Rep. John Lewis Switches Support to Obama Civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) has pledged his superdelegate vote for Barack Obama, changing his earlier support of Hillary Clinton. Yesterday, Lewis spoke exclusively with Monica Pearson, news anchor for WSB-TV in Atlanta, Georgia.

Rep. John Lewis Switches Support to Obama

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, I'm Farai Chideya for Thursday, February 28th. This is News and Notes.

(Soundbite of Music)

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. We've talked a lot on our show about those elusive superdelegates. Those are the almost 800 elected officials and political VIPs who could ultimately decide who the Democrats will send into the general election for the White House. But the conversation about superdelegates comes with baggage. Some think the top tier Democrats should vote the way their constituents voted. Well now you can count Georgia Congressman John Lewis among those ranks.

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Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): As a superdelegate to the Democratic Convention, I will be casting my vote for Barack Obama.

CHIDEYA: Yesterday Lewis gave an exclusive interview with Atlanta TV reporter Monica Pearson and he told her that he was switching his support from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. With me now is Monica Pearson, news anchor for WSB-TV in Atlanta, Georgia. Monica, thanks for joining us.

Ms. MONICA PEARSON (WSB-TV, Atlanta): My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: So you interviewed Congressman Lewis yesterday. Did you know in advance that he was going to tell you this?

Ms. PEARSON: No. When I was called and told that Congressman Lewis needed to see me in Washington, that he was doing three interviews - one with NBC, one with us, and one with the Atlanta General Constitution - I kind of guessed that it might have something to do with him switching. But really there were three options. And his three options were to stay with Ms. Clinton, switch to Mr. Obama or to return to the uncommitted column. So I prepared for all three eventuality.

CHIDEYA: Now, did he give you a sense of why he chose the option he did?

Ms. PEARSON: Yes. I guess I could I guess, describe it really the easiest way. When he originally endorsed Ms. Clinton it was in October of last year. If you look back to that time in October of last year, Ms. Clinton was seen as the front runner. Senator Clinton was probably going to get the nomination. Mr. Obama was the newcomer. Also at that time a CNN poll showed that black Americans by 57 percent were strongly in favor of Ms. Clinton. But that same poll by January showed that black Americans now were only supporting her by 31 percent.

So from October to January, the playing field changed. He also told me that he really saw - and not only in his constituents, but across the country - both young blacks and young whites were being drawn to Obama. I used the phrase Obama-nation. The fact that it has become a nation of people who are saying, we want that change. So here is a man who has been an icon and is an icon in the Civil Rights Movement and knows what it's like to quote "fight the system" and make change possible.

He said when he saw Obama and saw what he was doing to young people in nation, there was no choice but to change. Now let me explain to you. He also said that it was one of the most difficult decisions he's ever made because of his long standing friendship and respect for former President Clinton and Senator Clinton. He said and I couldn't believe it when he did say it but he said, this was more difficult than walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge 43 years ago and getting beaten up.

CHIDEYA: Which he did, severely�

Ms. PEARSON: Which he did. But he said that quote "I'm a big boy and even though I know I would be criticized, I have to do what I know is right, not only for myself but for my constituents."

CHIDEYA: Yeah and he is someone who marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge when peaceful civil rights marchers were absolutely just had the dogs and the batons turned on them. It was a real turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. So for him to say this, it seems as if in some way, he sees this as part of his civil rights legacy.

Ms. PEARSON: He does see it as part of his civil rights legacy. I asked him, what do you think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would think of what is happening right now in politics and what is happening in particular with the Obama campaign. And he said, I know he's sitting somewhere and he's smiling because this is that beloved community he wanted to create. This is that interracial democracy that he wanted to create. And he really, very � you know John Lewis I've known for 33 years in covering news in Atlanta. And he was very emotional about it.

This, to him, was a major decision that needed to be made. He was receiving all kinds of criticism, and I actually asked him how much pressure was applied. And he said there was no pressure from either the Clinton camp or the Obama camp, that he did hear from citizens on both sides. You know, you should stay where you are supporting Hillary or you should switch to Obama because of your race. The decision he said, was made on principle.

CHIDEYA: Now when you say switch to Obama because of your race, you're talking about the fact that he's being challenged for his seat in the House of Representatives?

Ms. PEARSON: Yes. Markel Hutchins who is a young minister here and has been very involved in civil rights here, is challenging Mr. Lewis this time. And I asked John if that has come bearing on it. He said absolutely not. This is not the first person who has run against him and it won't be the last. He said this decision was made based on reality. I did ask him did he think he had endorsed Ms. Clinton too early. And he realistically and honestly looked at me and said, you know, when I look back at it, it maybe would have been better for me, to remain uncommitted, because as you know many delegates go to the convention uncommitted. They don't endorse anyone.

And he said you know, at the time she was my choice and I still respect her and want us to still be friends at the end of this. But in the end, you have to do what your constituents want. And when you see what is happening with Obama, rolling across the nation and changing peoples' attitudes about government, he said he felt he had to do it.

CHIDEYA: Now Congressman Lewis has been largely mum since the announcement. We tried several times to reach him directly. And it seems as if he made a great effort to reach out to you as a local broadcaster and to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Why do you think it was important for him to make this statement to the home team?

Ms. PEARSON: He could probably answer that much better than I could, if he would answer it. I think to be quite honest, he called people he knows and has known for a long time. I've been anchoring in Atlanta now for 33 years. And before that I was a television reporter and a newspaper reporter at the Courier Journal and Louisville Times, in Louisville, Kentucky. So I've been doing this literally since 1969. So I think he called on people he knows and he knows would be fair. It was not easy with me you know, asking him and being very blunt with him you know, are you doing this? Are you giving in to the criticism and is this a case of you know, someone's called you a sellout because you had not supported Mr. Obama until now and raising those questions. But that's what we get paid to do and he knows that we will treat him fairly.

CHIDEYA: Now what about this whole sellout issue? I'm not going to ask this about Representative Lewis directly, but there are a lot of complicated racial dynamics around whether or not you're choosing a white woman, a black man, a white man and whether or not it relates to your identity. Atlanta is one of these places where black identity is defined and redefined constantly. What kind of word on the street are you hearing about how people view Senator Obama, his blackness, their blackness, whether or not there should be some loyalty based on race?

Ms. PEARSON: Well that I think, is the big question of the entire race, of the entire "race" - the political race for the first time in our history with those of us who are women and also African�American. How do you choose? Well I think it's answered very simply and this is the discussion that's had here. And people have to constantly remember� And I think you see it with Reverend Lawry having in the beginning, supported Mr. Obama and Andrew Young in the beginning, supporting Hillary Clinton while our mayor of the city who is a mentor, you know, mentee(ph) of Ambassador Young, again supporting Hillary Clinton, excuse me, supporting Obama. She supports Obama.

What you're seeing is people are having to say, let's strip away the outer cover of female and color African�American. Or in the case of Governor Richardson when he was running, Hispanic heritage. Strip away the veneer and let's talk about issues and how your stand on those issues affect and reflect my ethics, my morals my way that I want to live. And we as black people always want to be supportive of each other. And in this instance, which is what Representative Lewis was talking about, creating that beloved community that is interracial means you have to choose people not based on color but on intellect, ideals and how your feelings match theirs.

And that's very hard to do for some people because they don't want to be labeled an Uncle Tom, a sellout or you're not supporting your own people, when it's not about that. What it's about is choosing the best bet for you, philosophically. And that is what I think has so many people in this race bent out of shape, because they can't say well I really prefer this person over the other and it has nothing to do with gender or race.

CHIDEYA: What about just whatever thoughts you have on what a city like Atlanta is looking for from the next presidency, i.e. is the city�

Ms. PEARSON: Now let me explain something to you first. We talked about the City of Atlanta but the City of Atlanta is just that. We are living in the state of Georgia which has a Republican governor.

CHIDEYA: Hmm. How does that affect the dynamics?

Ms. PEARSON: And remember that outside of basically Fulton County and Dekalb County, you're looking at a lot of Republican administrations. We have a lot of growing number of Republicans in the state of Georgia. So what's good about that is that the political mix here is very good, makes for great coverage. So as goes, I guess you'd say the primaries - so we'll go the state in the national election. Unless, unless it depends on who the Republican candidate is.

CHIDEYA: All right.

Ms. PEARSON: And if it's Mr. McCain which we think it will be and there is talk that our governor Sonny Perdue is on a list of possible vice presidential candidates. So it's going to be interesting to watch from the Georgia perspective.

CHIDEYA: Well Monica, thanks again.

Ms. PEARSON: You are more than welcome.

CHIDEYA: Monica Pearson is a news anchor for WSB-TV in Atlanta, Georgia. If you go to our site, you'll find links to all the video of her interview.

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