Atlanta mayor’s race: A wide-open contest that will shape the region


The contest for mayor of Atlanta is as volatile as ever.

Polling shows four leading candidates gunning for two spots in a probable December runoff — and several other credible contenders still in the running.

The 13-person field runs the gamut, from a Bernie Sanders-style liberal dangling free college tuition to a self-styled independent who proudly poses with local Republican heavyweights.

Often in voter forums, these rivals sing from the same sheet of music, in terms of their stated positions on issues such as affordable housing and transit. Other times, they’re on the attack, criticizing their opponents’ take on the best way to spur more economic development or update the city’s infrastructure.

The next Atlanta mayor will be charting the course for the Southeast’s economic engine, guiding billions of dollars in infrastructure spending and setting the policy for Georgia’s principal city. And, with only about six weeks left until the Nov. 7 election, the race remains wide open.

Whoever takes over has vast potential to shake up the city’s political order. All of the candidates promise a change in style from a term-limited Kasim Reed, who over the last eight years has cemented a reputation as a sharp-elbowed defender of Atlanta and his own legacy.

If there’s another wild card, it’s the simmering City Hall bribery scandal. Two contractors, thus far, have pleaded guilty in the cash-for-contracts scheme and others with connections to the city are under federal scrutiny, prompting challengers outside City Hall to declare themselves the rightful good-government crusaders.

On a national level, this race may be defined by the possibility that the cradle of the civil rights movement could elect its first white mayor in more than four decades. That prospect is in play as much because of our city’s changing demographics as the fierce competition among six prominent black candidates.

It has splintered the city’s black community unlike any other recent mayoral election, putting enormous pressure on struggling candidates to drop out. At the same time, aging Atlanta icons who once helped clear the field are struggling to exert the same influence in this race.

Undecided voters still make up a large chunk of the electorate, but it’s getting late, said Michael Leo Owens, an Emory University political scientist.

“The indecision is among the African-American candidates and mainly from African-American voters,” Owens said. “The way those votes break will determine everything.”

And, if history is any guide, the winner will shape the region far beyond the next four years. No Atlanta mayor since Sam Massell in 1973 has lost an election seeking a second term, and several have used the post to catapult themselves into positions of state and national influence. Reed, for one, is widely expected to seek statewide office down the line.

A raft of candidates

Councilwoman Mary Norwood is the odds-on favorite to win one of the runoff spots. After her razor-thin loss to Reed in 2009, she’s painstakingly prepared her comeback bid by spending time in all corners of the city to pitch herself as a white independent who can navigate across party lines.

Polls suggest her message has paid off: She leads among white voters and is either first or second among black voters. Her critics call her a closet Republican and circulate photos of her posing with GOP Rep. Karen Handel to prove it. Sharper attacks are expected to come, especially in the runoff phase, political observers and people tied to the campaigns say. Norwood said she’s not taking anything for granted.

“The polling numbers indicate we may be in the runoff,” she said, “but I run every day full speed ahead.”

Norwood’s perch atop the polls has triggered a fierce competition for second place and a slot in the Dec. 5 runoff. Atlanta Council President Ceasar Mitchell seemed the early pick for the spot, buoyed by high name recognition from four city-wide races, solid fundraising and an affable personality.

But Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms has carved into his support – and surpassed Mitchell in some polls. As the lone black female in the contest, she is banking on distinguishing herself as a champion for racial equity in a city she said often forgets southwest Atlanta, the largely African-American community she represents.

At a Tuesday Atlanta Bicycle Coalition mayoral forum, she recounted the difficulty she had getting a cab or Uber to take her to her southwest Atlanta home after an Atlanta Falcons game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“It’s 2017 in Atlanta and had I not experienced it myself, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she told the audience.

In the same pack is Peter Aman, a former city chief operating officer who once led Bain & Co.’s Atlanta office. He casts himself as the best candidate to guide $15 billion in infrastructure spending over the next eight years – what he calls a “bet the farm situation” – and has cleaved off some of Norwood’s white support.

Then there are the candidates whom many observers see as second-tier, though each has his or her own constituency and is angling to make late moves. They dismiss polling, suggesting the election is very much up for grabs.

Former City Council President Cathy Woolard, who helped kickstart the Beltline when she was in office in the early 2000s, has been endorsed by several gay rights groups. Ex-state Sen. Vincent Fort is positioning himself as the staunchest liberal in the group and touts the support from Sanders and key labor unions to prove it.

Councilmember Kwanza Hall is betting his campaign on support from millennials who embrace his approach to transit, while former Fulton County chairman John Eaves calls himself the trusted administrator with the most experience in public service.

And Michael Sterling, once head of the city’s jobs-training department, cites his background as a federal prosecutor when campaigning as a no-nonsense enemy of corruption.

Just about every one of them contends they have a good chance to win the race, pointing to the strengths of their field operations and the fallibility of polling that still shows nearly one-fifth of the electorate is undecided.

After all, around this point in the 2009 contest, Reed was in third place.

“Not only do you have this 20 percent who are undecided,” said Woolard, who is in single-digits in most polls, “but I think people [who back other candidates] are still persuadable.”

A historic race

It’s a race chock-full of potential firsts. Woolard would be the first openly gay mayor of Atlanta. Eaves could lay claim to being the first black Jewish mayor in the city’s history. And Norwood would be the first politician who doesn’t identify as a Democrat to lead Atlanta in a generation.

Norwood, Aman or Woolard also would be the first white mayor since Massell left City Hall, potentially snapping a nearly 44-year streak of African-American mayors that’s the longest unbroken string in a major city in the nation.

It’s playing out amid seismic changes in the city’s demographics, as an influx of white millennials and aging empty nesters from the suburbs, coupled with a declining black population, has steadily reshaped Atlanta. The black-white split of voting-age Atlantans widened dramatically between 1970 and 1990, but white residents have steadily closed the gap.

Money and endorsements, factors that usually help clear the muddy waters, have only left this contest murkier.

Support from former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and civil rights leader Joseph Lowery Jr. hasn’t propelled Mitchell above his rivals. Neither have Fort’s endorsements from Sanders and former Gov. Roy Barnes. And Reed’s tacit aid to Bottoms — and all-out criticism of her rivals — hasn’t made her the runaway favorite.

Unions and other outside groups have fractured along the same lines as the rest of the electorate.

The city’s main police and fire unions endorsed Norwood, another firefighters union backed Mitchell, several prominent labor unions are behind Fort. The Log Cabin Republicans, which represents a smaller faction of LGBT conservatives, was so divided it hedged its bets by endorsing both Norwood and Mitchell.

The fund-raising fight is just as muddled. The most recent financial disclosures show no clear front-runner and suggest that many of the city’s influential donors are sitting on the sidelines or hedging their bets with donations to multiple candidates.

A ‘wish’ for fewer candidates

If there’s one constant in this race, it’s been exhaustion.

There have been more than 30 forums already, and by some counts there are about that many remaining on the calendar. Some candidates confess, half-kidding, that they can recite the stump speeches and answers of their rivals after so much stage-sharing.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jeff DiSantis, a Democratic strategist who has run a string of statewide races in Georgia. “I’ve never seen anything even close to this.”

At Tuesday’s three-hour Bicycle Coalition forum, the nine major candidates were joined by three less well-known hopefuls — Laban King, Rohit Ammanamanchi and Glenn S. Wrightson, who also qualified for the race. Each was given two minutes to answer such a broad range of questions that they sometimes lost track of the subject.

“Would you please repeat the question?” Sterling asked the moderator at one point, eliciting laughs from the fatigued audience.

Sharanya Thummalapally, who attended the forum, said the field could use some paring. She said she wanted to hear from Woolard on Atlanta’s bicycling infrastructure, and was disappointed her time at the mic was so short.

“I wish there were fewer candidates so I could hear more from the ones I care about,” she said.

But the forums could prove crucial for those who haven’t made up their minds, said Owens, the Emory professor.

“On the one hand, it’s an interesting race. But, on the other, it’s a snooze,” Owens said. “In a lot of ways, you can swap faces and websites and you wouldn’t know the difference.”

Atlanta on the move

The next mayor will potentially inherit infrastructure projects — including the Beltline, the airport, MARTA and roads — on tap for billions of dollars in additional spending. These projects will create economic ripples far beyond the city limits.

And a burst of new construction is testing the city’s willingness to build affordable housing and raising questions about equity and fairness.

“We must include in our vision for ourselves homes for everybody — and follow through in our dream,” said Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who first dreamed up the Beltline and backs Woolard. “That means seeing the Beltline for its successes and its shortcomings. The jury is still out on its affordability and equitability.”

Many voters, meanwhile, say racial issues matter less to them than a range of topics, including transportation, housing affordability, public safety and green space.

“It’s a pivotal moment,” said 33-year-old Jeshua Pringle, who lives in the Lindbergh area. “There is now a huge source of funding for transportation improvements, and we’re rethinking how we use land and zoning. Whoever takes the helm will not just be shaping policy for the next four years, but for decades to come.”

Meet the leading contenders

Name: Peter Aman

Age: 51

Lives in: East Chastain Park

Education: B.A., Duke University; MBA, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business

Work/government experience: Former Partner, Bain & Company; Former Chief Operating Officer, City of Atlanta

Top issue in this race: “Balancing growth with livability, while improving equity. Our population will double, if not triple, in the coming years. We must prepare now for that growth by doing more on education, transportation, public safety, housing, care for our seniors and more. As mayor, I will do more to make sure City Hall works for you.”

Why I’m running: “The next mayor will be in charge of billions of tax dollars to advance our city for everyone. As the only candidate in the race with experience managing a city, I’m running to make sure your tax dollars are spent in a fair, equitable manner so we can advance Atlanta together.”

Name: Keisha Lance Bottoms

Age: 47

Resides: Southwest Atlanta

Education: Bachelor’s in communications from Florida A&M University; law degree from Georgia State University.

Work/government experience: Attorney, former judge and former executive director of Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority. Member of the Atlanta City Council.

Top issue in the race: “The biggest issue we are facing as a city right now is opportunities for our young people, including access to education and youth crime.”

Why I’m running: “It really is about what I want this city to be for my four kids. And it won’t be great for them if it is not great for everybody.”

Name: John Eaves

Age: 55

Lives in: Southwest Atlanta

Education: Bachelor’s degree Morehouse College, master’s degree in divinity from Yale University and Ph.D in educational administration from the University of South Carolina

Work/government experience: Former chairman of the Fulton County Commission, former assistant dean Davidson College, former Peace Corps regional director

Top issue in this race: “I will tell you now, in the 11th hour of the race, affordability is the biggest issue that seemingly comes up regardless of what audience we are before. I think the growth of this city, particularly along the Beltline and in Midtown, has been both a both a blessing and a curse.”

Why I’m running: “It’s my leadership experience. It’s integrity I have used, in terms of how I have led, and then the results and the approach … collaborating with others from a regional perspective.”

Name: Vincent Fort

Age: 61

Lives in: Southwest Atlanta

Education: B.A., Central Connecticut State University; M.A., Atlanta University; coursework toward Ph.D. at Emory University

Work/government experience: Teacher; Georgia state Senate from 1997 to 2017

Top issue in this race: “City Hall has become too focused on what’s good for the insiders instead of the needs of regular people. That’s shown by the three criminal investigations of city government corruption that are currently underway. Every taxpayer dollar that goes to an insider deal is a dollar that can’t be used to build affordable housing to help working people and seniors stay in the city, or to improve infrastructure in neighborhoods that have been ignored for too long.”

Why I’m running: “I’m running because City Hall has lost its way. It has been too focused on what’s good for the 1 percent and forgetting about the regular people who make Atlanta great, as well as the neighborhoods they live in.”

Name: Kwanza Hall

Age: 46

Resides: Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District, Old Fourth Ward

Education: Benjamin E. Mays High School, attended but did not graduate from MIT

Work/government experience: Atlanta School Board, 2002-2005; Atlanta City Council, 2006-present

Top issue in the race: “Putting people and neighborhoods first.”

Why I’m running: “I have been so blessed to serve constituents in District 2, bringing people of all walks of life together to solve problems big and small. Now I want to do that all over the city. I’ll be everybody’s mayor.”

Name: Ceasar Mitchell

Age: 48

Resides: Historic West End

Education: Bachelor’s in economics and English from Morehouse College; law degree from University of Georgia.

Work/government experience: Attorney at DLA Piper, Atlanta City Council president

Top issue in the race: Making Atlanta a city of opportunities, for jobs, quality of life for citizens and quality education for young people.

Why I’m running: “I believe this city is an incredible city of promise. And, as mayor, I want to make sure this city continues to meet its promise to our young people. I want to make sure this city continues to meet its promise to families who move here to pursue a dream.”

Name: Mary Norwood

Age: 65

Lives in: Buckhead

Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from Emory University

Work/government experience: City Councilwoman; former media executive and business owner

Top issue in this race: “I think public safety is always the most important issue. It just is. People need to feel safe and be safe.”

Why I’m running: “I have the trust of citizens all over the city. My vision for the city is an equitable, fair, prosperous, sustainable city.”

Name: Michael Sterling

Age: 35

Lives in: Summerhill community

Education: B.A., Morehouse College; law degree from Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law

Work/government experience: Former federal prosecutor in Chicago; senior adviser to Reed; former director of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency

Top issue in this race: “Everyone deserves to be heard, to be treated fairly and to have public officials who give you their best and are willing to work hard for you. We deserve to look forward without leaving anyone behind. We deserve a city that considers everyone.”

Why I’m running: “I don’t think this is the time to sit on the sidelines and spectate. I am running for all of the true believers who refuse to accept the status quo and believe that we can ask for more, achieve better and include everyone in the promise of Atlanta.”

Name: Cathy Woolard

Age: 60

Lives in: Glenwood Park

Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Georgia

Work/government experience: Former City Council member and president, non-profit executive and small business owner

Top issue in this race: “I think it’s transportation, but I think affordability is a very close second. Transportation has been a problem for so long, it is ubiquitous. Everybody suffers from transportation problems, traffic problems, getting around, the expense of it. Not everybody has the same relationship to affordable housing but virtually everyone realizes that it is a big problem in the city. The displacement of people is really palpable.”

Why I’m running: “I’m fighting for ATL: affordability, transportation, livability.”

>> Visit myAJC.com for continuing coverage of the election, including videos and bios for each candidate.

MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.

The AJC's Leon Stafford keeps you updated on the latest in the Atlanta mayoral race and everything else going on at City Hall. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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