia” television special gave highly motivated voters who were seeking more information about Cynthia McKinney a personal introduction to their congresswoman.

Isaac Hayes opened and closed the program, appealing to Georgians to “join me as we prove that the old prejudices are dying away.” McKinney was featured in long sound bites from an open meeting with senior citizens and her themes were documented and magnified by passionate testimonials from supporters in the old 11th district and the new 4th.

The program also gave the free media something to write about and helped defuse the barrage of late attacks from the opposition.

Targeted Buying

Comer Yates was well-funded and placed a larger broadcast TV buy than McKinney. To counter Yates’ buy, McKinney used a combination of 10-second and 30-second spots to boost the number of gross rating points and to reduce the overall cost per point.

Louisville-based Media Plus Communications, working through our firm, Fletcher and Rowley Consulting, Inc., helped develop the media buy for McKinney, which was designed to reach the most likely voters. McKinney’s buy was heavy on network news programming, daytime programming and was especially focused on senior citizens who remained undecided until late in the race.

Tracking polls indicated that Yates and another McKinney opponent, State Senator Ron Slotin, were gaining ground with 19 percent and seven percent, respectively. The polls suggested that Yates and/or Slotin would have to attack McKinney to have a chance of forcing a runoff election. The day Yates’ first piece of attack mail landed, radio spots began airing that counter – attacked Yates with revelations about his work as a lawyer for huge corporations and Slotin for missing votes in the Georgia Senate. A few days later, a piece of McKinney mail was dropped that mirrored the radio counter-attacks while also stressing all of McKinney’s positive messages.

The counter-attacks quashed Slotin and Yates’ growth potential. The combination of a compelling positive message and a series of attacks hamstrung the opposition’s communications to a net gain of virtually zero.

And as the media focused on the attacks and counter-attacks flying between the camps, McKinney personally oversaw a week-long get-out-the-vote effort that utilized targeted phoning, neighborhood rallies and door-to-door activity. Outside the efforts of the campaign there were also extensive member-to-member communications between a wide array of groups that endorsed McKinney including labor, environmental, women, and other advocacy organizations who wanted to “ride the history train.”

A key element of the McKinney election-day turnout strategy were 42,000 phone calls that featured a prerecorded introduction by the candidate and then a message from Isaac Hayes. It was highly successful: turnout among African-Americans in this district was 15-20 percent higher than it was statewide on the same day. Said telephone contact consultant Tony Parker, of The Parker Group: “It was one of the most focused campaigns I’ve seen in a long time. It proved that the systematic targeting of a well-planned message roll-out works.”

The result: McKinney wiped out the field with 67 percent of the vote. Yates was limited to 24 percent and Slotin finished with 6 percent.

In The New York Times the day after the election, one Georgia political analyst called the margin “amazing.”

In a story that moved a week after the election, AP reporter David Pace reported that an analysis of the election did not reveal significant turnout differences between black and white voters within the district.

His analysis did reveal that McKinney had received at least 36 percent of the vote in several predominantly white areas.

Cynthia McKinney’s nomination in Georgia’s 4th District offers an example for a racially polarized America.

Sensing the historic proportions of her victory, McKinney concluded her victory speech by saying:

Today – the people of Georgia have taken a step toward justice by rejecting the patterns of the past.

Today – I have been lifted upon the shoulders of the people of Georgia – black and white.

And from this position I have a clear view of the horizon.

And through the smoke of burning churches – I see a better place.

Through the haze of extremism – I see where we’re going friends and neighbors – and it may not be The Promised Land – but it is a place where America keeps her promises.

I see an America of opportunity for our young people, dignity for our workers and security for our seniors.

Those are your values.

Those are my values.

We are all on the train called History – and we are ringing the bell called Freedom. Let freedom ring.

John Rowley is a partner in the Nashville-based media consulting firm of Fletcher and Rowley Consulting, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group