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There’s Another Runoff in Georgia, and the Winner Gets a Month in Congress

ATLANTA — Kwanza Hall and Robert M. Franklin Jr. have been campaigning for months, planting signs in grassy medians along busy Atlanta roadways and onto windows of popular brunch spots.

They have distributed hand sanitizer, met with the men of Omega Psi Phi and vigorously debated each other. In a livestreamed discussion, they delved into ambitious ideas for conquering intractable problems — limited access to health care, inequality in the criminal justice system and attacks on voting rights.

Politics has consumed much of Georgia in recent weeks. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the state — a feat no Democrat had managed in nearly three decades, and one confirmed by a hand audit of ballots — and two high-stakes runoffs in January will determine which party controls the Senate.

Well, this is the other runoff, one mostly notable for the short turn the winner will have in Congress. Very short. All told, not even a month in the House.

A peculiar set of circumstances has created a contest with stakes that could not be much lower. Mr. Hall and Dr. Franklin, both Democrats, are competing in a runoff Tuesday in a reliably Democratic district for a term that ends at noon on Jan. 3. And there is no chance of an extension for the winner, as his successor was elected this month.

Still, the candidates have argued that their bids are anything but inconsequential. The victor will serve what would have been the final days of John Lewis’s 17th term representing Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. Mr. Lewis, the pioneering civil rights leader, died on July 17.

“These are the days he earned,” Dr. Franklin, a scholar of theology and former president of Morehouse College, said outside a library before he cast his ballot. “For me, that’s the honor and the privilege.”

Dr. Franklin and Mr. Hall, a former Atlanta city councilman, advanced to a runoff after a special election in September, emerging from a mixed-party pack that included five Democrats, one independent and a Libertarian.

“It matters to me,” Mr. Hall said, “because we’ve had no representation since July 17.”

The district, which encompasses parts of Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs, is an economic and cultural hub that has long drawn African-Americans from across the South with possibilities for upward mobility and relief from the burdens of racial hostility in the places they left behind.

But it is also an area that has been reminded of the ways that the aspirations for Atlanta’s promise have fallen short of reality.

Gentrification has spread rapidly, shoving out longtime Black residents. And in June, Rayshard Brooks, an African-American man, was killed by a city police officer, setting off protests that grew tense and violent and underscored that, despite its reputation, Atlanta was anything but immune to the pernicious and enduring consequences of racial inequality.

After Mr. Lewis’s death, Democratic Party officials had to rush to meet a state deadline to replace his name on the November ballot, putting out a call for applications and landing on Nikema Williams, a state senator.

Party officials effectively handed Ms. Williams a ticket to Congress. Mr. Lewis, a Democrat, had won all but one of his re-election bids with more than 70 percent of the vote. Ms. Williams won with 85 percent of the vote, and she has already been elected as president of the incoming freshman class of Democrats.

Mr. Hall and Dr. Franklin are involved in a separate process that began when Gov. Brian Kemp called for a special election to serve the remainder of Mr. Lewis’s term. Ms. Williams declined to participate, and no candidate cleared the 50 percent hurdle in the September election, forcing the runoff. (Just over 31,000 people cast ballots.)

The campaign might seem like a puzzling endeavor. Just the span between the special election and the runoff on Tuesday is more than twice as long as the amount of time the victor will have in Congress.

Even so, the candidates have made serious investments of time and money. They have gathered endorsements from elected officials, activists and local business leaders. While donations are nowhere near the prodigious sums the heated Senate races have brought in, they have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars between them.

Dr. Franklin hired a staff of eight and has kept a steady schedule of virtual events, like joining a gathering of interfaith leaders.

Mr. Hall has run a leaner operation. He is his own communications director. The phone number posted on his campaign’s Facebook page rings on his cellphone.

He keeps his face covered and has swapped handshakes for elbow bumps during the pandemic, but he still prefers pounding the pavement. “I’m running for Congress,” he told one person after another as he handed out fliers at a shopping center.

Both men have lofty notions about what they could accomplish in office.

Dr. Franklin sees a bully pulpit, a platform for him as a minister and professor of moral leadership at Emory University to offer a message of clarity in a turbulent time. And on what would be his last day in office, a Sunday, he said, he would leave with a benediction for Mr. Lewis and his work.

Mr. Hall envisions leaping in with an aggressive agenda: working to decriminalize marijuana, expunge the records of formerly incarcerated people, create economic opportunity.

“I can do the equivalent of what I did in 15 years — I can do it in 15 days,” he said, referring to his years on the Atlanta City Council. “I know what not to waste my time on. I know how to be effective.”

The history of Congress is dotted with members whose terms were best measured in days. For the most part, any achievements recorded by history were largely symbolic.

In fact, the first woman to serve in the Senate came from Georgia: Rebecca Latimer Felton, an 87-year-old writer and activist who was appointed in 1922 after her predecessor died, served one day and gave one speech. In it, she shared her vision of a Senate where more women would serve: “You will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness.”

In all likelihood, the experience for Mr. Hall or Dr. Franklin will be less grand or productive: votes on some significant legislation, including bills on government funding, and opportunities to speak on the House floor.

“It’s going to be hard to get anything done in a short period of time, especially in this short period of time,” said Michael Crespin, the director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma.

There is no shortage of attention being paid to Georgia politics at the moment, but this campaign has stood little chance of competing against recounted ballots, Senate runoffs, intraparty feuding among Georgia Republicans and a Democrat taking the state in a presidential race for the first time since 1992.

It does not help that the campaign was part of a tangle of procedures after Mr. Lewis’s death that left voters confused.

Mr. Lewis had an almost singular presence in Atlanta, embraced as a link to connect a new generation of Black Lives Matter activists to the civil rights movement that was rooted in the city

Mr. Hall, 49, said he was well-suited to carrying on that legacy even though he thought he was done with politics. His last campaign had been a failed mayoral bid in 2017. He had shifted to business, working in economic development and consulting.

But around the time of Mr. Lewis’s death, a coronavirus diagnosis confined Mr. Hall to his bed and forced him to contemplate the future.

On a recent morning, as he joined volunteers packing boxes with hand sanitizer and canned goods, he flipped through photographs on his phone. They were yellowing pictures of his father, Leon W. Hall, a civil rights activist and one of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest lieutenants.

In one, his father embraced Mr. Lewis. Another one made him tear up; it showed his father being dragged by a police officer during a demonstration. Those photographs offered the nudge he needed. “You find yourself exactly where you are supposed to be,” he said.

Dr. Franklin, 66, said he waited to see who else might run, like Shirley Franklin, the former mayor of Atlanta, or Andrew Young, who held the seat before Mr. Lewis and who had also been mayor.

“OK,” he decided, “I need to offer my leadership.”

No matter the result, he said, the campaign could be a prelude to a new chapter of holding elected office or perhaps serving as an ambassador.

“I am by no means equal to the task,” he said of trying to fill the void left by Mr. Lewis, “but I think I could contribute something, even if it is for just two weeks.”

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