Majette, Denise 1955–
Denise Majette 1955–
U.S. congressional representative
When attorney and judge Denise Majette defeated United States Representative Cynthia McKinney in the 2002 Democratic primary for Georgia’s Fourth District congressional seat, her victory was widely viewed as a referendum on the ideas of the controversial McKinney, as an evolution in the politics of the African-American community, or (by some McKinney supporters) as an attempt on the part of Republican operatives to silence outspoken Democratic liberals in the House of Representatives. To view Majette merely as the embodiment of some larger trend, however, was to ignore her own record of accomplishment. Majette’s election to Congress marked merely a new challenge met and surmounted in a career that had seen one of the country’s most noteworthy young black professionals exceed expectations at every turn.
Born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn on May 18, 1955, Denise Majette was the second of three sisters. Her father was a real estate agent and assessor who dreamed of becoming a lawyer; father and daughter spoke of starting a practice together, but Voyd Majette died while his daughter was in law school. Majette’s mother, Olivia, was a teacher, and the Majette children took books and learning seriously. They were forbidden to watch television, but they grew up encouraged to read newspapers and newsmagazines. Whereas many black children were touched in a general way by the civil rights advances of the 1960s, Majette grew up with strong impressions and specific understanding of how the law could make a difference in people’s lives.
“I was very inspired during the civil rights struggles at the way people used the law to effect social change,” Majette told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Resolving to become a lawyer herself, Majette ignored the advice of her guidance counselor at Erasmus Hall High School, who tried to discourage her from applying to competitive Yale University. Although she had graduated in the top ten percent of her high school class, Majette found herself one of only a few African Americans at Yale (and even fewer African-American women). She floundered at first, earning C and D grades in her first semester. Redoubling her efforts, however, Majette began to do better. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1976.
At a Glance …
Born on May 18, 1955, in Brooklyn. NY; daughter of Voyd (a real estate assessor) and Olivia (a teacher) Majette; married Rogers J. Mitchell, Jr.; two sons. Education: Yale University, BA, 1976; Duke University, JD, 1979, Politics: Democrat. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal.
Career: Legal Aid Society of Winston-Salem, NC, attorney, 1981–83; Georgia Court of Appeals, law assistant, 1984–89; Jenkins, Nelson & Welch law firm, partner, 1989–92; Attorney General, State of Georgia, special assistant, 1991–92; Georgia State Board of Workers’ Compensation, administrative law judge, 1992–93; State Court of DeKalb County, Georgia, judge, 1993–2002; U.S. House of Representatives, representative from Georgia’s fourth district, 2002–.
Selected awards: Graduate, Leadership DeKalb seminar, 1992; Judge’s Community Recognition Award, Black Law Students’ Association, Georgia State University College of Law, 2001; “You Go Girl” award, Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, 1998, 2003.
Addresses: Office —1517 Longworth House Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20515.
Majette went on to complete a law degree at Duke University Law School in North Carolina in 1979. Her first job as a lawyer, with the Legal Aid Society in nearby Winston-Salem, fulfilled her goal of using the law to improve her community. Majette moved to Stone Mountain, Georgia, outside of Atlanta, in 1983, where she lived with her husband, Rogers Mitchell Jr. In 1986 Majette had the frightening experience of delivering her son, Devin, prematurely and seeing him spend four months in the hospital fighting medical complications. Majette is also the mother of a stepson, Rogers Mitchell III.
For several years, Majette worked her way up through the law profession in Georgia. She worked as a clerk or assistant for several Atlanta-area judges, including Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Robert Benham, later the Georgia Supreme Court’s first African-American chief justice. From 1989 to 1992 Majette was a partner in the Atlanta law firm of Jenkins, Nelson & Welch. In 1992 she was named an administrative law judge at the State Board of Workers’ Compensation, and the following year Georgia governor Zell Miller named her judge of the State Court of DeKalb County.
Majette built professional relationships in the Atlanta community, graduating from the management seminar Leadership DeKalb in 1992 and serving on the boards of a number of community organizations. Her state judgeship assured her of an influential position with virtually a lifetime of job security. But once again, Majette sought out new horizons. Majette’s side hobby of running showed her affinity for difficult challenges—in the year 2000, at age 45, she entered and completed the New York City Marathon. Not long after that, she was taking her usual seven-mile run in Stone Mountain when she experienced inspiration concerning the direction of her career.
“I was running toward Stone Mountain and it came to me,” Majette told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I would run a race like I had never run before. I would run for Congress. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Stone Mountain was my destination that day. Dr. King said freedom would one day ring from the mountain on high. It was my belief in God that this was what I was supposed to do.”
Political observers, including Majette’s associates in Atlanta’s legal community, reacted with considerable surprise. “If someone asked me to name 100 people who might run, she wouldn’t have been on the list,” prosecutor Ralph Bowden told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Incumbent Rep. McKinney was viewed as difficult to beat, and Majette was widely noted for her thoughtful personality and her tendency to gather information on an issue before making a statement about it—an essential quality for a judge, but adaptable only with difficulty to the rough-and-tumble of a political campaign.
Majette’s chances improved, however, when McKinney stirred wide criticism after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by implying that President George W. Bush might have known about the attacks beforehand. McKinney was also a strong critic of the nation of Israel, and Jewish contributions flowed into Majette’s coffers, allowing her to partially offset McKinney’s natural incumbent’s advantage. Majette at first suffered from her inexperience as a campaigner in comparison with the fiery McKinney, but she developed a more combative side as the campaign went on.
In response to McKinney supporters who whispered that she was a “Tomette,” (according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) and pointed to her occasional votes in Republican primaries as evidence that she was a stealth tool of white Republicans, Majette answered: “I’d ask, What makes you black? Is it poverty? [McKinney’s] criticisms try to create the impression that someone who has worked hard, who has accumulated assets or who seeks to improve the quality of their life is not black.” Majette charged McKinney with being too absorbed in international issues to pay attention to district needs, and in the August 20, 2002, primary Majette won a convincing 16-point victory, sweeping the white vote and making inroads against McKinney in black-majority precincts. She won the general election in November of 2002 against Republican Cynthia Van Auken.
McKinney and some of her supporters suggested that Majette had benefited from Republican crossover voting, although an Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey found enough Republican voters in Majette’s column to account for only one sixth of her margin of victory. McKinney seemed intent on testing her theory in the 2004 primary, when a contested Republican Senate primary would presumably depress any crossover interest in the Democratic race. In any event, Majette adopted standard Democratic positions once she had come to Washington, criticizing President Bush’s economic policies and lending only reluctant support to the President’s plans to attack Iraq.
“We’ve gone from record surpluses to ballooning deficits,” Majette was quoted as saying by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And we are putting Social Security and Medicare at risk. We must return to the days of surpluses so our children won’t have to foot the bill that we are not paying today.” A member of the House Budget, Small Business, and Education in the Workforce Committees, Majette boasted of bringing over $250 million in federal money to her DeKalb County district in her first months in office. If she could forge a strong connection with black voters, many political observers predicted, she would have a long future in politics ahead of her.
American Prospect, September 23, 2002, p. 14.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 31, 2002, p. JAI; August 18, 2002, p. Dl; September 1, 2002, p. El; December 15, 2002, p. Dl; February 10, 2003, p. JJ8; March 24, 2003, p. Bl; June 5, 2003, p. A4.
“Biography,” Representative Denise Majette Official Website, www.house.gov/majette (July 17, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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