The Atlanta mayoral race was contentious and expensive and pitted just about every element of the city’s political class against one another. You had candidates with celebrity endorsements, candidates busted for getting Falcons tickets, two gay candidates and one who looked like an extra from Magic Mike.
The runoff in December will be between the top two vote getters: Keisha Lance Bottoms, a 47-year-old black lawyer who has served on the City Council for eight years; and Mary Norwood, a 65-year-old white woman who also sits on the City Council and unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2009 against Kasim Reed. The race will be a test of black political clout and organization in Atlanta and a sobering realization of how demographics are changing what was once America’s second “Chocolate City.”
Atlanta, like Washington, D.C., before it, is a chocolate city on the verge of a serious transformation. Rapid growth, mixed with poor mass transit and gentrification, has cut the city’s black population from 61 percent in 2000 to just under 54 percent in 2017. This has eroded the working-class base of black voters who have been the key to the city’s election of African-American mayors since the mid-1970s. Consequently, in Tuesday’s mayoral election, Bottoms garnered 26 percent of the vote, but the next three candidates, amounting to 39 percent of votes cast, were all white.
This is a wake-up call to black leadership that the city’s old ways of retaining political and economic power will have to change. Gone are the days when Atlanta’s mayoral races were defined by high-end battles between black political elites (the 20-year fight between Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young from the ’70s to the ’90s would make a great HBO miniseries). Now, thanks to their own shortsightedness, black power may be seeing its final days.
How else can you explain the success of Norwood, a senior citizen white woman running on a platform of police endorsements and “fighting crime” in an era of Black Lives Matter and in America’s most educated black city? While she may deny it, or compare it to cocaine (I’m not kidding), Norwood is a Republican, and the city has elected only two Republican mayors in almost 100 years.
Her success thus far is directly related to squabbles over power among Atlanta’s black political elites and their failure to realize the changes that have occurred in the city’s voting population under their watch. Not including Bottoms, six of the 12 candidates who ran for mayor in Atlanta were African American; that dilution of the black vote is one of the main reasons that white candidates were able to be so successful in this first round of voting.
If it weren’t for Bottoms’ aggressive ground game and a hearty endorsement from current Mayor Reed, Atlanta could have been another St. Louis, a city where, despite a demographic advantage, black leadership diluted the black vote so much that Lyda Krewson, a 64-year-old white woman running on a pro-police platform, defeated Tishaura Jones, a 45-year-old black woman and sitting city treasurer, by a mere 888 votes. In fact, given the similarities of the candidates and policies, St. Louis should be a cautionary tale to black leadership in Atlanta about forgoing short-term gains for long-term political-power building in the black community.
According to Atlanta political consultants I spoke with, Bottoms, with the help of Reed, as well as the consolidation of the black vote under one candidate, should beat Norwood, but it’s not a lock. Norwood is beating Bottoms by double digits among white voters in Atlanta, something that in years past would not have made a difference but in 2017 could tip the scales.
Bottoms may be the first modern, African-American Atlanta mayoral candidate who has to heavily court not just white money but also white voters in order to win the mayor’s mansion. It remains to be seen if black political leaders in the city will be smart enough to hold on to political power.