U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson is in a very different race this time around from when he first ran four years ago for the District 4 congressional seat.
Then, he won the primary nomination in a runoff against then Rep. Cynthia McKinney, where he presented himself as the reasonable, non-divisive option to McKinney. He ran unchallenged to reelection two years ago.
But this time, he's the incumbent fighting off several aggressive challengers running against him.
"I've got a couple of popular opponents," he acknowledged. "They look better. They're better spoken. More polished. All of these things. I'm just the tortoise, plodding along in the background. That's how I honestly see myself. But I keep going. And I end up winning the race."
As for his health, he joked at a recent Rockdale County Democratic Party Candidates' forum that he was busting out of his clothes from gaining 30 pounds. Johnson confirmed last year he had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C and had been undergoing treatment.
"I feel like I'm doing what I'm cut out to do up there. I'm certainly not ready to retire. There's lots of work that remains to be done."
Johnson, a former DeKalb County Commissioner, magistrate judge, and defense attorney, said he did not receive much national party support when he started, since the fourth district is considered reliably Democratic.
"I had to earn what I obtained from my own success," he said.
One of the lessons he said he's learned from his time on Capitol Hill is to make the most of what he has. For example, he was appointed to the Armed Services and Judiciary Committees, though he had wanted to be on the Transportation and Infrastructure and Financial Services committees.
"I took what was available and made the best of it. I could have taken what was available and remained disappointed or feeling like I had been overlooked and disregarded or I could get in there and do my best job and show my leadership that this is a guy that we can depend on. We like him. We need folks like Hank."
He said he was rewarded for his work with a seat on the Transportation committee.
His time on the Armed Services committee also changed his mind about the use of force.
"I'm a man of peace. I desire peace. Work for peace. But due to what I have learned on the Armed Services Committee, I have found historically there's been a need for the country to be prepared to defend itself. Instead of being an opponent of the military, I've become a proponent of a strong military to defend this country's interests here as well as abroad. I've come to a much deeper understanding of the dangers that confront America if we're not prepared militarily," he said.
Regarding the economy, he said job creation was key to picking up the economy of out its doldrums. Transportation and infrastructure projects in particular would provide many jobs, he said.
"What we're talking about is priming the pump of the economy from the ground up as opposed to the top down, the old school of trickle down economics," he said. "It won't be done in any way other than creating jobs for Americans."
"I am looking forward to putting people back to work, fixing the infrastructure and laying in new infrastructure. So transportation issues are what are going to bring us out of this economic tailspin," Johnson said at a recent candidates' forum.
When asked about concerns about the mounting deficit, Johnson said, "I, too, want to see us alleviate our debt. I, too, want to see us balance our budget and move forward with balanced budgets. And it's something we can do. But it won't be done unless we have the guts to do a vigorous job creation program." He said people were expecting instant solutions, but the tools to fix the economy, such as the stimulus bill, were being watered down. "We'll never be able to climb out of this deficit spending and we'll never be able to turn our debt into a surplus without Americans going to work."
When asked about statements he made in the past few months that garnered much media attention, he said, "Don't be so closed minded as to believe a person who has represented you in Congress would be so stupid as to think that an island can tip over. Look at things said a little more critically. Try to understand, try to put into focus what is actually being said... Accept the fact that some folks can drive a point home in ways different than perhaps you do... Don't be led astray and misled by folks who are looking for entertainment versus reasoned analysis of governmental policy."
"That's not a sound bite, but it's the truth. We just really have to take more time to educate ourselves about the issue.
"I've been making those types of points for all of my professional life," he said. "And I may make some others too. So grab your seats."
Johnson is running in the Democratic primary on July 20 against former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones and DeKalb County Commissioner Connie Stokes. Four candidates are also vying for the Republican nomination in the July 20 primary to go onto the general election in November: Businesswoman Liz Carter, consultant Cory Ruth, Navy veteran Larry Gause, and businessman Victor Armendariz.