The themes were familiar — personal finances, City Hall corruption, party affiliations and the influence of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
But in the Atlanta’s mayoral candidates’ final appearance in front of a mass television audience before Tuesday’s runoff, the issue of race sparked some of the sharpest exchanges between the two women.
When City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms introduced herself at Sunday’s The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / Channel 2 Action News debate, she highlighted her personal history as a fifth-generation black Atlantan and a product of the Atlanta public schools who became a lawyer and judge despite a father who served time in prison.
“I am Atlanta,” she declared.
Norwood would be the city’s first white mayor in 44 years if she is elected Tuesday.
Among Norwood’s first words were two names: former Mayor Shirley Franklin and City Council President Ceasar — two prominent African-American local political figures who have endorsed her during the runoff.
Bottoms touted the endorsements of U. S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — both of whom visited Atlanta over the weekend.
As the debate progressed, Norward soon had to answer why she declared herself an independent in a majority Democratic city.
“I have chosen to be an independent because that’s who I am,” Norwood said. “When you look at my voting record and the allegations about voting Republican, well there was no Democratic ballot in the district I live in.”
But Norwood said she holds progressive views, including being a supporter of marriage equality before it was popular.
In contrast, Bottoms told viewers that she couldn’t recall an instance “where I ever disagreed with our party in terms of what the values are of our party … I have never once voted for a Republican candidate and never once for an independent candidate. Since I was 18, I have only voted for Democrats because I support the values of the Democratic Party.”
But Bottoms also had to explain state and federal tax liens against her and her husband Derek.
“The voters have known about those liens because I have been public about the property that I own,” Bottoms said, citing her financial disclosures with the city.
Bottoms said both liens resulted from financial difficulty when the couple was having to pay for fertility treatments.
“Like many other people, my husband and I had to make very tough choices as to how we would spend our money,” Bottoms said. “Would it be toward our taxes or would it be towards our medical treatments.”
Bottoms then pivoted to liens in recent years on properties she said belonged to Norwood’s family.
Norwood said the properties belong to her brother. She said she was listed in the documents because the properties were once held in a family trust, but they were acquired by her youngest brother after their mother died in 2012.
The most confusing moment of the debate occurred when Bottoms took Norwood to task over a telemarketing company that Norwood owned that was once a city vendor. Bottoms said the company was left off of Norwood’s personal financial disclosures and once had $184,000 tax bill.
Norwood said she owned the company before serving on the council.
Norwood called Bottoms suggestions of financial misdealing “an amazing recitation of the facts.”
But when Norwood tried elucidate those facts, she provided a long-winded answer that didn’t appear to get to the basis for Bottoms’ charges until prompted by the debate panel.
Reed’s shadow or sexism?
Throughout the evening, Bottoms most significant challenge was dealing with the presence of a man who wasn’t in the room — Reed.
Reed is leaving office with City Hall under the cloud of federal bribery investigation. He has never been identified as a person of interest and has pledged to cooperate with federal authorities. But he has endorsed Bottoms.
Asked if she would be an extension of Reed’s administration, Bottoms called the question sexist.
“That question is really an affront to every woman like my mother who raises girls to be strong women,” Bottoms said.
But Norwood cited a moment when Bottoms said the only difference between her Reed was that she could smile “when I cut you.”
Bottoms snapped back at Norwood, saying that comment was a joke and accused Norwood of trying to portray her as an angry black woman.
Bottoms downplayed Norwood’s endorsements from four people who were both of their opponents in the general election.
“It really has become a club of who hates Kasim Reed,” Bottoms said.
Bottoms also brought up a tape made public two weeks ago of Norwood speaking to a young Republicans’ meeting in Buckhead earlier this year. Norwood blamed voter fraud for her losing a mayoral election to Reed in 2009.
Bottoms asked why Norwood used racially coded words like “thug.” Norwood said the tape had been spliced. She claimed to have the names of people who had been coerced into voting in jurisdictions in which they did not live.
But Bottoms kept hitting her on the language she used, referencing it in her closing remarks while noting that Tuesday’s election would define Atlanta for the entire world.
“Will we elect a mayor who does not speak in racially coded language?” Bottoms said.
Norwood also closed by directly addressing voters. She reminded them that she had worked for 25 years on behalf of the city. She told them she was known for being inclusive. That why she had received her endorsements, she said.
“You know me,” she insisted.
To view a recap of the televised debate, click here.