The mayor’s race: Is Atlanta ready to elect a white leader?


— Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, at the AJC’s Pints and Politics event Monday night, telling voters not to make too much of talk about a sweeping new era at City Hall.

The last time a white candidate was elected mayor of Atlanta, he won 90 percent of the black vote.

That was in 1969, and the candidate was Sam Massell, the latest in an unbroken succession of white mayors for 125 years. But then came Maynard Jackson — a brash and bold son of Atlanta with a million-dollar smile — who unseated Massell and changed the course of city history. Tens of thousands of white people streamed out of the city in the next decade, and new black politicians consolidated power.

In 2017 white flight has boomeranged. White millennials in particular are backtracking into the city. Forty-four percent of voting-age Atlantans are white. The current mayor, Kasim Reed, barely defeated Mary Norwood, a white city councilwoman, in 2009.

Atlanta seems poised once again to choose a white mayor. But decades after Maynard Jackson, does the race of the mayor matter as it once did? Would a white person’s election mean the city remains racially polarized, or would it signal that Atlanta is even more racially progressive than ever, or both?

» MORE: The role of endorsements in the mayor’s race

For many black voters, Atlanta’s significance as both city and symbol cannot be overstated. Under African-American leadership, they’ve seen the city become the fabled “Black Mecca,” a cultural and financial center like few others in the United States.

“Symbolically, it’s going to be earth shattering for Atlanta,” Emory University political scientist Michael Leo Owens said of the prospect of a white mayor.

Diagram: The friends and enemies of Atlanta's mayors

Tracing some of the most influential alliances, feuds, and proxy wars that have made up the sprawling political machine that Maynard Jackson built.

For a sense of the city’s political disposition, listen to the voices on Atlanta’s Beltline last week:

Mike Barber, who has lived in Atlanta for 22 years, was meeting up with a group of black cyclists for a weekly ride: “This was Martin Luther King Jr.’s city. This is the most we have ever had and we are going to let somebody come in here and take it? But the city is corrupt. You see that at City Hall. And when the city is corrupt, what are they going to do? Send in the white folks to take over.”

Buddy Williams, a white resident who moved to Atlanta two years ago: “I assume for some people (race) would be important, but for me personally, it would not be important at all, The color of your skin has zero to do with your ability to relate to other people, to understand the issues and to make Atlanta better. What does any of that have to do with skin color?”

‘It is a whole new ballgame’

Mary Norwood, who lost to Reed by 714 votes eight years ago, is back this year, leading a field of eight serious candidates who would succeed Reed. She’s facing some of the most visible and influential black politicians in the city, plus two other white candidates with strong credentials:

Former Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman; City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms; state Sen. Vincent Fort; Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves; City Councilman Kwanza Hall; City Council President Ceasar Mitchell; and former City Council President Cathy Woolard. (Michael Sterling, former head of the city’s workforce development agency, dropped out of the race this week.) Of the eight, Aman, Norwood and Woolard are white. 

A victory for one of the white candidates is hardly a foregone conclusion, but the path is open.

» Tell us about your experience of race

“They thought it was going to be the case after Shirley Franklin in 2009. All of the indicators were there and Norwood came very close,” said former state representative and publisher of the “State of Black Atlanta,” Bob Holmes. “It is a whole new ballgame. Now you have two or three white candidates who have different followings and a core of support.”

Black voters are still a larger group than white voters, but both groups have long contained crossover voters. In the runoff between Norwood and Reed in 2009, Norwood carried 15 percent of predominantly black precincts, while Reed carried 16 percent of predominantly white ones.

Angelo Fuster, who worked on the staffs of three Atlanta mayors starting with Jackson in 1977, said the color of the city’s leader matters to a lot of people, but not to everyone.

“There are some voters who will not deviate from their race, but the numbers that will make a difference are looking at experience, character and ideas,” Fuster said. “They are well beyond race.”

Race ‘hasn’t come into play’

Eight years after her narrow defeat, Norwood is the early front-runner.

In a March Channel 2 Action News poll of 1,200 likely voters, Norwood was the only candidate in double digits: 28.6 percent. The closest competitor, Vincent Fort, had 9.3 percent.

Norwood says her support comes from every corner of the city, and she did campaign heavily in black districts in 2009. Even now, however, most of her larger donors are in her home base of Buckhead.

“People trust that I am gonna help them,” she said in an interview. “That is why there is support and why I have gotten contributions from every part of the city… . [Race] hasn’t come into play at any event I have attended.”

Her opponents say she’s kidding herself. On April 25, Norwood was notably absent from a major candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, and the NAACP at Atlanta Technical College.

"If Mary Norwood thinks it doesn’t matter to come down here, then she shouldn’t be mayor,” said Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP. “Appealing to us is more than showing up at black funerals and senior citizen centers.”

Her absence also left an opening to ding her.

“I believe Mary Norwood is trying very hard to avoid these forums,” said Aman, who accused Norwood of skipping debates that address equity, race or diversity. “Mary has a tendency, when she gets past 30 seconds, to say things that are unwise.”

In an email, a Norwood spokesperson said the candidate missed one of those meetings because of illness and the other two because she had previously scheduled events.

‘Can’t avoid the discussion of race’

After the Atlanta Tech debate, Aman and Woolard stuck around, shaking hands and campaigning until everyone was kicked out.

“I haven’t had anybody say that race is a factor to my face. I just think people want to make sure that all of us are appealing to everyone,” Woolard said. “Make sure that we are covering every neighborhood. And that conversation has been consistent. We all know that the city is growing, so how do we guide that growth in a way that is fair?”

» Graphic: Watch Georgia change before your eyes

Aman, an adviser to Franklin and Reed’s COO, said through his campaign he has been advised by a host of black leaders on how to address race. Some tell him to lead with race. Other tell him to lead with his record.

“When you think about Atlanta you have to start with an understanding that for 44 years, black Atlanta mayors have built an amazing city and I will do everything I can to honor that,” Aman said. “You can’t avoid the discussion of race in politics and in Atlanta. This is a discussion we should have. People are conscious of race and that topic comes up. But after you have a discussion with them, what they are concerned about is what can the city provide.”

Perhaps the most telling question Aman has gotten on the trail is how he would preserve cultural markers that former mayors planted. Would he, for example, keep the Mayor’s Masked Ball, which raises money for the United Negro College Fund.

“Of course I am going to keep it,” Aman said. “The only difference is we are going to raise twice as much money for it.”

Detroit: ‘Black, brown and broke’

If Atlanta elects Norwood, Aman or Woolard, it will join a handful of predominantly black cities across the country that now have white mayors.

New Orleans and Detroit, each of which had back-to-back black mayors for two decades or more, have elected white mayors in the past five years. In 2011, frustrated as his city crumbled around him, Detroit News columnist Bill Johnson penned a controversial column: Should Detroit’s next mayor be white?

In 2013, Detroit, which Johnson said was “black, brown and broke under black mayors,” elected its first white mayor since 1969 — the same year Massell was elected in Atlanta.

» MORE: Shared concerns, vivid splits over the mayor’s race

“Since Detroit had black mayors, the city experienced significant decline, white flight, a loss of manufacturing jobs, corruption and a bankruptcy. It was the worse-run city in America,” said Johnson, who has since retired. “It went from having a prosperous black population to losing everything.”

While Detroit’s string of black mayors coincided with the collapse of the auto industry, perhaps feeding unfairly into that narrative, cities like Atlanta, Denver and Cincinnati have thrived under black leaders.

The first white mayor in New Orleans since 1978 is now in his second term. Mitch Landrieu tried unsuccessfully to unseat Ray Nagin in 2006 but came back to win in 2010 and again in 2014.

Cheron Brylski, a political consultant and speechwriter for Mayor Ernest Morial, said black voters weren’t ready to embrace Landrieu in 2006.

“What became a battle cry was, ‘Don’t let them turn back the clock,’” Brylski said.

But Nagin’s negatives, particularly his response to Hurricane Katrina, opened the way for Landrieu.

“After those four years, and it was clear that Nagin had struggled in his second term, the public was much more receptive,” she said.

Increasingly, Brylski believes the pendulum may be swinging back in New Orleans. And it’s coming from a surprising source: white millennials. Conscious of past injustices against people of color, white millennials are willing to give a black candidate a look much earlier than a white contender as a way of balancing the past, she said.

“It’s almost an overcompensation,” she said.

Emory political scientist Michael Leo Owens, who specializes in urban politics, said the need to have a black mayor doesn’t carry the weight it did in the past. In the ’70s it was revolutionary — a strong assertion of power for people who had never had power. 

Today, however, voters are more pragmatic. In Detroit, Owens said, voters want the basics important to all taxpayers — street lights, good schools, fire protection.

“To some, (the election of a white mayor in Atlanta) will be sad,” Owens said. “But for others, they will say this is the 21st century. The things that might have animated voters in the past in the city of Atlanta don’t animate them in the same way in contemporary Atlanta.”

More bike lanes and wine bars

The “Maynard Machine” that catapulted black mayors into office and kept them there for four decades has come undone. Jackson and those who followed him relied on black voting strength centered in the city’s public housing units, in its churches and in the elite black middle class that his election helped to foster.

The public housing units have been dismantled; members of some of the city’s top African-American churches now live outside the city in areas such as the affluent Smokerise community in DeKalb County.

“There’s an exodus from the central city of folks you used to be able to count on,” Harvey Newman, professor emeritus at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

Those changes became apparent in the Reed-Norwood election in 2009.

The machinery that Maynard set up lasted until Kasim, but it doesn’t exist anymore,” said Tom Houck, onetime driver for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and longtime political observer. “The projects don’t exist anymore and the people in those poor, but politically active neighborhoods, have died and been replaced by younger, hipper and cooler people. And these white kids moving in don’t know who those people were. They just want more bike lanes, wine bars and the Beltline.”

‘As it turns out, he was right’

It is not an overstatement to say that Maynard Jackson’s victory in 1973 helped to shape a black middle class in Atlanta.

Joyce Lightfoot, on a walk on the Atlanta Beltline last week, said having a black mayor will continue to attract young, progressive black people to Atlanta, just as it attracted her in 1978.

She moved to Atlanta from New Jersey largely because of Jackson’s overwhelming presence and the “Black Mecca” image that offered an HBCU community, a thriving social scene and upward mobility.

“My husband pushed to come to Atlanta because of the people who were in office, and he thought it was a nice place to raise a new family. As it turns out, he was right,” Lightfoot said. “It has been an awesome place and a wonderful experience with the growth of the city and the growth of the Southeast.”

That extraordinary growth has also created some problems of its own.

‘This election will shake things up’

Mike Koblentz, chairman of the Northwest Community Alliance, which has held several candidate forums, singled out gentrification as an issue that could divide voters on racial lines. Some black voters fear that elderly African-Americans or poor residents could be driven out by rising home costs; voting along color lines could serve as a check against gentrifying.

“It’s unfortunate that there is as much voting along racial lines as it is,” Koblentz said. “We have made progress, but I would be blind if I said that we don’t still have much further to go.”

Even so, where race mattered in the past, class is now the central challenge, said Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, which advocates for workers and civil rights.

Finding someone willing to address the needs of the poor and working poor is much more useful than having representation of a person of like race, she said. 

“As I look at this election, I think it will shake things up,” Scott said. “If you looked at the last 20 years of leadership, I’m not sure if black people have fared well. I’m not mourning the loss of black leaders because I don’t think they helped poor black people.”

Commenting for this article is being moderated by AJC editors.

The RE: Race team


Ernie Suggs

AJC news reporter


Bo Emerson

AJC features and news reporter


Rosalind Bentley

AJC news reporter


Willoughby Mariano

AJC investigative reporter


Helena Oliviero

AJC features reporter


John Perry

AJC data specialist


Erica A. Hernandez

AJC multimedia journalist


Pete Corson

AJC audience specialist


María Alejandra Bastidas

Editor of MundoHispánico


Marcelo Wheelock

Senior editor of MundoHispánico


Richard Halicks

AJC senior editor


Leroy Chapman

AJC deputy managing editor



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