The heir apparent to Atlanta’s black political legacy, a 40-something lawyer named Kasim Reed, pulled out a razor-thin 758-vote margin of victory in a mayoral runoff election that one voter defined this way: Maintain the status quo or shake up Atlanta's racial firmaments.
A recount is likely, and Mr. Reed’s opponent, at-large City Councilor Mary Norwood, has not conceded the race. But Reed declared victory, saying, "Guess who's going to be the 59th mayor of Atlanta?” The margin of victory was 758 votes out of 83,000 cast, but some ballots have not yet been counted. Voting officials had not declared a winner as of Wednesday morning.
Turnout was much higher than expected, surpassing even that of the general election. Race, or at least racial political tradition, appeared to play a role as voters seemed, on one hand, energized by the possibility of shaking up tradition or, on the other, worried about the prospect that the African-American community could lose its grip on City Hall.
“The path to victory for Atlanta’s next mayor is clear, even if the candidates don’t want to say it. It’s about race,” declared Atlanta Journal-Constitution writers Cameron McWhirter and John Perry after the general election.
While both candidates made inroads across racial lines, Reed’s success came in large part from endorsements from black powerbrokers and rap stars; his emergence as the youthful heir to the so-called “Jackson Machine” built up by Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, in the 1970s; and his success, ultimately, in reaching out to Atlanta’s gay population, where the race may have been won or lost.
His first priorities are to hire 750 more police officers and to open all the city’s teen centers. Ms. Norwood, the owner of an automated-calling firm and an eight-year city councilor whose focus on neighborhood issues had earned her kudos across this diverse city, wanted to fix stubborn bookkeeping problems and focus on Atlanta’s crumbling infrastructure.
“Norwood wants to tackle the black box that the city’s finances have become, and I appreciate that,” said voter Jason Nettles of the Candler Park neighborhood. The quality of city services relative to the tax burden ranked high on his list of complaints, noting that some weeks the recycling or trash truck fails to show up, without explanation.
Tucci Andrea, a resident of the Grant Park neighborhood, told the Journal-Constitution she voted for Reed because she likes his position on crime, finances, and homelessness. “He has a good grasp of creating an agenda that’s going to help everybody,” she said.
Blacks on Atlanta’s south and west sides appeared energized to vote to keep City Hall in African-American hands in a city that has become, on the whole, more white in the past two decades. Whites in the more affluent east and north sides of Atlanta saw their strongest shot in a generation to regain power at City Hall as Norwood proved to be a capable crossover candidate.
The contest turned hard-edged in the last few weeks of the campaign, as Norwood claimed that the Reed camp had intimidated her black supporters into switching their votes and as Reed supporters claimed that Norwood was a lightweight and not up for the mayor's office.
It was a hard-fought race after a general election in which Norwood got 46 percent of the vote. The race may have came down to the city’s east and northeast sides – home to some of Atlanta’s most historic neighborhoods.
In those diverse and gay-friendly districts of older but gentrifying neighborhoods, Reed appears to have gained nearly 600 votes on Norwood from the general election – enough to be the determining factor if the vote totals hold up.
While he is against gay marriage, Reed, a Democrat, has supported gay rights, and he chided Norwood for missing a critical vote on gay issues during her City Council term. Norwood, an Independent who has voted in more Republican primaries than Democratic ones, says she supports gay marriage.
Since Maynard Jackson became the first black mayor of a Southern city in 1973, black mayors have led an economic renaissance in Atlanta, while also promoting accepting attitudes that have led to the city to having the third-largest percentage of gay residents in the US, behind New York and San Francisco.
But as more whites poured into the city in the past two decades, the political balance began to swing and concerns intensified about neighborhoods, infrastructure, and crime, and that City Hall had become stultified with patronage.
The city’s large population of poor blacks, meanwhile, has not seen prospects improve dramatically under 36 years of black mayors
If Reed indeed becomes mayor, his planning book will be instantly full. The next mayor faces sagging revenues, a looming pension crisis, and a rash of high-profile killings and street crimes.
Reed said his first job will to be find a new police chief to replace retiring Chief Richard Pennington.
Political observers marvel at Reed's accomplishment. Early on in the contest, Reed polled at only 8 percent and seemed a distant third to Norwood and City Council President Lisa Borders. But Atlanta’s political class solidified behind him after the general election. He raised nearly twice as much money as Norwood did in the final days of the race.
“Assuming there are no more surprises in a race which has produced several already, Reed will have pulled off one of the biggest comebacks in Atlanta political history, and kept Norwood from becoming the city’s first white mayor in 36 years,” writes the Southern Political Report’s Tom Baxter.
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