Atlanta mayoral race 2009 results are murky on race in politics

A white woman led the field in Atlanta mayoral race 2009 results, but she'll face a black opponent in a runoff. Race has been a subtle factor so far, but that may change.

By , Staff writer

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    Atlanta mayoral candidate and state Senator Kasim Reed addresses supporters after forcing a run off with Mary Norwood, during his election night party Tuesday.
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The Atlanta mayor's race Tuesday, which resulted in a runoff election, failed to yield many clues about whether President Obama’s historic election a year ago has staying power in terms of voters' views about race in politics.

If anything, Atlanta voters seemed hesitant to say much of anything about the mayoral field, which included a black man, a black woman, and a white woman, as only 24 percent of them came out to cast ballots in the off-year municipal election.

Some analysts have said the potential election of front-runner Mary Norwood as the city’s first white mayor in 36 years would prove that America is undergoing a generational shift toward colorblind politics. Others saw the struggle for traction by African-American “card carrying Democrats” in a liberal, majority-black city as a sign that Mr. Obama’s coattails have proven woefully short.

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Conclusions will have to wait until next month. In a Dec. 1 runoff contest, City Councilor Norwood will face off against Kasim Reed, a state senator with ties to hip-hop artists and the city's civil rights old guard.

The low turnout and indecisive result point in part to the fact that no superstar candidates were in the offing, unlike the case when 41 percent of the electorate ushered the city’s first female black mayor, Shirley Franklin, into office eight years ago.

The ultimate choice between a black man and a white woman seems to have cooled voters’ ardor in a city where a white influx in the past decade has changed the racial dynamics of the majority-black Southern metropolis.

“Now the two candidates have roughly a month to fight for every voter among an electorate that seems to be exhausted and mistrustful,” writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Cameron McWhirter. “And the ever-present issues of race, gender and class … likely will be amplified in coming weeks as the contest settles into one between a white woman and black man. Many Atlantans found the prospect unsettling.”

The poorest black neighborhoods on the West and Southwest sides saw dismal turnout, with one precinct receiving only 5 percent of eligible voters. Turnout was higher in Atlanta’s primarily white neighborhoods.

Pre-election polls indicated that about 30 percent of black voters intended to vote for Norwood. Between 52 and 70 percent of white voters intended to vote for Norwood, depending on which poll is cited.

In the end, Norwood received 46 percent of the vote and Senator Reed 36 percent. Both candidates will aggressively go after those who voted for third-place finisher Lisa Borders, who received 14 percent.

Reed, who counts as fans the rapper Ludacris and much of Atlanta’s civil rights power base, did capture much of the vote on the largely black Southwest side. But Norwood, a former radio executive and neighborhood booster, made surprisingly deep inroads into the black community, and she is viewed by many as a gung-ho proponent of rich and poor neighborhoods alike.

A milestone came in August, when a memo penned by two Clark Atlanta University professors brought race into the campaign by pointing out the importance of keeping blacks in control of City Hall.

While the candidates disavowed the memo – Ms. Borders, the city council president, notably said, “The color of skin of our next mayor is not the issue” – it still marked a turning point in the campaign.

The racial dynamics are likely to intensify now. Indeed, racial rhetoric has dominated Atlanta runoffs going back to 1973, when Maynard Jackson became the city’s first black mayor five years after Martin Luther King Jr. – Atlanta's favorite son – was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

By running ads depicting Norwood as a Republican in disguise, Reed has already used coded references to race. Norwood has also subtly “racialized” the campaign, using, for example, obviously black voices in radio ads, says Oglethorpe University Prof. Kendra King.

“By running this attack on Norwood as being a Republican who would set the city back, [Reed] is ... speaking directly to the idea that this candidate may be a danger to the city and to black interests,” says Michael Leo Owens, a political scientist at Emory University here.

The strategy may well be effective, adds Mr. Owens. “The black political elite don’t want to be associated with … running to keep a white mayor out. But in a runoff, the [likelihood] of Atlanta deciding to extend the legacy of electing black mayors will probably play out.”

In a pre-dawn TV interview, Reed said the candidates "have run a high-road, high-minded campaign, and it's going to be left to us to make sure we do not divide this city during this very important election."

Asked about the prospect of being the first white mayor of Atlanta in a generation, Norwood said, "I have said all along that this is about uniting Atlanta. Dr. King said we should be evaluated by who we are, not what we looked like, and I have been so gratified that so many Atlantans across the city have decided that they can support me because of the work that I've done, because of how much I care about all communities in this city."

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See also: 2009 election results hearten GOP, deal blow to Obama

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