Opinion: Demography will define work of Atlanta’s next mayor

Atlanta’s changing demographics are the subtext of this election. Just as in 2009, residents and political observers from around the country are recognizing that Atlanta’s shrinking black population increases the probability of the city electing its first non-black mayor since 1973. While we do not know yet if Mary Norwood will become the first white mayor since Sam Massell, it is safe to say that someday, someone who is not black will be elected mayor.

The prospect of one racial group not controlling the mayor’s office is not a bad thing, but it will take some adjustment—for everyone. Regardless of the racial background of the 60th mayor (and the 61st, 62nd, and 63rd mayors), she will have to confront the ways that the city’s ongoing demographic transformation creates diffuse, disparate, and often-competing interests. There are the ubiquitous concerns — like water, sewers, and roads — which concern residents of all backgrounds. One of the primary jobs of a mayor is to make sure that the trains run on time, so to speak. Therefore, either Mayor Lance Bottoms or Mayor Norwood and her administration will have to master the art of mundane governance.

Then there are the competing priorities and visions for the city which can divide residents who disagree about substance and/or strategy. Atlanta is a city that prides itself on being too busy to hate, but that does not mean that different constituencies do not craft narrow policy agendas which might ignore the concerns of their neighbors.

A classic example of this is the debate about the Atlanta Beltline. While the Beltline has produced clear benefits for those who live around it and have moved to it, we have to consider the ways that others feel excluded from the largess of such new projects. The next mayor will have to balance the economic and population growth that projects like the Beltline generate while addressing the concerns of longer-term residents who raise concerns about the effects of gentrification on their ability to pay taxes or rent. And she is going to have to figure out how to reconcile bikers, pedestrians, drivers and public transit customers to a transportation proposal that allows everyone to safely and efficiently move about the city and throughout the region.

In short, the next mayor of Atlanta will have to be adept at being all things to all people. Residents want safe streets, good schools, jobs, a strong business climate, less traffic congestion, and ethical and fiscally sound city management. How they rank these priorities and their desired approach to achieving these goals will vary based on social position. It will be the job of the mayor to listen to these concerns and to discern the best way to convene stakeholders (residents, elected officials, business leaders and state government) to find common ground and to sometimes compromise to make sure that all residents of the city believe that their interests and concerns are being taken seriously.

This will require the 60th and all future mayors of Atlanta to be politically nimble and culturally fluent. This does not mean that the mayor should lack political convictions or must have a particular ethnic background. It does require, however, that she develop keen sensitivities for how to listen and respond to the potentially disparate concerns of a diverse constituency. Moreover, she will have to do more than just show up, listen, and say the right thing at the right time. She will have to know how to convene these varied interests and how to get them to work together toward creating and achieving goals that can unite residents across geographic, class, and identity lines.

Andra Gillespie is an associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Political Science.

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