In his campaign for Congress, Statesboro attorney and minister Francys Johnson is running as a Democrat and acknowledged progressive but challenging narrow labels and noting interests he has in common with Republicans.
When he resigned as Georgia State Conference NAACP president last July near the end of his four-year tenure, Johnson said he was considering a run for public office. He recently announced for Georgia’s 12th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, seeking to challenge the Republican incumbent, Rep. Rick Allen of Augusta.
Johnson is one of two Democratic candidates, both based in Statesboro, who have filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission in advance of qualifying for the May 22 primary. The other is Trent Nesmith. Allen also has an announced Republican challenger.
“My whole objective is to see if we can run a campaign, again, where I speak to everybody with the same message,” Johnson said during a recent interview at a Statesboro restaurant.
By “again” he meant that candidates used to campaign this way but that many now choose different talking points to appeal to different demographic audiences.
“I’m not going to tailor my message for white working people without a college education, because I think they want the same thing as black working people with a college education – fair opportunity, a level playing field, as little government as necessary, as much government as we require to do the things that we can’t do individually – and I think that will resonate with people,” Johnson said.
He has never sought elected public office before. But Johnson, 38, has been involved in political causes for more than 20 years.
While he was its president, the Georgia NAACP took part in at least 10 lawsuits over voting rights and some protests against the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid. The top state NAACP post was the culmination of “30 years of laboring in an organization whose historic legacy is trying to make real all the promises of democracy for everybody,” Johnson said.
He grew up in Sylvania, studied political science for his bachelor’s degree from Georgia Southern University and then went to the University of Georgia School of Law.
The Johnson Firm, which he founded eight years ago, is across the street from Statesboro City Hall.
At the beginning of the conversation, Johnson referred to his law firm as “a small business on Main Street” where he has “to make payroll every single week” while trying “to make a little bit of profit at the end of the year while continuing to deal with the burdens of regulations and taxes.” That, he said, is experience he would take to Washington.
Johnson named the economy, and “making sure that it benefits people on Main Street as well as Wall Street,” first among issues.
“The second issue for us is to really inspire the next generation to take America to the next level,” Johnson said.
This requires choices about education, infrastructure and the role of technology, he said.
“All of those things are up for grabs during this administration, and we need to send someone to the Congress who’s not beholden to the president, doesn’t answer to the president, but is not going to also be beholden to narrow partisan interests or corporate elites,” Johnson said.
A Democrat, but …
The candidate said he’s probably “more Republican in a lot of areas” than people might think.
“If Republicanism means smaller, less intrusive government, if Republicanism means adherence to the Constitution, all of the Constitution, including the 14th Amendment as applied to the states, and that includes the Voting Rights Act and a number of other things and all parts of our Constitution and laws, if Republicanism means pro-small business and pro-growth, then call me a Republican,” Johnson said.
But he asserted that Allen “just simply doesn’t even speak to half of the demographic in this community” and had “not held a single town hall in the last Congress.”
“He wants to dial it in by phone because he’s afraid of being accountable to his neighbors,” Johnson said.
The newspaper was not aware of any town hall meetings Allen held in Statesboro in 2017, but he came here for events on specific topics and held “Telephone Town Halls.”
Pro-life & choice
Besides being a lawyer, Johnson is senior pastor of both Magnolia Baptist Church near Statesboro and Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Pembroke. He and his wife, education professor Meca Williams-Johnson, Ph.D., have two young sons, Thurgood and Langston, named after pioneering civil rights attorney and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and poet and activist Langston Hughes.
They had another son, Frederick Douglas, who was born with severe lung and heart conditions and Down syndrome and died age 6 months. Prenatal testing had revealed these conditions, presenting Johnson and his wife a difficult choice.
“Someone asked me today, they said, ‘Are you pro-life or are you pro-choice?’, and I told them that those labels are ridiculous,” Johnson said. “They don’t really get at the heart of what you’re asking. What you’re asking is, what should government’s role be in parents’ decision to bring a child into this life.”
For Johnson and his wife, whose life was at some risk in carrying the baby to term, it was not theoretical, he said.
“We decided on life,” Johnson said. “We did. I am pro-life, but I deeply believe that those decisions are best made between a physician and that couple, and that where there are abortions they should be few, but they should be safe and accessible.”
To be clear, Johnson proposes no changes in abortion rulings or law, calling the issue “settled.” He called interpretations of “pro-choice” as allowing abortion up to the moment of delivery “ridiculous” and “not even the law.” Late-term abortions, although often the focus of political rhetoric, are rare and difficult, he said.
But he also criticized the use of the term “pro-life” by people who merely oppose abortion.
“They’re not so much so when it comes to the application of the death penalty that we know is racially biased and is not fairly applied,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how you can be pro-life and pro-death penalty. … Right now 30 percent of Bulloch County’s children will go to bed tonight without enough eat. How can you be pro-life and not be for feeding the hungry?”
He said he thinks Republicans and Democrats love America.
“That’s why my campaign’s theme is People First, not president first, not party first, not political ideology first, but people, and if we think about how does this really impact people, we’ll get to better decisions for America,” Johnson said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.