The next four years of leadership for Atlanta, one of the fastest-growing, wealthiest and culturally important cities in America, will likely stay in the hands of an African American, thanks to a nail-biting election Tuesday night. The race between Councilwomen Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood was tighter than a pair of skinny jeans at Atlantic Station.
With over 90,000 votes cast, Bottoms appears to be the winner by just 759 votes. However, that’s not even the biggest surprise from a race that suddenly jumped into national attention over the last few weeks. Here are three fast facts you need to know about what happened in Atlanta last night.
1. Race rules everything around me.
People in Atlanta said it, political analysts outside the city said it and a racist viewer of CBS Atlanta made it abundantly clear last night: Race was the driving force in the Atlanta elections. Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, laid out the election results in plain black and white.
“The north was racially polarized voting; there is still a racially polarized ... North-South divide that still holds in the city. That demographic-change question going into the future is looking at East Atlanta and Southwest Atlanta, that are gentrifying,” she told The Root.
A simple look at the electoral map makes it clear: The northern, whiter parts of Atlanta voted Norwood; the southern, blacker parts of Atlanta voted for Lance Bottoms. It’s also worth noting that Bottoms was the default Democrat in the nonpartisan race and Norwood was a closet Republican. Given that Atlanta voters are overwhelmingly Democrats, it would appear that many white Democrats had other motivations besides party when they went into the voting booth.
And lest anyone think that race is only a white-voters game (it is not, but for different reasons), Gillespie made it clear that the fractured power dynamics in Atlanta played a role in this race, too. “Black leadership was pretty divided,” she said.
Which is true; the first black female mayor of Atlanta and current Mayor Kasim Reed’s predecessor Shirley Franklin came out to endorse Norwood. So did City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and a host of other high-profile black and white former candidates and politicians.
“But black voters were pretty cohesive,” Gillespie added. “They made decisions on their own regardless of what leadership was saying.”
2. History repeats itself, sort of.
Mary Norwood is the little Republican that could. Or at least tried. But didn’t. This was her second attempt to become mayor of Atlanta, and her second incredibly slim loss. In 2009 Norwood ran against Reed, and the election was incredibly close. She won the mostly white DeKalb County 51 percent to 49 percent, and Reed won the larger, mostly black Fulton County 51 percent to 49 percent. Even in the first year of President Barack Obama, that was only good enough for Reed to pull out a slim 714-vote victory in a race with about 84,000 votes cast.
In last night’s election, despite a great deal of hand-wringing about demographic changes and gentrification in Atlanta, the election results were shockingly similar. Norwood won DeKalb by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent, Bottoms won Fulton County 52 percent to 47 percent, and the final victory margin was 759 votes out of just over 95,000 ballots cast.
Only 759 votes determined who will run a metro area of almost 6 million people. That’s fewer people than Easter Sunday Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church. That’s less than the margin of victory for mayor of St. Louis, a city half the size of Atlanta, earlier this year. That’s a clear unvarnished example of why anyone who says their vote doesn’t matter is a damn liar.
3. The future is not clear.
Norwood is not about to take this L in the ATL. Last night, while supporters were swag surfing at Bottoms’ watch party, Norwood announced that she is not going to concede and will call for a recount. Her team didn’t expect to lose, and even as the campaign tightened last night, they sounded like a group of people who didn’t realize that things had escalated so quickly.
Despite memes depicting Norwood as a sore loser, she is anything but. In many places (like Cleveland, for example), recounts are automatic if the margin of victory is less than 0.5 percent of the overall vote. So her demand for a recount is within reason, although, barring some massive voter fraud or a basket full of uncounted votes found in the back of a pickup truck, Norwood is not likely to make up a 759-vote margin, even with provisional and military ballots.
Now that Bottoms is likely to become mayor, attention in Georgia turns to the governor’s race, where members of Stacey Evans’ campaign team are already taking shots at Stacey Abrams about who endorsed whom and when.
Although, if Atlanta mayor’s race is any indication, Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign is quite happy right now. If a pattern of enthusiastic black Democrats turning out in high numbers to vote for their preferred candidate no matter what political elites say holds true for the Georgia primary in the spring, Abrams will do well no matter what the new mayor has to say.
More important, for at least another four and likely eight years, the discussion of whether or not Atlanta’s 43-year run of having black mayors was in danger will subside. This was a unique race: Bottoms was a candidate dogged by scandals from a previous administration, where just about every primary candidate of all colors endorsed her opponent and she won anyway. You won’t be able to tell her a thing once she gets into office.
More important, Norwood was a political unicorn: an older, white (likely) Republican running in a deeply blue city with 20 years of constituent service to black voters. She was uniquely equipped to tackle a black mayor in Atlanta, but she’s 65 and won’t run again. So long as Bottoms does a good job as mayor, it looks like the Chocolate Peach City will continue its streak.