Atlanta mayoral candidates likely need diverse coalition to win


A few days before Tuesday’s election, a robocall went out to voters, urging them to “keep Atlanta black” by choosing Keisha Lance Bottoms for mayor. Bottoms quickly condemned the message, which she said had no connection to her campaign.

At a September voter forum, mayoral candidate Mary Norwood stumbled in her answer to a question about racial profiling. Her team was swift in issuing a clarification, mindful that a slip up could hurt her standing with black voters, a demographic she’s courted through numerous citywide campaigns, including her two runs for mayor.

Once more, an Atlanta mayoral election is going into overtime. And, like the last heavily contested race in 2009, it will pit a black candidate against a white one. How much of a factor race will play has yet to be determined, but both Bottoms, who is black, and Norwood, who is white, are extremely cognizant of this: It will take a diverse coalition to sweep the next mayor into office.

The subtext of the Dec. 5 runoff — that a 40-year string of African-American mayors could end — is ever present. The city’s population has grown whiter since Mayor Kasim Reed narrowly beat Norwood in 2009, and with the number black and white voters almost evenly split, race will come into play, political observers say.

Hence, both campaigns have been quick to get ahead of issues with potentially thorny racial reverberations.

“It’s in no one’s interest for the runoff to become highly racialized,” said Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University.

That said, Atlanta elections can’t escape questions about race. Precinct data showed clear dividing lines in Tuesday’s election in which eight major candidates fought it out for a spot in the runoff.

The whiter and more affluent communities on the east side of Midtown, east Atlanta and Buckhead largely went for white candidates, and mostly black neighborhoods to the west, as well as downtown and neighborhoods south of I-20, turned out for African-American candidates.

“Atlanta is a place that really doesn’t want to talk about it,” Owens said of politics and race. “The maps always have shown you there’s a racial dividing line.”

An early examination of turnout showed a new wrinkle — neighborhoods in east Atlanta that turned out in 2009 for Norwood largely went for another white candidate this time around. Former City Council President Cathy Woolard was the top vote-getter in a number of east Atlanta precincts.

The makeup of those districts has grown whiter but also more liberal since 2009, and Woolard’s supporters will help determine who becomes the city’s 60th mayor.

Bottoms and Norwood combined to pull nearly half of Tuesday’s vote in the race for mayor. Their work will now concentrate on earning the support of the other half that split their votes among the losing candidates.

Oglethorpe University political science professor Kendra King Momon said the winning candidate will need Woolard supporters, but also will have to win over those who backed Peter Aman, Vincent Fort, Ceasar Mitchell and Kwanza Hall.

“I do believe gaining the endorsements of some of the male candidates who ran unsuccessfully but have strong name recognition will be essential as well,” Momon said.

No easy path to victory

Bottoms’ up-by-the-bootstraps bio resonates. Her father was incarcerated when she was a child and her mother had to scrape to make ends meet. Still, Bottoms earned a law degree, served on the bench and won a seat on the City Council.

Norwood, a former media executive, has a 25-year record as a community activist. In her citywide council seat, she’s worked for constituents from Bankhead to her Buckhead base and nearly won the mayor’s race eight years ago with a broad and diverse coalition of voters.

Bottoms benefited from Mayor Reed’s endorsement, which helped her jump to the top of the pack. But his harsh criticism of many of her opponents could complicate her efforts to lock up their support.

Democratic Party forces have tried to brand Norwood a “closeted Republican” in the non-partisan race. The head of the Young Democrats of America told the crowd at Bottoms’ Election Night rally that the city could ill-afford to fall into Republican hands, a not-so-veiled dig at Norwood.

Norwood, a self-described independent, has tried to take attacks against her in stride.

Leading in most polls until the final days of the race, Norwood didn’t fire many direct shots at her fellow opponents. But she’s had to deflect a wave of criticism after an October forum when her rivals said she failed to sufficiently condemn the policies of President Donald Trump.

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.

She’ll also try to leverage the same knack for showing up at events across the city that helped make her a popular councilwoman.

At her Election Night party in Buckhead, supporters pointed to a lively and diverse crowd with black, white, Hispanic and Asian voters.

Speaking in third-person at her campaign party late Tuesday, Norwood said to expect in a runoff that “Mary will once again be everywhere in the city.”

Ralph May, a community activist and Bottoms supporter, said Bottoms will ensure that Atlanta remains a place of opportunity and sanctuary for people of color, the LGBTQ community and immigrants.

“This is Atlanta. We are Keisha’s supporters. We are people of color. We are Atlanta’s daughters. We are your Muslim co-worker,” May said from the stage at Bottoms’ Election Night rally.

May said Bottoms will also fight the policies and rhetoric coming out of the Trump White House.

“We deserve a mayor who will object to hatred and bigotry that come from Washington,” May said.

‘People want fairness’

James Wentz, who is white and lives in Midtown, said he supports Norwood because of her support for the LGBTQ community, and her pledge to make government more transparent and accountable amid the federal bribery investigation at City Hall.

“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.”

He said he doesn’t care about the race of the next mayor as long as the winner is “inclusive and understanding of all cultures.”

Jim Thompson, a building maintenance technician, was critical of the Reed administration for spending public money on stadiums that “could have went to neighborhoods and the city.”

Asked whether it matters if Atlanta is led by a black or white mayor, Thompson, who is black, paused.

“That’s a hard one. It matters, but the urbanist ideology matters more,” he said. That is, protecting public space, completing the Beltline and expanding transit while also addressing the inequality that Thompson said has plagued the city for as long as he’s lived here.

Kesli Queen Robinson, who is black, is the CEO of EGM Services, a family-owned construction company. She supports Bottoms in part because of her message of economic inclusivity and commitment to giving contractors of all sizes a fair shake at city business.

Robinson said she did not expect race to define a Bottoms-Norwood finale.

“People want fairness. They want transparency,” she said. “I think both of them can provide that.”

Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Meris Lutz contributed to this report.

MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.

The AJC keeps you updated on the candidates, the issues, what voters are saying and much more. And since the next mayor will impact all of metro Atlanta, and the economy of the Southeast, we’ll examine the results of a new poll that suggests there’s still a gulf between blacks and whites in the South. We’re your source for continued comprehensive coverage of the 2017 mayoral runoff as Atlanta returns to the polls Dec. 5.

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