Atlanta mayoral race 2009: Why a white woman might win

Atlanta has elected only African-American mayors since 1973. But Mary Norwood – the only white candidate in the Atlanta mayoral race – was leading in public opinion polls.

By , Staff writer

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    Candidate for Atlanta Mayor Mary Norwood speaks to supporters at an election-night party in Atlanta, Tuesday.
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On the eve of Election Day 2009, polls showed that one-third of black voters here were ready to vote for Mary Norwood – a blue-eyed, white suburbanite – in the Atlanta mayoral race

For a city that has not had a white mayor since 1973 and sees itself as the iconic post-civil rights epicenter of African-American politics, the campaign has been a shock to the system.

To some observers, it suggests that Ms. Norwood simply has used the levers of racial politics more effectively than her five African-American opponents. To others, though, it points to a generational shift toward political color-blindness – most prominently seen in last year’s presidential election but now influencing voters even in this bastion of the Deep South.

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“It’s disturbing to some that you would have this change in a city where African-Americans have had a hold for over three decades – and it goes beyond politics,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of “How Obama Won.” “But the question we come back to is this: With the election of President Obama, how much does race really matter anymore in terms of politics? We’ve had a breakthrough at the national level, and now we’re beginning to see it in municipal elections.”

What has happened?

Many younger African-American voters don’t feel less allegiance to black candidates than did African-Americans who lived through the Civil Rights era, some experts say.

“There’s no longer any such thing as incumbency advantage or shoo-in candidate in Atlanta,” says Kendra King, a political science professor at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.

The choice of campaign issues has also been key.

For Lisa Borders and Kasim Reed, the two black candidates who were trailing Norwood in preelection polls, the primary focus has been bolstering the city’s gutted police department. While violent crime is down overall in the city, a few high profile murders and a rise in property crimes means residents are agitated.

But Norwood has built her campaign around the recession, focusing on mismanaged city finances and how foreclosures are blighting the city.

“There’s no money to do big, grand and bold,” says Michael Leo Owens, a political scientist at Emory University. “Norwood has tied her candidacy to economic worries where people are looking up and down the federalist ladder and having nightmares about what their future taxes are going to look like. She’s saying, ‘Vote for me and have one less nightmare, because I’m going to keep a hold on local taxes.’ ”

Race still an issue

Still, race is a factor.

For one, Atlanta is becoming more white. Many blacks have fled the city’s aging neighborhoods, and white families are moving in, attracted by historic housing stock and closer proximity to jobs. In 2000, Atlanta was 33 percent white. In 2007, it was 38 percent white. Between 2000 and 2006, Atlanta’s white population grew faster than that of any other US city, according to a study by the Brookings Institution.

Yet black voters remain the dominant political constituency, and efforts to win their allegiance have been, at times, transparent.

Mr. Reed last week insinuated that Norwood is secretly a Republican – a dig aimed to disquiet African-American voters, who are primarily Democratic here. (Norwood replied in an ad that she voted for Mr. Obama in the last election.)

And in August, two Clark Atlanta University political science professors wrote a memo about the need for black Atlantans to hold onto City Hall, and how they should do that.

The “black agenda” memo turned out to be a coup for Ms. Norwood. Both Mr. Reed and Ms. Borders denounced the memo as racist and divisive, but never addressed its merits.

In the meantime, Norwood stayed above the fray while making several moves to appeal to black votes: using the voices of people who are obviously black in her radio ads, setting her campaign office in the former office of Martin Luther King’s old office building, and visiting closed fire stations in poor, black parts of the city.

“Mary Norwood has effectively racialized the campaign while simultaneously causing two African-Americans to run a de-racialized campaign, which has hurt them,” says Ms. King. “Norwood ran the most politically savvy and strategic campaign to African-American voters.”

Six-way election

With six candidates in Tuesday’s election, a runoff is likely, which could be problematic for Norwood. Her polling numbers have surged close to 50 percent in recent days, putting an outright win within her grasp. But Norwood could struggle in a run-off against Mr. Reed, who has won the endorsement of several members of Atlanta’s old civil rights guard as well as popular entertainers like the rapper Ludacris.

Yet the 2009 Atlanta mayoral race has redefined expectations and perceptions about politics in minority-majority cities, regardless of the outcome.

“This is not 1979, this is 2009,” says Mr. Hutchinson. “Instead of color, African-Americans are looking at: Are [candidates] honest on a personal and political level? Can they move political and economic interests to create a good employment base? Are they accountable and responsive to the African-American community? If those elements are there, they’re going to trump race."

See also:

Was Atlanta’s ‘black mayor first’ memo racist – or just blunt?

Memo about a ‘black agenda’ in mayor’s race roils Atlanta

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