Opinion: Democrats lay claim to Atlanta — for better or worse

It’s hardly breaking news that Atlanta is Democratic territory. It has long elected Democrats to the state and U.S. capitols and borne a deep blue in statewide contests. And although its mayoral elections are officially nonpartisan, no one has bothered trying to get to City Hall as a card-carrying Republican in a long time.

Still, it was jarring to watch the Democratic Party of Georgia itself dive headlong into this year’s election, in which a loud-and-proud Democrat, Keisha Lance Bottoms, defeated a self-described “progressive independent,” Mary Norwood, by less than 800 votes in this past week’s run-off.

It’s one thing for a candidate to wave the party’s flag or accuse her opponent — however falsely — of being on the other team. It’s another to watch the Democratic Party spend six figures to defeat someone considered by its own metrics a reliable Democratic voter.

Long story short: Atlanta was, is and shall remain run by Democrats.

Even if that’s not news, it potentially complicates things for the party as it tries to regain control of the governor’s mansion next year. Atlanta has a lot of things going for it, but consider how it rates on two of the big issues Democrats will no doubt raise in 2018.

The city not only features one of the most stark income divides in America, but it’s one of the hardest places in this country to climb from the bottom of the income ladder to the top. According to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, a child in Atlanta whose family ranks in the bottom quartile for income has just a 4.5 percent chance of reaching the top quartile.

Democrats haven’t solved this problem in Atlanta, but they’re going to improve equality and mobility in the rest of the state?

One widely accepted prerequisite for improving one’s prospects is a quality education. The state Democratic Party doesn’t need to spend six figures for us to know that, like City Hall, Atlanta’s schools have been in predominantly Democratic hands for decades. How’s that working out?

Not well, even though the No. 1 Democratic criticism of education policy during Republicans’ 13 years calling all the shots in state government — a lack of funding — hasn’t been a problem. Not by a long shot.

The Georgia Department of Education reports average per pupil funding in the 2016-17 school year was $9,417 statewide. For Atlanta Public Schools it was $15,625, or 66 percent higher than the statewide average. This discrepancy is nothing new.

Yet, when the state last month released its list of 104 chronically under-performing schools, 16 of them were in Atlanta, tied with equally Democratic DeKalb County for the most of any system. (Neither system had any schools chosen this past week for the state’s new turnaround program. The 11 schools selected are in five county systems in or south of Macon. All five spend more than the state average per pupil. Four of the five counties went for Hillary Clinton last year; she lost by just 2 points in the other one.)

Maybe, just maybe, the usual Democratic prescription for what ails Georgia’s schools isn’t much of a cure.

Income mobility and education are key issues in next year’s elections. But I’m not sure it would be very smart of Democrats to campaign on doing for Georgia what they’ve done on these issues for Atlanta.

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