Atlanta Race Signals New Era in Politics

This fall's off-year elections will yield valuable clues to the mood of America. In days ahead, the Monitor will examine key races and what they portend for local and national politics.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THIS city is entering the final stretch of a mayoral campaign that promises to usher in the most significant changes in 20 years.

Absent are the high-profile figures of mayoral races past that helped identify Atlanta as a symbol of rising black power and the birthplace of the civil rights movement.

Instead, 12 relatively unknown and untested candidates are seeking the city's top job - including an actor, an artist, and a bus driver. They also include a new generation of leaders that will yield insights into the emerging politics of the South.

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The race to succeed Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's first black mayor, who stunned local residents by bowing out in June, comes at a crucial time in city history. Atlanta is preparing to host the 1996 Summer Olympics and faces a broad array of urban problems even though it is trying to bill itself as the world's next great international city.

``No matter what the Olympic committee does, the mayor will get the credit or take the blame,'' says Dan Sweat, coordinator for The Atlanta Project, an anti-poverty effort. ``He'll represent Atlanta to the world. But he's got to do a lot of housekeeping first....''

The three main candidates - City Council members Bill Campbell and Myrtle Davis, and Michael Lomax, the former chairman of the Fulton County Commission - represent the New Guard.

``Three well-qualified candidates are running against each other and setting their own agendas,'' says former Mayor Sam Massell, who heads the Buckhead Coalition, a civic organization. ``The Old Guard [influential business leaders and clergy] can no longer select and appoint one candidate.''

The new mayor will inherit a city burdened with crumbling roads and bridges, a high crime rate, and dwindling tax base. Little has been done to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods bordering Olympic venues or to build amenities for the 17-day event.

Atlanta has long been a center of black power (former Democratic Rep. Andrew Young served as mayor between Mr. Jackson's terms in office). But having blacks in power has not benefited many of the city's impoverished, black and white. Statistically, Atlanta is among the poorest cities in the country.

Poverty exists in the shadow of sleek hotels and gleaming office towers. More than 36 percent of the households live below the poverty level. Some 12 percent to 15 percent of the population resides in public housing. As many as 15,000 are homeless.

Mr. Campbell, a lawyer endorsed by Jackson, describes himself as the ``education mayor.'' He is pushing for stronger ethics legislation and promises to hire retired police to reduce crime.

Ms. Davis is one of the first female candidates to run for mayor. A longtime civic leader, she vows to unify the city and improve the quality of life for all Atlantans.

Mr. Lomax, Jackson's early prot and opponent in 1989, chaired the Fulton Commission for 11 years. A former college professor, he wants to consolidate city and county governments and hire 400 additional policemen. He has the widest name recognition, but his record is marred by a highly publicized recall effort and a federal investigation into janitorial contracts.

A recent poll showed Campbell in the lead with 35 percent of the vote, Lomax 20 percent, and Davis 17 percent. Recently, however, a fourth candidate, Nancy Smith Schaefer, a conservative Republican, has gained support.

Even though Atlanta is 70 percent black, the white vote will be crucial in the Nov. 2 race. The three top contenders, all African-Americans, may split the black vote. If a candidate does not receive a majority, a runoff will be held Nov. 23.

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