Across Atlanta, shared concerns - and vivid splits - over mayor’s race


The mayor’s race has polarized every region of Atlanta, splintering the black vote as well as those in the majority-white neighborhoods in the city’s northern half. But interviews with dozens of voters across the city show many share the same basic concerns ahead of the Nov. 7 vote.

They’re worried that transportation gridlock will stifle the city’s growth. They demand more affordable housing and fear the side effects of creeping gentrification. They’re concerned about the ongoing federal corruption probe into City Hall. And they want more financial equity, whether it be better city services or simply new incentives for grocery stores to take root.

  • PHOTOS: Meet the Atlanta mayoral candidates

And looming in many conversations was the prospect that the cradle of the civil rights movement could elect its first white mayor in 44 years. With a trio of high-profile white candidates on the ballot, many voters acknowledge that skin color may factor into their decision.

“It should not matter. But it does. It absolutely does,” said Randy Gibbs, an African-American real estate agent running for city council on the city’s southside.

“For Atlanta to be the city it needs to be, people need to be taken care of. There are people who have been historically neglected, and they need to have the opportunity to excel. Too many people don’t have that chance, especially south of I-20.”

And yet it would be short-sighted to assume votes will inevitably cleave upon racial lines. Public polls show Mary Norwood, a white city councilwoman who has led the field in every survey, has formidable support from African-American voters. Several black candidates enjoy significant backing from white voters.

What is clear is that this race will test the city’s dramatic demographic changes again. Black voters first outnumbered white voters in Atlanta in 1970, setting the stage for Maynard Jackson’s election as the city’s first black mayor three years later. The black population reached a peak of 62 percent of the city’s residents in 1990.

By 2009, when Kasim Reed narrowly defeated Norwood, the makeup of the city's voting age population had reached 49 percent black and 44 percent white. And that proportion was almost identical in 2015. White voters in both 2009 elections - general and municipal - actually outnumbered black voters. Some campaign strategists believe the margin will grow next month.

Here are several voices from voters in their communities.

East Atlanta

Few neighborhoods in Atlanta have changed as much since the last wide-open mayoral race eight years ago than this one, a funky but fast-gentrifying territory transformed by an influx of newcomers and the rise of the Beltline.

And interviews reflected many of the same nagging concerns of this fast-changing community. Newcomers wanted more money for roads and transit. Business owners wanted more city services. And one longtime resident, temporarily unemployed, isn’t quite sure what he wanted in his next mayor.

“I’m lost,” said Sean Simmons, a 42-year-old longtime East Atlanta resident. “I really don’t know which one to pick.”

The neighborhood’s mix of dense housing, walkable neighborhoods and nightlife has made it an enticing draw to new Atlantans who also aren’t sure what to make of the crowded field. Logan Wallis, a 29-year-old musician and entertainment coordinator, recently moved to the area from Athens.

“It’s all about infrastructure to me. I see the development all around Atlanta, and there are better roads now,” said Wallis. “But we need to develop the Beltline and mass transit. It’s so crappy getting around this city.”

For others, it’s more of a gut feeling.

“Voters need to think about who has proven character. That’s the most important thing of all,” said Darryl Clinton, a 56-year-old sales representative. “It’s not what they say. It’s what they do.”

He’s a fan of Bottoms, he said, in part because she’s a mother of who shows compassion for the city’s children and families – traits he said are “missing in our country.”

It doesn’t hurt that Bottoms, like Clinton, is African-American.

“I have an affinity for my people. I want my people to do well,” he said. “At the end of the day, though, I’m stacking my folks up based on what they do.”

David Arlinghaus, who is white, is more torn over his decision. A life insurance agent, Arlinghaus is a Republican who isn’t sold on any candidate in the race. He’s got very specific demands.

“Our infrastructure needs to keep up with the growth. Our city services are by far the biggest issue,” he said. “I want someone who is fiscally conservative and can take care of the blocking and tackling.”

Case in point, he pointed to an empty bin down the street: “This is an amazing day because the trashcan is not overflowing down the street.”

He can’t help but think about the crowded GOP presidential primary from last year when thinking about his decision.

“There are so many people and none of them have grabbed me. None of them have broken through the clutter,” he said.

- Greg Bluestein

Southeast Atlanta

It’s hard for Melissa Jones to put her finger on why, but she can’t help but feel a measure of ambivalence about the mayor’s race.

As she evaluates the crowded race for mayor – and no, she’s quick to say, she hasn’t picked her candidate yet – she’s worried the contenders have no chance to help her southeast Atlanta community no matter the snap of their soundbytes.

“Whoever gets in office, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all how the money flows,” said Jones. “Even if I can find a candidate who lines up with my values, will they be able to do anything? I’m not sure.”

Interviews with voters across this community, where postcard-perfect historic neighborhoods share streets with blighted eye-sores and sprawling vacant lots, echo other Atlantans on the need to fight crime and gridlock as they make up their minds ahead of the Nov. 7 election.

But they also bemoan the lack of development, the dearth of decent housing, the void of basic amenities that other communities may take for granted.

“We need stores. We need better housing. And we need more restaurants so we don’t have to go outside the neighborhood to sit down and eat or to go shopping,” said Yvonne Young, a retiree. “I’m tired of it.”

Greg Clark, a 39-year-old who works in logistics, has been searching for an affordable place to live in southeast Atlanta for about six months. He hasn’t decided who he’s voting for yet, but he’s enthused by several candidates from “the inner city.” He’s asked if that’s a code word for an African-American hopeful.

“It doesn’t matter if the next mayor is white or black – I don’t want to sound biased. But it does matter where they’re from,” said Clark, who is black. “If you have someone from Middle America, they don’t get it. They don’t get Atlanta. We want someone from the city who understands the city.”

Others shared the same caustic mix of frustration and hope. Randy Gibbs, a real estate agent caught taking a selfie after casting an early ballot at the Southeast Atlanta Branch library, said the focus on big-ticket developments and pricey stadiums has robbed his community of badly-needed attention.

“It’s nice when we build new things. But we need to bring the resources into the poorer areas. We need to spend money on incentives to create jobs, to end the food deserts here, to fight income and housing inequality,” he said. “Long story short: The politicians need to take care of people.”

That’s where the measure of hope comes in. The Beltline’s expansion across a slice of southeast Atlanta promises an explosion of new development. So does the creeping wave of development southward and the overhaul of the former Turner Field, now a Georgia State University property.

Jones, the art educator, warns that potential comes with a price. She hopes it doesn’t purge the neighborhood of longtime African-American residents like herself who don’t have the bank accounts to keep pace with rising rents.

“I’m old-fashioned. I want equity. I’m seeing a shift in the neighborhoods. Gentrification is coming, and it’s dividing the community,” said Jones. “I don’t want to see low-income people displaced. I don’t want to see whole neighborhoods reshaped.”

So who best reflects her hopes? Despite her admitted cynicism, she’s definitely going to cast a ballot. And though she acknowledges the racial divide “crosses my mind,” she said two other factors will shape her vote.

“It’s ethics that matters. Mayors of color haven’t always been ethical,” she said. “I want to see diversity in leadership, but what I really want to see is a woman leader. Women bring another perspective. Women enrich the decision-making process.”

- Greg Bluestein

West and Southwest Atlanta

The A&M Barber Shop sits less than a mile south from the jagged triangular panels of the new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Civic leaders had promised economic revitalization to justify massive public subsidies for the home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, but Tony Thomas, 52, scoffed at the notion that it benefited people like him.

Thomas grew up in the housing projects across the street from A&M and has spent 25 years as a barber.

As he slapped shaving cream on a customer’s scalp last week, Thomas said new projects like the stadium and other developments throughout the city’s westside may transform the landscape and line developer’s pockets, but they also push out longtime residents. Eventually, he expects the barbershop will also be forced to leave.

His plea to the candidates: “Quit being politicians. Be for the people.”

When he looks at the crowded field of candidates, no one stands out to Thomas. Still, he intends to vote.

He initially said that the prospect of Atlanta having a white mayor for the first time in 30 years did not concern him “as long as they do the right thing.”

But then he said past mayors have focused on the northern end of the city at the expense of the southern end and that a white mayor might be more apt to continue that trend.

“There’s a fine line between being a politician and being for the people,” said Thomas, who is black.

In a Walmart parking lot off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Shafiqha Clark had a very different view of Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s efforts in the community.

As she took a long drag on a cigarette, she talked about the debt she owed to Blank for helping to fund the Westside Works job-training program through his family foundation. She said the program helped her get her certified nursing assistant license last year - and got her thinking about the more positive aspects of the city’s transformation.

“It’s time for a change,” said Clark, 30.

A nearby chain link fence guarded freshly dug earth. A sign on the fence indicated a Chick-fil-A would soon arrive. In the distance, the beige cement siding on newly constructed townhomes rose above trees.

“They are closing stores down,” Clark said. “They are building new sidewalks, planting trees. A lot of older people, like my mom, they are enjoying it, because they get to see something different … nobody hanging out on the corner.”

Six miles west, Kimberly Monroe, 35, was picking up her 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son from the Adamsville Recreation Center.

Monroe, who works in the human resources department of a security firm, said promises of affordable housing as a result of the Beltline project haven’t yet materialized. She has seen generations of families forced to move in together and neighbors lose their homes.

Crime also seems to be rising, said Monroe. The father of her children was murdered at a gas station up the street this past June. And she’s still trying to figure out which of the candidates will do the most to help the working poor.

A short drive south at Louisiana Seafood, Neka Anderson said she’s narrowed her choice down to Ceasar Mitchell or Keisha Lance Bottoms. Both have visited her neighborhood and met her in person, a fact she won’t forget.

Of all the issues in the mayor’s race, Anderson was most concerned about crime. On the weekends, thieves come into the store and snatch the tip jar or an $18 bag of crab legs and run out the door. Police rarely catch them. Community policing, she said, is a must.

“This area is drug infested,” she said. “We have a lot of a break-ins.”

- Stephen Deere

Buckhead

In the narrow streets crisscrossing the latest batch of gleaming Buckhead towers, Greer Craig is rushing to get her son to a music class when she carves out a few minutes to chat about her biggest concerns in next month’s election.

Craig is not sure who she’s supporting yet, but whoever it is best have crime at the top of his or her agenda.

“My sister’s car got stolen up the street and tons of cars have been vandalized in the area,” she said. “I’m probably going to vote, and that’s my main issue.”

Home to the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, Buckhead is generally more conservative and whiter than the rest of the city. And while long-standing issues like crime and traffic dominate the discussion, more progressive concerns about affordable housing and inclusionary zoning.

Samuel Elliott, 57, lives in a senior tower off Sidney Marcus Boulevard and is dependent on his fixed income. He said race shouldn’t matter in the election, but it will. And he wants a mayor not solely for black Atlantans like himself but one who can positively represent the city on the international stage.

At the top of his list are concerns that budget gridlock in Washington D.C. and leaner federal funding may gut affordable housing, transit and health care programs.

“It comes down to funding,” he said. “Right now, so much stuff is up in the air with government funding.”

For Susan Horner, the potential of the city’s first white mayor in generations isn’t a factor. The ongoing federal corruption probe into the city’s operations is.

“There are too many bad decisions going on at City Hall, and we need to take a better look at how to fight the corruption,” said Horner, a 60-year-old retired benefits manager.

Also sharing the top of her agenda: The same sense of inequity that plagues residents in other parts of the city.

“I don’t think we’re getting the services that we’re paying for here,” said Horner, who is white. “And I’m very concerned about that.”

Around the corner at the steel-framed Buckhead Library, where a handful of voters cast early ballots last week, Sandra LeCounte emerged with a wide grin on her face.

She had just cast her ballot for a candidate who “is for all the people” – although she wouldn’t say which one.

“A lot of the seniors are forgotten,” said LeCounte, a 71-year-old retiree. “We have health concerns, we need someone who thinks about people like me. We need someone who remembers that everyone is on this Earth – together.”

- Greg Bluestein

-- Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this report.

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Why the Atlanta mayor’s race is worth knowing

The next mayor will impact all of metro Atlanta, and the economy of the Southeast. In our series Election 2017, we examine how a lack of affordable housing means fewer new companies – and new jobs – moving here. 

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