For the second time in its history, a woman will lead the City of Atlanta.
On Tuesday, the crowded field of mayoral candidates narrowed down to two City Councilwomen: Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood, who will face each other in a Dec. 5 runoff.
Although the two candidates share the same gender, their success on Tuesday reveals a disturbing rift that opened even as the city’s economy has boomed.
Bottoms is black. Norwood is white.
Bottoms support comes from the poorer, African American southern area of the city. Norwood’s comes from the white and wealthier northern precincts.
Both candidates carry baggage. Bottoms received the endorsement of Mayor Kasim Reed. With the onging federal investigation into the City Hall bribery scandal, that blessing also bears an upleasant whiff.
Norwood identifies as an indpendent, but has been dubbed a closet Republican. Labels like that matter in a majority Democratic city, even though the mayor’s office is supposedly non-partisan.
In the race that included eight credible candidates, Bottoms enjoyed a unique advantage. She was the lone African American woman in a city where women make up 58 percent of the electorate and where black women make up the largest portion of super voters – those who voted at least five times in the past four years.
Norwood was Reed’s last serious opponent and came within 700 votes of beating Reed in the 2009 mayoral race.
“When I ran against Mary Norwood, Mary was up on me probably 10 to 12 points,” Reed said. “It’s going to be a radically different race than my race … They’re going to be starting off, in my opinion, relatively close. That wasn’t my position at all.”
The victory of two candidates crowned by the establishment should surprise no one, but winning in December will depend on wooing supporters of non-establishment campaigns like those of former state Sen. Vincent Fort and former City Council President Cathy Woolard.
‘It feels surreal’
For the past six months, the city has endured a grueling and befuddling contest with eight credible candidates vying to replace Reed.
And by early Wednesday morning, the outcome was still not 100 percent clear. Election workers in Fulton County were still tallying ballots at 1 a.m.
Norwood left her watch party before the full results were available. Bottoms, however, declared a partial victory just after midnight. She said she hoped to hang onto her first-place spot, but was preparing for a runoff.
“It feels surreal,” Bottoms said. “This is what we’ve been working for the past year and we’re here … The race is really just a snapshot. We have likely a few more weeks to a runoff and I am trusting and believing we will win.”
The multiplicity of campaign materials and slogans have vexed voters who struggled to decipher messages.
Some arrived at the polls on Tuesday still undecided about the candidate for whom they would cast their ballot.
“There’s too many candidates. I changed my mind twice this morning,” said Wanda Breach, 71, as she walked toward the Metropolitan Library in southwest Atlanta to vote. “I just had to come and vote, but I am still up in the air.”
Today, the most expensive mayor’s race in Atlanta history – with more than $10 million raised so far by the major candidates – shifts into overdrive in what will become a bare-knuckled fight to the finish Dec. 5.
Reed’s office on the eve of Atlanta’s mayoral election issued a press release attacking candidate Peter Aman, the city’s former chief operating officer.
Then, on Tuesday morning, Reed posted a picture of a graphic depicting city Bottoms and Norwood at the top of the polls.
“ATLANTA DON’T WASTE YOUR VOTE,” it says. “THIS HAS NOW BECOME A TWO PERSON RACE.”
While the Facebook post appeared on Reed’s personal account, the press release was sent via a city email address and was written by a city staffer.
Rick Thompson, the former head of the Georgia State Ethics Commission, said neither message appeared to violate prohibitions on using public agencies for campaign purposes, but the press release came close.
Aman had criticized Bottoms and other councilmembers in a front-page story in The Atlanta Journal Constitution on Sunday. Aman said anybody on the city council who was running for mayor “had green blood on their hands” and that Reed had privately urged city airport contractors to donate to Bottoms campaign.
“Given the cloud of corruption that covers City Hall right now, I️ am surprised the mayor would come perilously close to misusing public resources to issue an obviously false statement,” said Aman in a written statement.
Reed’s Facebook post also contained erroneous polling numbers. The mayor’s office declined to answer a question about why.
At least one other thing became clear on Tuesday: the Rev. Mitzi Bickers appears to figure into the runoff.
Over the weekend, a robocall with a woman who identified herself as “Pastor Mitzi Bickers” encouraged residents all over the city to “vote the full ballot.”
Bickers is a former prominent political consultant who largely vanished from the political spotlight when her name surfaced in connection with the federal probe into city hall this past January.
After a story about the robocall appeared in Tuesday’s AJC, another call by “Bickers” went to voters across the city a couple of hours prior to polls closing, including one to the newspaper. The voice again identified herself as “Pastor Mitzi Bickers” and urged people to get to the polls. The caller again did not endorse a candidate.
Bickers helped Kasim Reed win his first race for mayor in 2009 by a razor thin margin over Norwood.
On Tuesday, a former city of Atlanta worker who used to work for Bickers, pleaded guilty to a single count of trying to intimidate a federal witness. Shandarrick Barnes admitted to throwing a brick through the window of city contractor Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr., the government’s star witness in the bribery investigation.
The ‘black slate’
Cars or buses plastered with a candidate’s face circled the streets in southwest Atlanta, while folks near at least three polling precincts waved a sign declaring: “Vote the black slate.” Flyers were distributed atop cars parked near Metropolitan Library to reinforce that message.
Robert Harris, a 68-year-old retiree, said he voted for Bottoms because the city desperately needs a “fresh face and a fresh start.”
James Wentz, 44, works as an assistant principal at Riverside Intermediate in Cobb County, lives in Midtown and supports Norwood because of her standing up for the LGBTQ community.
“I just want them to keep pushing to be more inclusive, especially with the police force,” he said. Since the presidential election, “it seems like everyone is angry and people are becoming more intolerant.”
Other voters didn’t see any good choices.
Jim Thompson, a building maintenance technician, said Bottoms wasn’t just a Reed acolyte, but also yet another centrist democrat who puts the economic benefit of the city over neighborhood concerns.
Thompson, 58, was concerned about Aman’s ties to Bain Capital. The private equity firm is known for using leveraged buyouts to take over companies, then slashing budgets to maximize profits at expense of workers and customers.
Thompson said he was also leery of former council president Woolard’s lobbying connections.
In the end, Thompson said he would vote for Councilman Kwanza Hall because of improvements he’s seen in Hall’s District 2, which includes Midtown.
But Thompson also found Hall’s campaign dull and confusing.
Race will continue to play a role as the runoff looms. A robocall recently hit much of the city calling for voters to “keep Atlanta black,” and vote for Bottoms. Bottoms disavowed the ad and called for an investigation by state prosecutors.
Starting today the chief task of Bottoms and Norwood changes. They won’t just have to get their base support to the polls in a race with historically low turnout.
They will also have to build coalitions among a diverse electorate and perhaps earn the support of the very candidates they’ve attacked in recent months.
Bottoms acknowledged as much in remarks to reporters after her victory speech on Tuesday.
“I am a better leader having spent the last year with the people who have sacrificed the last year to run for mayor,” she said. “I look forward to reaching out and speaking to the rest of the field.”