Last week, the city of Atlanta elected Keisha Lance Bottoms and continued its over-40-year streak of electing African-American mayors to lead the city. Bottoms’ defeat of Mary Norwood, a 65-year-old white woman who was suspected of being a Donald Trump-supporting Republican, elicited more hot takes than an NFL pregame show. Was this race about race? Was it about gentrification? Does Atlanta want a mayor named Keisha?
However, the loudest commentary was about outgoing Mayor Kasim Reed, who lords over Atlanta politics like an old-school don. Was the election a referendum on him? Did the close (and now disputed) margin of victory mean that he broke Atlanta’s black political machine? The Root talked to Reed about why Bottoms won, the real role of race in Atlanta politics and what his critics can do with their feelings.
The Root: What do you think Keisha Lance Bottoms’ victory finally came down to? Was it simply turnout? Was she a better campaigner? Was it race? Or something else?
Kasim Reed: It really came down to the fact that she was the most qualified and superior candidate in the race. In the last debate and on Sunday night, it became really apparent. It was shocking to people that there was really a conversation about having Ms. Norwood lead Atlanta.
Which one of these people could walk into a room and pitch Amazon? If you have 15,000 protesters, who’s the person that you would have go and engage that group? When you have the Super Bowl coming, the college football championship, which one would you rather have represent this city? If you don’t have the best driver for a NASCAR car, you’ll put it into the wall every time.
TR: A lot of people say this race was really close, that maybe the coalition for black power has changed. How do you respond to that?
KR: In Atlanta, we have a major election around some issue every year. There was pretty strong machinery that was the reason why she [Bottoms] was the biggest vote getter in the first round. And why Mary Norwood’s numbers plummeted. The candidate really does deserve the lion’s share of the credit.
We always knew we always had the strongest get-out-the-vote effort and GOTV was going to represent 2 percent of the final vote. We overperformed in the southern part of the city, and in the eastern part with white progressives. Typically a mayor’s race is a battle between the north and the south, and the in-town residents and progressives swing the race. So the mayor-elect’s numbers look almost exactly like mine did, and my map looks almost exactly like Mayor Franklin’s.
TR: Much of the media and political-elite talk prior to the election was that this election was a referendum on unhappiness with your administration. What do you have to say to this critique now given that Bottoms won, and by almost identical numbers to yours in 2009?
KR: In God we trust, but if it’s not God, we trust the data.
Even my fiercest critiques acknowledge that the right-track polling data has been 60 to 69 percent on the right track and 63 to 68 percent for my personal approval. Any time you’re leading a city, you’re going to have people who are your adversaries.
I actively worked to defeat my critics, and the reason that I did is because Keisha Lance Bottoms had helped me pass almost every important piece of legislation we’d passed, whether it was $15 minimum wage or paid family leave.
The beautiful thing about politics is that at the end of the night, you have a winner, a loser. If this is [a] referendum on me, then Keisha Lance Bottoms is the answer to that question.
TR: Do you think any of the criticism was unfair or unfounded?
KR: It wasn’t surprising to me because I could tell that these folks, they had broken hearts. They were upset. Look, I get it; I wanted to be mayor of Atlanta since I was 13 years old. I could imagine how it feels to want something so bad and come up short, and here’s this person who tipped the scale. They were very transparent that they were unhappy with me.
TR: Race plays a role in just about every election across America and Atlanta. How did you see race play out in the election, both with the voters and the candidates?
KR: To be candid, if you look at the data, because of the number of high-quality black candidates in the race, there was a real possibility that if I was not decisive about backing someone early on, there could have been two majority [white] candidates in the runoff.
I ask that you review the data; if I had stayed on the sidelines, there would not be a person of color in [the] runoff. Three of the four finalists in the primary were of the majority and one was black. You had very fine and talented African-American candidates running, and they were all below Peter Aman. Aman’s direct strategy was to appear to be attractive to the black community and to leap over Ceasar Mitchell, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Vincent Fort, Joe Eaves, and then say to the black community, “I’m the most progressive because I spent two years working for Kasim!” I certainly was not going to let that stand.