As soon as the top two finishers in Tuesday’s Atlanta mayoral election became apparent, so did their strategies for the next stage of the campaign: find a message that resonates with the 52,000 people who voted for someone else.
Early Wednesday morning, election workers were still tallying votes in a contest with eight credible candidates, but the incomplete returns left no doubt that Keisha Lance Bottoms had won at least one spot in a Dec. 5 runoff.
With that victory behind her, she began extending the olive branches on which the rest of her candidacy depends.
“I am a better leader having spent the last year with the people who have sacrificed to run for mayor,” Bottoms said.
Bottom’s opponent Mary Norwood left her election watch event before the tally was complete, seemingly aware that she needed to rest up for the next few weeks.
Norwood’s campaign had scheduled a press conference for Wednesday afternoon, but canceled it in favor of a strategy session to figure out where Norwood policies aligned with those of the campaigns she had competed against hours earlier.
Both campaigns had good reason to pursue people who voted for the half-dozen or so other credible candidates.
In Tuesday’s election, Bottoms and Norwood earned 25,000 and 20,000 votes, respectively. But nearly 97,000 people cast ballots in the race.
A couple of the candidates who finished behind the two winners issued statements on Wednesday saying that they were grateful for the support they had received and for the renewed focus to the issues about which they cared most.
“Atlanta can have affordable housing at every income level,” said former City Council President Cathy Woolard, who finished third with 17 percent of the vote. “Atlanta can have a world class transit system …”
Former Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman said his campaign had “elevated the conversation on education and early childhood development, homelessness, race, transportation, and other key issues.”
Aman finished fourth the race with Former state senator Vincent Fort a step behind him. Altogether, Woolard, Aman and Fort received roughly 36,000 votes. On Wednesday, none of the three candidates gave much of an indication of how they might spend the political capital they built over the year – or if they would endorse anyone in the runoff.
“It’s less than 24 hours after the campaign,” Fort said, who had built a diverse coalition of progressives. “I’m going to meet with those folks that want to meet with me.”
'My size 5 heels'
Norwood entered the contest as the presumptive front-runner.
She had the most name recognition and nearly defeated outgoing Mayor Kasim Reed in 2009. But Aman and Woolard whittled away at her support, casting her as an uninspired and ineffective politician.
Her support among black Atlantans, always a source of pride, dropped as Reed and several of the black candidates upped their attacks.
At the same time, the Democratic Party of Georgia ratcheted up the pressure earlier.
In the last race, the party spent more than $165,000 assailing Norwood in the runoff. In this one, state Democrats launched the first attack in October, painting her as “Mary the Republican” and warning that she could be the first non-Democrat to win the city’s top job since 1881.
Norwood, a self-described independent, mostly ignored chances to pummel her opponents.
She tells audiences that she voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in last year’s election, but that her solid standing with conservatives – polls showed she dominated among Republicans – shows she can work across the aisle.
“I intend to reach out to all the voters across the city,” Norwood said Wednesday. “My Size 5 heels have walked all over this city for 25 years – and they will continue to do so.”Norwood pointed to a list of Democratic and independent supporters on her own website, which she called “Georgia Dems for Mary.”
Over the next four weeks, she’ll face more sustained attacks from Reed, Bottoms and the state’s Democratic machinery. And she’ll be looking for any chance she can to highlight support from outside the GOP establishment.
“Look at Mary’s attendees for her victory party,” said Jeremy Collins, an Atlanta Republican who nodded to her black, Hispanic and Asian supporters in a cramped ballroom. “She has a diverse coalition that’s representative of a truly independent campaign for all Atlanta.”
'I'll have to vote for her'
Bottoms also entered the race with advantages. She was the lone African American female in the race in a city where 58 percent of the electorate are woman and where black woman make up the largest group of Super Voters – those who have voted at least five times in the past four years.
She also received the endorsement of Mayor Kasim Reed. It wasn’t clear what effect that endorsement would have with an ongoing federal probe at city hall.
But the election results indicated that Reed’s support helped Bottoms. In fact, the candidates with the most ardent anti-corruption messages didn’t fare as well.
And some of their supporters said in interviews that they would support Bottoms over Norwood if their candidate didn’t make the runoff.
James Hodo, a 73-year-old disabled veteran, said his top picks were former state Sen. Vincent Fort and City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. Both had taken strong anti-corruption messages.
Asked about Bottoms, Hodo said, “she’s not ready for it.”
“But I’ll have to vote for her if there’s a runoff,” he added. “She understands the city’s problems, at least.”
Lillian Rainwater, an 88-year-old retiree, said her top priority was electing a Democrat. Asked about Norwood, she responded: “I’m a Democrat, and I’m just not going to vote for a Republican.”