Atlanta mayoral race takes vitriolic turn as Dec. 5 runoff approaches


Last minute accusations. Incendiary ads. Threats of legal action.

The mayoral campaigns of city council members Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood took a vitriolic turn as they entered their final weekend before Tuesday’s runoff election.

A new poll released late Friday seems to indicate that Norwood had successfully leveraged the endorsements of former Mayor Shirley Franklin and mayoral candidate rival Cathy Woolard, who placed third in the field of a dozen or so candidates in last month’s general election.

But Bottoms has plans to take back the lead. Her supporters called in national Democratic Party figures including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, who will visit the city on Sunday to rally women to vote for her. Political operatives have hinted more could be on the way.

The Channel 2 Action News/Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed that for the first time since the general election, Norwood had opened a lead over Bottoms.

According to the poll of 500 likely runoff voters conducted by Landmark Communications, Norwood was at 51.3 percent and Bottoms at 45.1 percent. The margin of error was 4.3 percent, and only 3.6 percent of respondents polled said they were undecided.

As the contest to become the city’s 60th mayor drew to a close, the campaigns called one press conference after another to announce new endorsements, or new revelations about their opposition.

On Friday, Bottoms campaign coordinated a press event with former Atlanta School Board candidate Charlie Stadtlander who provided a 150-page dossier on Norwood. He said that he had advised her campaign earlier this year, but refused to continue working with her because she wouldn’t correct financial impropriety.

A spokesperson for Norwood said that Stadtlander was fired from the campaign. Stadtlander said that was news to him and later showed reporters a $1,000 check that Norwood had written to his election campaign in July.

Meanwhile, Norwood’s campaign sent to the media a letter it drafted from her to the Democratic Party of Georgia and to Bottoms’ camp demanding an end to accusations in ads that she owns property in Cobb County with tax liens and had received campaign donations from President Donald Trump.

“I also demand that you immediately make a formal written correction and retraction, and that you also immediately issue a written apology concerning these false and incorrect statements,” Norwood wrote. “Failure to do so will force me to pursue all remedies available to me immediately.”

A Democratic Party spokesman said late Friday the organization hadn’t received the letter, and said Norwood makes claims about the ad that aren’t true. 

“Mary Norwood is so desperate and afraid of this TV ad that she is trying to bully stations into not broadcasting it,” he said. 

The man who currently holds the city’s top job, Mayor Kasim Reed, was uncharacteristically silent on social media over the past week.

But his shadow was ubiquitous.

Bottoms, who earned Reed’s endorsement, continuously asserted that her administration would not be an extension of his.

Reed has been criticized for bare-knuckle tactics against Bottoms’ rivals. City Hall also has faced an ongoing federal bribery investigation involving city contracts. Reed has pledged cooperation with the probe, and Bottoms has called for ethics and contracting overhauls, but Norwood has made cleaning up corruption a staple of her campaign in the runoff.

As Norwood trotted out endorsements this week from her former opponents in the general election, such as City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, ex-Atlanta chief operating officer Peter Aman and Fulton County Chairman John Eaves, she has had to fend off questions about whether their recommendations were more about her, or condemnations of Reed.

In response to one such question at another press conference on Friday, Mitchell said: “This is about the future of our city. We have to get serious about that.”

Michael Leo Owens, an Emory University political science professor, said he expects a narrow finish Tuesday, which in many ways would be a repeat of 2009, when Mayor Kasim Reed edged Norwood by about 700 votes in a runoff.

The endorsements of Norwood by both Franklin and Mitchell made waves on social media among black voters, Owens said. Many saw the endorsements as more of a protest against Reed.

Harris, a rising star among Democrats and a possible 2020 candidate for president, is scheduled to appear at Park Tavern on Sunday for a rally with Bottoms and Women for Keisha.

Democratic Party officials have suggested other big national names also could appear in Atlanta by Bottoms’ side.

“I think it is a sign of Democratic desperation,” Owens said. “These big names are people from outside the city of Atlanta, from outside the state of Georgia, from outside the South. This is calling in big chits to make this happen.”

The candidates are competing for primarily two groups: African American women and progressives. Black women make up the largest portion of Super Voters, the 12 percent or so sliver of the electorate who’ve cast ballots in five elections over the past four years.

And in last month’s general election a large chunk of votes outside of Norwood and Bottoms went to the candidates widely considered the most progressive: former State Senator Vincent Fort and Woolard, who dominated in east Atlanta precincts.

The Channel 2 Action News/Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, conducted on Wednesday and Thursday, suggests unaligned voters have made their choice in recent days and that decisions were breaking largely along racial lines.

Three-quarters of black respondents (74.9 percent) back Bottoms, who is black, while 80 percent of white respondents said they back Norwood.

Norwood received support from 21.3 percent of black respondents polled, while Bottoms claimed the support of 16.5 of white respondents.

It also shows Norwood, a self-identified independent, doing well among Democrats in a heavily Democratic city.

Norwood received the support of 42 percent of respondents who identified as Democrats, a strong showing by a self-proclaimed independent whose rival has proudly touted her Democratic Party credentials and tried to label Norwood a “closeted Republican” in a non-partisan campaign.

On Sunday at 5 p.m., the candidates will share the stage at a Channel 2/AJC debate where they will make their closing arguments to voters.

Kendra King Momon, a political science professor at Oglethorpe University, said the visit by Harris and other potential Democratic kingmakers isn’t a sign of desperation, but signals that the Bottoms campaign needs “a huge shot of adrenaline.”

“I do think this race has become closer than the Bottoms team anticipated,” Momon said.

Momon said that she expects polls could flip flop a few more times before the election and that Sunday’s debate will be crucial.

“That debate on Sunday is going to determine the election in all sincerity,” she said.

Both finalists need to show their authenticity and address missteps in the rough campaign.

Norwood will have to defend attacks that she’s a Republican in disguise, as well as remarks she made at a Buckhead Young Republican gathering earlier this year that accused Reed of widespread voter fraud in their 2009 race. Bottoms said the comments, which were secretly recorded in June and obtained by the AJC last week, used coded terms for black voters, something Norwood denied.

Bottoms was damaged by not condemning remarks by Reed in recent weeks, who labeled Norwood and Mitchell as “losers” when Mitchell endorsed Norwood, Momon said.

“I think because this election got so ugly it became personal,” Momon said.

MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.

The AJC’s Stephen Deere keeps you updated on the latest in the Atlanta mayoral race and everything else going on at City Hall. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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