Without a runoff election, Atlanta would already have its first white mayor in a generation.
Instead, a black candidate who once polled at 8 percent has drawn even in Tuesday’s runoff race. Even more surprising: The outcome may well be determined by an emerging and gung-ho minority – gays and lesbians.
The runoff, a peculiarly Southern invention from the early 1900s designed to keep groups like the Ku Klux Klan from dominating one-party Democratic politics, has come to be seen as disadvantageous to blacks, fragmenting votes in cities where blacks don’t have a majority. (Runoffs are held whenever a candidate can’t rope a 50 percent majority in the general election.)
But if contests in Houston (which could elect its first openly gay mayor on Dec. 12) and Atlanta are any indication, the runoff has served to keep black candidates alive. It's now also injecting sexual dynamics into urban politics in these two leading Southern cities.
As part of that process, the century-old runoff system itself has been transformed, updated, and proven to be keenly relevant in locating the most representative man or woman to steer a city’s future. The rap against runoffs are that they can favor flukes and that turnout for them tends to be much lower than in the general election.
“Whoever they were originally intended to advantage, it’s fairly certain no one could have anticipated [runoff] elections like those being held this year, even a decade or so ago,” writes Tom Baxter of the Southern Political Report.
In Atlanta, at-large City Councilor Mary Norwood, who is white, or Kasim Reed, a popular state senator, who is black, will inherit a smorgasbord of challenges: deep-seated fiscal problems, citizens' crime fears, and how to restore Atlanta's reputation as a prosperous beacon of the New South.
Some experts posit that while Ms. Norwood has nearly 25 percent support among black voters, some African-American voters simply can’t stomach the thought of Norwood’s face stamped on a city that in many ways has come to define American black politics since the election of Maynard Jackson as mayor in 1973.
True, standard racial boilerplate has emerged late in the campaign, but a new dynamic has also bubbled up, largely thanks to the runoff: the power of gay politics in the South.
In Houston, a runoff pitting openly gay city controller Annise Parker against former city attorney Gene Locke, who is African-American, may come down to socially conservative Republicans and whether they decide to lodge a protest vote against Ms. Parker.
In Atlanta, which has the third-largest population of gays in America (about 13 percent) behind New York and San Francisco, that energetic demographic may for the first time be able to lay claim to a runoff election.
“I cannot recall a mayor's race when there's been so much attention placed on the gay and lesbian vote,'' Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, told the Los Angeles Times.
Both Norwood and Senator Reed are seen as pro-gay, although Reed favors a civil union provision over gay marriage. Norwood, meanwhile, has said she supports gay marriage, although she’s also had to defend herself against charges that she’s a closet Republican.
If turnout on Tuesday is high, that may favor Norwood, because it will mean that white voters are eager to “make their votes count,” says Michael Leo Owens, a political scientist at Emory University here.
Gay voters, too, are likely to play a role in total turnout. Gay-friendly east side neighborhoods such as Virginia Highlands, Sherwood Forest, and Candler Park have the opportunity to elect the city’s first openly gay city councilor in Alex Wan, an Asian-American candidate.
If that race drives gay turnout, as is expected, it could favor Norwood. Reed, meanwhile, has racked up a heap of official endorsements and raised twice as much money as Norwood in the run-up to the runoff. He also has support of many white voters for his tough stance on crime and his push to keep local teen centers open.
The mayoral races in Atlanta and Houston, instead of raising questions about the modern relevance of the runoff system, may show that runoffs adjust to the political times. At the same time, runoff requirements, which are now part of elections in Georgia and a handful of mostly Southern states, are likely to be modified or abandoned by some states in coming years, predicts University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.
But Georgia, for one, is likely to hold onto its runoff tradition, says Mr. Owens at Emory.
“Runoffs as a whole have democratic purpose, because the idea is to come to an agreement that there’s a mandate for a particular candidate,” says Mr. Owens at Emory. “There are too many candidates in the general election, so there’s no clear sense of what the electorate really wants.”
He adds, “One could change this entire system very easily, but in the state of Georgia, at least, we’re quite content to have runoffs.”
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