Torpy at Large: Why Atlanta’s runoff race can’t simply run on race

In the 2009 Atlanta mayoral race, a group called the Black Leadership Forum circulated a position paper calling for African-American voters to unite around the most viable black candidate to stave off a challenge by a strong white contender, Mary Norwood.

It should be noted that Kasim Reed, then a state senator running for mayor, strongly denounced the message as racially divisive. It also should be noted he was operating out of self-interest because he was the third-place candidate that the group was urging to step aside.

Reaching back to the past, yet with a fresh coat of veneer, Mayor Reed did much the same thing just before the general election last week as he pushed for his candidate, City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Reed circulated a graphic urging Atlantans not to waste their vote. The circular, which carried photos of all the candidates, along with their poll showings, didn’t overtly delve into color other than blue and red. All the candidates were listed as blue Democrats in this nonpartisan race — except Norwood, who calls herself an Independent but was colored with red, touting her as a Republican, which means Lover of Trump.

No candidate approached a majority, so Bottoms (26 percent) and Norwood (21) will face off in a runoff on Dec. 5 and are reaching out to the 53 percent of voters who didn’t take Hizzoner’s advice and wasted their vote on someone else.

City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who was non-offensive to all, this week threw his 4 percent showing behind Bottoms, which leaves five other vanquished candidates — and 49 percent of the turnout. Reed savaged all those candidates, so it will be left to Bottoms to assuage hurt feelings to win their support.

Cathy Woolard, the darling of new Atlanta, the gentrifying east side, and owner of a strong 17 percent finish, is hosting a public forum this month to get the candidates to kiss her ring and pin them down on new urbanism issues.

One-time heir apparent Ceasar Mitchell (9 percent), the City Council president who got all sliced up by the street-fighting Reed, is left with the stark decision: Does he gulp down what’s left of his pride and go with Team Reed/Bottoms? Or does he continue to be his own man, the one who called for city contracts to be delayed because of the ongoing federal corruption investigation?

And former state Sen. Vincent Fort (10 percent), who stitched together a coalition of white and black activists and African-American preachers, is left making a Sophie’s Choice between helping an administration he despises or pulling for a candidate with whiffs of Republicanism.

Norwood this week posted online that she attended Hillary Clinton’s visit to Atlanta. She is now pushing to extract herself from a mayoral forum blunder, when she didn’t criticize President Donald Trump when the question was placed before her on a batting tee.

Norwood has run campaigns citywide and is well-known, and even liked, on the city’s predominantly black Southside, although much of that support dwindled during the assault in 2009 by Reed’s forces. He contends it was “outside groups” who brought racial aspects to that race. OK.

Aaron Turpeau, who was a top aide to Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first African-American mayor, was one of the 2009 authors of the effort to get Reed to step aside. Race, he said, is a bit trickier this time. “I’ve talked to some black voters and they don’t want to be Trumplike,” he said, meaning voting for a black candidate just because of color.

Similarly, many young white liberals may not want to vote for a candidate who might be a Trojan elephant.

“This runoff will be different; they weren’t liked by a lot of people,” Turpeau said. In 2009, Norwood (46 percent) and Reed (36 percent) totaled 82 percent in the general election.

“This time, neither was my choice,” Turpeau said. “They’re the second choice of a lot of people.”

Nathaniel Smith, an advocate for affordable development, this year left the board of the Atlanta Beltline because there was little such development.

He said that many working poor “are concerned that if Keisha wins, that history will continue, the continuance of growth that has steamrolled over them.”

But Norwood, he adds, “is walking this tightrope in trying not to anger the Northside. It’s not a black-and-white conversation this time. It’s right and wrong.”

Matthew Cardinale, editor of Atlanta Progressive News and a fixture at City Council meetings, supported Fort in the general election but said he’ll back Norwood this time around.

“Mary was willing to stand up to the developers,” he said. “It’s not an issue where Democrat or Republican matters, although I’m not saying she’s a Republican. She was for same-sex marriage (before 2009), while it took Kasim a couple years to make up his mind. I can say I will not be the only progressive supporting Mary this time.”

Maynard Eaton, who has worked in the media and on campaigns, said the black power structure traditionally picked a candidate and pushed that person to victory.

The current mayor “tried to pass the torch to Keisha, but it doesn’t have the same feel.”

Eaton said neither of the runoff candidates has the style or gravitas of a Big-City Mayor like the seat’s current occupant. Bottoms, he added, “needs to introduce herself as more than the mayor’s candidate.”

Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of Lindsay Street Baptist Church, which sits not far from the Falcons’ taxpayer-supported palace, said Bottoms “seems to have the momentum. She ran a good race and has some resources. The fear is that she will be a repeat and an extension of the Kasim Reed administration. Kasim Lite.”

With the near-ring of a sermon, the reverend issued some words of caution:

“Having an African-American mayor doesn’t mean that the African-American community will get proper decisions. The majority-African-American City Council rubber-stamped everything the governor and (Falcons owner) Arthur Blank wanted.”

He paused, then all but preached:

“Nobody is sounding the note that we are in a pluralistic society. If one can sound a note on love and inclusion, then they will run away with it.”

Amen. It’s always good to speak with an optimist.

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