Atlanta mayor’s race heats up, but crowded field might yield low turnout

1:25 p.m Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 Local
ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
The field has thinned some but still includes several people who expect to be Atlanta’s next mayor. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com AJC File photo.)

Crowded political fields get muddy. They exhaust voters who struggle to stay informed. They reduce pundits to clichés.

Sometimes they yield results no one thought possible.

Ten days before the Nov. 7 election, Atlanta’s jam-packed mayoral ballot already appears to have produced an unsettling twist: a small percentage of the electorate will likely decide a contest with immense ramifications.

They discussed public safety and corruption.

The list of issues with which the city’s next leader will confront is long. Unprecedented growth. Traffic. Aging infrastructure. Gentrification. And an ongoing federal corruption probe at City Hall.

But the most significant challenge may be an existential one.

Atlanta voters haven’t elected a white mayor in 44 years. However, the city’s demographics have shifted. Of the half dozen or so credible candidates, three are white. And one of them, Mary Norwood, has consistently led in the polls.

“Racial harmony is (Atlanta’s) image across the world,” said Rev. Anthony A. W. Motley. “Since Maynard Jackson the city has thrived, and it’s thrived largely because of that image.”

Many African Americans have been priced out of neighborhoods they once called home. If the next administration’s initiatives favor one community over another, it could appear as a “hostile takeover” and tarnish Atlanta’s unique reputation, said Motley, who pastors the Lindsay Street Baptist Church in the English Avenue community in downtown.

“A lot of people are wondering if that’s going to happen,” he said. “We are in transition, and what that transition will mean and bring, that’s what’s at stake.”

In this unpredictable race, there are two factors every candidate is expecting: One is that turnout will be low, perhaps dismally so. And the second is that the Nov. 7 election is just the beginning. A December runoff is almost guaranteed.

Most candidates privately admit Norwood, who has topped every poll, is likely to be in that showdown. Keisha Lance Bottoms has emerged as the leading second contender for the other spot, armed with Mayor Kasim Reed’s endorsement and a fresh infusion of campaign cash.

But the field is so muddled - and the polls so unpredictable - that at least one prominent Atlantan worries about a photo-finish for the No. 2 spot.

“What happens in second place, if you get two people, who tie?” asked former Mayor Sam Massell, now the president of the Buckhead Coalition. “That can happen. Do you have runoff of a runoff? Nobody has a ruling on it. We’ve checked with the city, county and state.”

Despite the dozens of forums, the lengthy policy papers and the grand plans, many voters say they’re still left in the lurch. The ongoing federal corruption probe has only fed voter disenchantment with the race. So has the volatility of the crowded field, which led one candidate to drop out last week.

Bobby Flournoy, a southwest Atlanta resident, said one thing is certain: “This is not the year to vote early.” He said the candidates have their eye on “pie in the sky” ideals instead of bread-and-butter plans.

“If any of them have acted like they live in the city of Atlanta and understand the difficulties, I’d vote for them,” said Flournoy, who owns a sales and marketing firm.

“If you look at trying to start a business in the city, why do you need a lawyer? Why are there still so many vacant properties? Why is code enforcement not coming down on delinquent property owners? And that, for me, is why it’s still muddled.”

A group of befuddled Atlantans chewing over the race was so disillusioned by the contest they created a Facebook group – Undecided for Atlanta Mayor 2017 – featuring the latest perplexing takes on the race.

Olivia Chalkley, an intern who lives in Atlanta and helped found the group, joked that undecideds are enjoying a “newfound influence” since most polls show a vast chunk of the electorate hasn’t made up their minds.

“The support for Undecided comes from all corners of the city and represent a vast, diverse bunch,” she said. “We may wait until the last minute to decide who gets in the run off but we certainly all agree on one thing now: let’s get this over with.”

In some ways, there are two distinct races unfolding: one pitting three white candidates competing for the same bloc of voters in Atlanta’s north and east sides, and another between five leading African-American contenders carving up the city’s southside.

And those competing strategies have grown more pronounced in their latest volley of campaign ads and final round of forums and debates.

Norwood, a white self-described independent who nearly won the 2009 mayoral race, has had a gaping target on her back since she got in this contest.

Her most aggressive rival, former Atlanta chief operating officer Peter Aman, has tried to chip away at her northside base by casting her as financially irresponsible and questioning her vote to increase the police pension years ago as evidence.

And Norwood has fired right back, suggesting that Aman shares some of the blame for the ongoing federal corruption probe into City Hall because he presided over the city’s operations during some of the questionable bids.

At the same time, Aman has clashed increasingly with former City Council President Cathy Woolard over the city’s procurement policies and his role influencing city contracts. And Norwood has been besieged by outside attacks painting her as a “closet Republican.”

The bulk of those come from the Democratic Party of Georgia, which shelled out more than $165,000 in her 2009 runoff against Reed to cast her as a deeply conservative politician in deep-blue Atlanta. In this race, they started earlier, including a webpage depicting her as “Mary the Republican” with smiling pictures of her with GOP figures.

“Atlanta has had a Democratic mayor since 1881, and we’re not about to let Mary Norwood and the Republican Party steal that office,” said Michael Smith, the party’s spokesman.

Norwood’s campaign countered with her own webpage listing Democratic and independent supporters, asserting that she’s drawn support from both sides of the aisle because voters are “fed up with corruptible politicians who ignore Atlanta’s communities.”

The race for the biggest bloc of the black electorate is also getting dicier. And Bottoms has faced a new wave of slings and arrows since she nabbed Reed’s endorsement.

One of her fiercest critics is former state Sen. Vincent Fort, who is running an insurgent populist campaign and has long butted heads with both Bottoms and Reed. At a debate last week, after she knocked him for tax liens he incurred in the Georgia Legislature, he dramatically pulled out what he said were tax liens with Bottoms’ name on it.

“People who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” he said.

When the camera shifted to Bottoms, she said the tax liens are about 20 years old, and then offered a deeply personal detail. They were incurred when she and her husband racked up an “enormous amount” of medical expenses when they were struggling to get pregnant, she said, and are now “paid and satisfied.”

“We had financial hardship. But unlike Senator Fort, I paid those tax bills,” she said.

Fort is one of several candidates presenting themselves as the antidote to a “culture of corruption” at City Hall squarely in the sights of federal prosecutors. Two contractors were sentenced to prison in October as part of a burgeoning federal probe.

She’s also faced more covert attacks. A glossy mailer purporting to be from former Fulton County Commission chair John Eaves campaign features Bottoms’ picture under the headline: “How to get away with corruption.” Eaves campaign said it had nothing to do with the mailer, which didn’t include his address and also had an incorrect title.

Bottoms, meanwhile, has walked a cautious line when pressed on questions about corruption in City Hall. She said although there are some “bad apples,” she says, but they haven’t rotted through Atlanta’s core.

And she seems willing to bet that Reed will be more of a help than a hindrance. Her latest TV ad features a bevy of voters - and then an image of she and the mayor walking side-by-side. “Keisha will continue the progress,” the mayor intones.

The pace is only going to quicken. Many of the candidates have already participated in more than 40 public forums - some twice in one day - and the schedule calls for more through the election. Mixed with that are candidate meet-and-greets, fundraisers and press conferences to tout their latest endorsements.

The targeting is an exact science. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin recalled last week that during her first campaign for mayor in 2001, her ideal voting bloc comprised of church-going African-American women. She joked that she suddenly improved her “scruffy” demeanor and incorporated her signature flower pins into her wardrobe.

In this mayoral race, she said, candidates are scrapping over three distinct blocs that could define the race: Voters older than 55 – both white and back - who will “vote no matter what;” the “very large and very active” LGBT community; and newcomers who decided “very consciously” to move to Atlanta.

And across the city, candidates are working furiously to fortify their own bases.

Eaves has appealed to voters who supported him in county-wide races to help him once again. Woolard hopes to fend off Aman in her east Atlanta stronghold, where he’s been making a late push.

Brandishing an endorsement from Bernie Sanders, Fort squeezed in a recent trip to Athens to drum up support from students who are also Atlanta voters. City Council President Ceasar Mitchell has amped up TV ads presenting himself as the only candidate who can “sweep out the corruption we know is there in City Hall.”

Councilman Kwanza Hall is doubling down on the voters in his urbane council district who first elected him in 2005. And Aman has worked to shore up his standing with women who might be giving him a second look. On Wednesday, he held a press conference to announce the support of four prominent women leaders in the closing stretch.

“I am supporting Peter because I think the leadership we need should not be determined by gender or color,” said Mtamanika Youngblood, a black community leader who headed the Historic District Development Corporation. “But on top of all of that, I am supporting Peter because I think he can win.”

The ambiguity of the mayoral race has fed the candidates. It has given hope to those near the bottom rung, keeping them from throwing in the towel.

Only one credible contender, former city official Michael Sterling, has dropped out of the race even though several are lagging in the polls. Sterling, once the head of Atlanta’s workforce development agency, threw his support to Mitchell last week.

Political analysts say the outcome, as it does in every race, will hinge on turnout. But there is another long-accepted tenet of this race: the muddled field will keep turnout low.

“It’s all about the base, and we’re appealing to a tight group of folks who are committed to our campaign,” said Hall. “It might just come down to who has the most dedicated folks who are committed to win.”

Only about 10,000 ballots have been cast across Fulton County since early voting began Oct. 16, and some precincts report just a few dozen votes a day. Some candidates believe as few as 15,000 votes will get them in the runoff. And that means anyone who can get their most fervent supporters to the polls has a shot.

The next mayor will impact all of metro Atlanta, and the economy of the Southeast. In our series Election 2017, we examine how a lack of affordable housing means fewer new companies – and new jobs – moving here. 

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