A race against all odds.
Fenn Little, a middle-aged, white male, is running against 22-year incumbent Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the African-American civil-rights icon who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the bridge in Selma, Ala.
Since first winning office in 1987, the closest Lewis has come to having a real challenger was in 1994, when the Contract With America was sweeping the country. That year, Lewis bested Republican Dale Dixon 69 percent to 31 percent.
Atlanta’s fifth Congressional District is predominantly inner-city, African-American and Democratic. It includes part of my father Newt Gingrich’s original sixth Congressional District. The fifth is also my congressional district.
Little is a civil-rights attorney and a small-business owner. He and his wife Ruth have been married 21 years and have two daughters, 4 and 8. After Fenn won last week’s Republican primary, I met with him at his law/campaign office in midtown Atlanta.
During my two decades in Atlanta, I have passed his office building — a four-story, yellow-brick building nestled on the west side of Peachtree Street, just north of the railroad station — thousands of times. But I had never noticed it before. Sturdy but not flashy, it reminds me of Fenn.
He was the only person inside the office, which consists of a few rooms, utilitarian desks and old, elegant rugs. Dressed in khakis and a faded blue Masters golf shirt, his hair more gray than anything else, he was gracious, friendly and refreshingly authentic.
The odds are so low that Fenn will win the race that the district is currently listed as a safe one for the Democratic Party. At the time of our discussion last week, no one from the state or national Republican Party had contacted him, not even to offer congratulations for winning the Republican primary.
No one in the know thinks Fenn can win.
Fenn’s story about entering the race is unusual. He said he has long felt the calling of politics, but when he mentioned the possibility to Ruth in previous years, she would respond, "Let’s pray about it."
They would pray, and he would not run.
This year was different. Fenn told me that one morning, after his devotional, Ruth said to him, "Fenn, you’ve got to run against John Lewis," so he did.
When I asked Fenn why, he said, "Plain and simple — I am the father of two young girls. As a father it is my God-given duty to do everything I can to protect and provide for the future of those two girls."
His eyes welled with emotion as he talked about his daughters. "Their future is literally under attack by those who believe that government is for those who govern and not for the people."
Regarding Lewis? "He’s a hero; he stood up" for civil rights. But there’s a difference between a leader and uh, uh," he cast about for the right words before finding them, "a community organizer."
Fenn sees the role of a politician this way: A leader sees a problem, assesses the situation, finds a solution and implements it.
That differs fundamentally from his view of a community organizer, who implements a plan he or she has been given by someone else.
Fenn argues that, instead of representing the fifth district of Congress, Lewis is implementing the agenda of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Recently endorsed by the Rev. James Butler, who marched with Lewis and King on the bridge, Fenn recounted visiting Butler’s congregation, the St. John AME Church. "They have 80 percent unemployment. Nobody’s hiring; they need jobs," he said. The problem: "Nobody has taught them how to succeed." They need a leader.
Fenn thinks Lewis has had plenty of time to lead and serve his constituents. At 80 percent unemployment, something is not working; it’s time for a change.
The following story offers a glimpse into what makes this election unusual and what may make Fenn’s win possible, if not probable.
While pounding a "Fenn Little for Congress" sign into a yard on West Wesley Road in Atlanta’s affluent northside, Fenn heard a honk.
"Whose sign is it?" the African-American female cabdriver asked.
"Mine, Fenn Little, I’m running for Congress," he replied.
"You running against John Lewis?"
"Someone needs to run against him," She said, "How can I help?"
Once again, it’s about the economy, and more specifically, jobs, jobs, jobs.
Maybe, Fenn can win in 2010.
Jackie Gingrich Cushman founded and is chairman of the board of the Learning Makes a Difference Foundation.