The story of Julius Caesar is the ancient tale of former close political friendships gone bad. Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus formed the triumvirate whose #SquadGoals were to expand the Roman empire and rule the world.
Unfortunately, Caesar became more powerful than his partners and began running Rome like an empire, and his friends realized there was only one way to save the republic. They had to assassinate Caesar, with the help of his close friend and protégé Brutus.
On March 15, the Ides of March, senators surrounded an unsuspecting Caesar and started stabbing him. At first he fought them off, but when he saw Brutus—his boy, his friend, his road dog—run up to deliver the final blow, the power-mad emperor-to-be knew it was over. “Et tu, Brute?” he cried (at least in Shakespeare’s version of events), which roughly translates to “Even you, Brutus?” or in Atlanta-speak, “So it’s like that?”
It would seem that in Atlanta’s mayoral race, ancient Shakespearean history is repeating itself, because Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell may have just landed the killing blow against his former friend and political ally Mayor Kasim Reed.
The Atlanta mayoral election is a complicated test case on the future of black power and politics in America. The run-off election Dec. 5 pits Keisha Lance Bottoms, a 47-year-old black lawyer, City Council member and default Democrat, against Mary Norwood, a 65-year-old white woman who sits on the
council, has served for years and is the default Republican in the race. She is also trying to be Atlanta’s first white mayor in almost 40 years.
Mayor Reed has endorsed Bottoms and views her as his heir apparent. While Bottoms certainly has her problems, given the rapid demographic changes in Atlanta, many voters feel that a vote for Norwood would mean the end of black mayors in Atlanta. Consequently, the fact that Mitchell, who is African American, is deciding to endorse Norwood has been met with scorn and surprise by many throughout the city.
“So Ceasar Mitchell supporting Mary Norwood is one man, one woman, two losers,” said Mayor Reed at a Tuesday press conference on affordable housing in Atlanta.
Others have called Mitchell’s endorsement an abdication of black political power in the city and a betrayal of the black voter, if not a betrayal of his onetime friend and political ally, Reed. All of these things may be true, but Mitchell’s decision makes sense if you consider him to being playing the role of Brutus and Reed that of Julius Caesar, who has grown mad with power.
In 2009, when both Reed and Mitchell were ambitious politicians seeking the mayor’s office, Atlanta’s Democratic establishment was backing Reed. The story among political insiders goes that in order to avoid a bloody, expensive vote that would split the electorate in the general, Reed and Mitchell cut a deal. Mitchell would step out of the race, support Reed and serve dutifully as City Council president with Reed’s backing.
When Reed was term-limited out of office, he would return the favor to his old friend and Ceasar Mitchell would walk into the mayor’s office. Except it didn’t quite work out that way. Once in office, Reed was feeling himself in ways no one had predicted and backed out on whatever handshake bargain he and Mitchell may have had.
Worse, Reed routinely dissed the City Council, members of the press and Mitchell in particular when the mood struck him. Arguably, Reed has tried to undermine Mitchell politically from the moment the two men took office, and even in these final months as a lame-duck mayor, Reed has continued to take shots at the man he once considered a political brother.
The enmity between Mitchell and Reed was described to me as “the rage of a thousand white-hot suns” by one political insider. In other words, while it may shock some observers in the city to see Mitchell pull this endorsement knife out of his toga, this conflict has been brewing for a long time.
Is Mitchell betraying black political power by endorsing Norwood? Yes, he is, but to be fair, he was personally betrayed by Mayor Reed and likely feels justified. More important, it could be argued that Atlanta’s black political elite has been betraying working-class black voters in the city for quite some time after years of gentrification and questionable policy decisions while running the mayor’s office and City Council.
Will Mitchell’s endorsement of Norwood be enough to power her past Bottoms in a much-closer-than-anyone-thinks-it-should-be mayoral race? No one really knows; Mitchell came in sixth, but he carried 9 percent of the vote, which could help Norwood in black areas of Atlanta.
If Norwood wins the mayor’s race with the help of the black City Council president’s endorsement, it would be a tragic headstone on Reed’s legacy. His lust for power and abuse of his former friends and allies will have finally broken the black stronghold on power in Atlanta, fracturing a racial coalition that, while not perfect, had held power for almost half a century.
That’s a play I don’t think anyone wants to see.