The Atlanta mayor’s race on Tuesday is probably the last and most significant election for black folks in 2017, the first year of the Trump dark ages and year 1 P.O.E. (post-Obama era). Overall, when it comes to electing African Americans, 2017 has been a pretty good year. Partially because of the enthusiasm for a new generation of leaders and partially because of the clear and present danger presented by the Trump administration, African-American turnout and electoral success has not precipitously dipped without the Obamas in the White House.
Yes, there were some embarrassing hiccups (St. Louis remains in the sunken place), but that was balanced out by the election of two black lieutenant governors (New Jersey and Virginia), a slew of black state legislators, and mayors in places as diverse as Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., and Helena, Mont.
You’d think that Atlanta, the crown jewel of black economic success and culture, having had 44 straight years of black mayors, would be a sure thing for black people running for office, right?
No. There is a very real chance that a black woman, 47-year-old lawyer and City Council Member Keisha Lance Bottoms, might lose to 65-year-old white woman and City Council Member Mary Norwood.
There’s going to be a lot of tweeting and talking about this race over the next 24 hours. Here are four things you need to know:
1. This election has national implications.
Metro Atlanta makes up almost 40 percent of the overall population of Georgia, so the winner of the mayor’s race has a pretty significant role to play in statewide, congressional and presidential elections. While the mayor of Atlanta is officially a nonpartisan position, the mayor’s endorsement can help or harm candidates, and the coalitions he or she brings together can help get out the vote in significant ways.
Georgia is demographically considered a swing state for 2020, and Democrats are keenly focused on the 2018 governor’s race that might feature either Stacey Abrams or Stacey Evans as gubernatorial candidates. Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) didn’t just come to Atlanta last weekend to stump for Keisha Lance Bottoms; they know how important Atlanta is for national fundraising and organizing, especially for African-American candidates.
2. Party politics matter, except when they don’t.
You know what an “independent” is? A Republican who doesn’t want to admit they’re embarrassed about their party. Or a Democrat who’s running in a red district.
Mary Norwood is very likely a Republican, but she claims to be an independent in order to remain politically viable in very black, very Democratic Atlanta. Despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, she’s managed to snag the endorsements of the majority of her former primary opponents, who are decidedly more progressive in terms of policy than she is.
So how exactly is it possible that a closeted Republican is running so strongly in a bid to become mayor of the biggest, bluest city in Georgia?
3. This election is about race, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Last week, I was speaking with a lawyer friend of mine, a black woman in her 40s who lives in Atlanta, about the election. I pointed out that after Donald Trump went on that racial Twitter rant earlier this year, calling Atlanta “crime infested” “burning” and “falling apart,” he would like nothing more than to see a white woman, especially a Republican, become mayor.
“Yeah, you know he’s going to tweet her [Norwood] congratulations if that happens,” my friend said in exasperation.
No matter who wins the election Tuesday, there will be a thousand think pieces written about this election and race, but here are a few important factors to understand: Atlanta has had an unbroken string of African-American mayors since 1974, and just like in the presidential election of 2016, white Americans want their country—or, in this case, city—back.
Regardless of party, regardless of color, the overwhelming majority of white voters are supporting Mary Norwood for mayor. When Norwood ran for mayor in 2009 against Kasim Reed, she received more than 80 percent of the white vote, and by all accounts, she’ll match or exceed that number in 2017, despite the fact that she’s possibly a Republican running in a very blue, very Democratic city. Even Cathy Woolard, possibly the most liberal of the initial primary candidates, who suggested that Norwood lacked progressive credentials, still endorsed Norwood for mayor just weeks later.
While some high-minded African Americans wrestle with the “I don’t want to vote for somebody just because they’re black” argument, that has never been a problem for white voters overall, or Jewish voters, or Hispanic voters, or just about any other voter bloc in this country except that of African Americans.
History, political science and data have shown that white voters will support white candidates over black ones, regardless of “party,” and sort out that “qualified” thing later. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of black Atlanta voters are registered Democrats, so 80-90 percent black Democratic turnout for the default Democratic nominee would actually be less driven by race than a vote by most white Democrats for Norwood would be.
With black women likely being the most crucial voting bloc in a low-turnout election, there is no question that race is a factor. Even if it isn’t the only one.
4. Outsiders matter.
To the outside world, the Atlanta election is simply a question of racial and party solidarity in the age of Trump, and there is some credence to this interpretation:
However, there are real issues on the ground that are swaying voters of all colors in different directions that are worth considering.
It cannot be overstated just how much the corruption association with the Kasim Reed administration has influenced voter perceptions of Keisha Lance Bottoms. While the investigation is ongoing, the perception that Atlanta has become a pay-to-play city for black elites explains why many progressives and Democrats are considering Norwood.
While Norwood certainly has her own problems with race and finances, she is still seen as a break from all things Reed. As one local activist in Atlanta told me, “It’s a choice between black corruption and white incompetence”—a hard choice for any voter.
The point is, this Atlanta election, no matter how it turns out, is being driven as much by local economic and racial forces as it is by national narratives. In all likelihood, we won’t know what theme wins the day until early Wednesday morning.