In Atlanta, some black voters weigh backing city's first white woman mayor

The Atlanta mayoral runoff Tuesday – between Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood –  has provided a snapshot of an increasingly diverse urban electorate.

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Mary Norwood, candidate for mayor, hugs volunteers (from l.) Marsha Cole, Johnny Austin, and Sheryl Favors as she arrives at her headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to thank supporters and watch returns come in Nov. 7 in Atlanta. Nearly a dozen candidates competed to succeed term-limited Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

James Morgan feels in his bones that being a “descendant of slaves” is still a defining quality of his existence as a black man in America.

In that way, the retired gas-line worker takes particular pride in Atlanta’s nearly five decades of black leadership, epitomized today by Mayor Kasim Reed, a descendant of Nigeria’s Igbo tribe who has overseen a spectacular economic run for the South’s preeminent trade and culture hub.

Born and raised on the city’s rapidly-gentrifying east side, Mr. Morgan, wearing a fedora and leather jacket, understands the importance of the city as a paragon of black competence – a legacy that to him seems especially important as the FBI in November reported an uptick in racial hate crimes nationally against both whites and blacks.

Yet Atlanta and its AA+ bond rating face a pivotal choice Tuesday. Morgan, for one, says he is torn between the two candidates facing each other in a run-off. On one hand, there is former City Councilor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the daughter of the late '60s-era soul singer Major Lance; on the other City Councilor Mary Norwood, an energetic campaigner from tony – and majority-white – Buckhead, who lost to Reed by just over 700 votes in 2009. If elected, Ms. Norwood would be Atlanta's first white woman mayor – and its first white mayor in more than four decades.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Atlanta resident James Morgan says that after nearly 50 years of black leadership, Atlanta may be ready for a white mayor.

Despite a long string of black mayors, “wealth passes to whites, poverty passes to us,” says Morgan, taking a stroll through Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood on a chilly fall morning. “As blacks, we don’t care how high the tide is going because our boats have holes in them. To fix that, we are going to need a different type of politician. We need whites to come in and help us with it.”

In some ways, that may be happening. The Atlanta mayoral election has provided a snapshot of an increasingly diverse urban electorate with priorities that, in some respects, seem to rise above race.

At the same time, this emerging coalition – ranging from socially conservative black retirees to culturally progressive white doctoral students – has the capacity to upend a carefully calibrated power balance that many African-Americans still believe is necessary to showcase black excellence to an ever-skeptical world.

“People have loved the fact that Atlanta has had strong black mayors,” says Maynard Eaton, a long-time Atlanta columnist and political strategist. “After all, this is the South, and Atlanta is the cradle of the civil rights movement. But there are young folks who have come up in a more racially tolerant era – below 40, young families – who are wondering: ‘What the [heck] has a black mayor done for me?’ They are the ones saying, ‘Let’s give white folks a chance.’ The black thing isn’t as black as it once was.”

It is a drama that has played out in other cities – including Detroit; Memphis, Tenn.; and Savannah, Ga. – where majority-black populations have recently elected white mayors. It also comes during a fall when voters in New Orleans and Charlotte just elected their first black women mayors. But given its prominence in black culture, the Atlanta mayoral election may provide what Mr. Eaton calls a “tipping point” for black power in the United States.

The Atlanta metro area, set on the southern Appalachian slope, is home to nearly 6 million people, making it the country’s ninth-most populous.

But the city of Atlanta proper, at fewer than 600,000 residents, is smaller than Portland, Ore. The city whose burning by Gen. William Sherman in 1864 broke the Confederacy was 54 percent black in 2010, down from 67 percent in 1990. The 2020 census may well see blacks lose the majority but retain a plurality, says Michael Leo Owens, the Atlanta-based author of “God and Government in the Ghetto.”

The center of that shift: The city’s oak-laced east side, filled with bungalows and ranches, that is currently diversifying away from burglar bars and corner snack shops to burger bars and $750,000 cookie cutter homes.

David Goldman/AP
Atlanta city councilwoman and mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks at an election night party in Atlanta, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. Nearly a dozen candidates are competing to succeed term-limited Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. With so many contenders running, it's a safe bet that some of these elections won't be settled Tuesday. For any race in which no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will return for a runoff election Dec. 5.

The mayoral race will likely be won or lost here, where young couples with wallet-chains and strollers roll past septuagenarian black retirees, and where rising home valuations have led to uproar over taxes but also created millions in newfound wealth for black families who sold their homesteads.

Kirkwood, for one, sits on the ridge of what Mr. Owens calls a “crescent of gentrification.” 

Here, the election touches on deeper issues of economic displacement and the steep wealth gaps that in many ways are the underbelly of Atlanta’s success. But there is also a harder look at the stubborn lack of opportunity and advancement for the city’s poorer and more vulnerable neighborhoods, such as Vine City and Mechanicsville. A corruption probe at City Hall has hurt Lance Bottoms, who was forced to return campaign contributions from an implicated vendor.

“Many African-Americans are long past the idea of Atlanta as a black municipal empowerment city par excellence,” says Professor Owens. That’s why “Keisha Lance Bottoms has to work very hard to figure out how she’s going to get a lot of those black voters. The areas that demonstrated some of the greatest degrees of excitement and mobilization between the general election and the runoff have actually been districts that are white or have recently become majority white or plurality black.”

Two generations ago, white flight turned the streetcar suburbs on the city’s east side from nearly all white to nearly all black in the span of a decade. Now an influx of new urbanites is changing the demographic mix again.

“This area of town proves that diversity equals success,” says Atlanta native Perry Schwartz, who in 1971 led a school desegregation program under the city’s first black school superintendent. “And I think this is how the future could look if things go well.”

Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie has been studying the shift from her front porch.

She lives and votes on the East Side, which bucked the racial dynamics by supporting a Bernie-Sanders style outsider, Cathy Woolard, in the mayoral election. The area also handily reelected Natalyn Archibong, who is African-American, to City Council. Ms. Archibong, an Atlanta native and lawyer, has embraced the neighborhood’s change while staying receptive to local issues from mass transit to crime.

“Blacks are still a force to be reckoned with in terms of being a voting bloc” in Atlanta, says Dr. Gillespie, the author of “Race and the Obama Administration: Substance, Symbols and Hope.”

But “when I look at my neighborhood, I see it as being young and progressive, kind of hipster-y, and these are the kinds … of white voters who are not necessarily going to be drawn to [a candidate] because she’s white,” she says. “These are the types of voters who actually are also invested in the notion of Atlanta being the city that’s too busy to hate, and who see a cachet in having blacks as their elected leadership. … They challenge the idea that Atlanta’s changing [racial make-up] is going to portend the end of blacks being able to hold [City Hall].”

Outside dynamics have largely superseded the emergence of white mayors in majority black cities. The ineptitude of the Ray Nagin administration was laid bare after hurricane Katrina. In Detroit, black voters couldn’t ignore a municipal bankruptcy that emerged under black leadership – or the scandal that landed former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in prison for 28 years. The city re-elected its white mayor, Mike Duggan, by a 3-to-1 margin earlier this month. To be sure, Atlanta has not been immune to scandal, especially long-running probes into vendor contracting at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest tarmac. One such investigation landed a past mayor in federal prison.

So far, these new white mayors have, if anything, embraced solidarity with African-American communities.

In Savannah, Mayor Eddie DeLoach is spearheading a fight to remove the name of segregationist Gov. Eugene Talmadge from the iconic Savannah Bridge. Mayor Mitch Landrieu led an effort to remove four Confederate statutes from downtown New Orleans. Moreover, New Orleans just replaced the term-limited Mr. Landrieu with LaToya Cantrell, the city’s first woman mayor.

Yet ugly overtones of the past still seep through. Just days before the November election, thousands of Atlantans received a robocall urging the election of Lance-Bottoms.

“Keep Atlanta black,” the female voice said. “Only Keisha can stop the white takeover of City Hall.” Lance-Bottoms denied involvement and asked the state attorney general to investigate.

No matter its provenance, the “keep Atlanta black” message crudely evoked an academic white paper that circulated ahead of the 2009 election, suggesting that Atlantans would be best served by coalescing behind a black candidate.

Such overtly racist appeals jarred many people, including North Carolina native Charles VunCannon, a doctoral student at Emory University, who recently bought a home in what he deems “bohemian” East Atlanta.

“I’m new to Atlanta’s political dynamics, but no matter what is going on, I’ll be looking at the person, not their race” when I vote, says Mr. VunCannon, taking time out of his day to pick litter at a nearby off-ramp.

For his part, Mr. Morgan is the direct beneficiary of Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor, who was elected in 1973.

Mr. Jackson, who died in 2003, created new institutions to give voice to individual neighborhoods, the framework for the city’s neighborhood culture. Jackson also instituted affirmative action that led to Morgan getting a job on a gas company crew.

The job became Morgan’s first real interaction with white counterparts. A feeling of unease as he came aboard quickly gave way to real camaraderie, he says.

It is a lesson he sees all around him in Kirkwood, where he hopes the courage to transcend race leads to deeper – and, perhaps, lasting – breakthroughs.

“The question now is whether the climate we have created here can be duplicated,” he says.

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