“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” –Abraham Lincoln
“POWER! This [runoff] race revolves around that word.” – Rev. Joseph Williams
The Christmas holiday season finds Atlanta voters shopping for a new mayor in a runoff race that many suggest has become a nasty cat fight between the candidates and dogmatic between their surrogates in what is now reportedly a racially divisive political showdown.
“It’s on and popping,” quips CBS Atlanta political commentator Rashad Richey. “And, it isn’t nice or pretty I regret to report. This is a raucous race.”
The fierce runoff bout for campaign endorsements between the two female candidates competing to be elected Atlanta’s next mayor – Councilwomen Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood – has proved to be a riveting and revealing parade of Atlanta powerbrokers who have chosen sides in this contentious race to decide which lady will be elected our city’s 60th mayor.
Norwood, who received 21% of the general election vote, has surprisingly snared the staunch support of AFSME representing city workers; the PBA, representing Atlanta police, and the Atlanta Professional Firefighters Union Local 134. That’s impressive, but political pundits argue, what’s most significant are the array of endorsements from influential Democrat women such as former mayoral hopeful Cathy Woolard, noted black community activists Hattie and Joyce Dorsey, and Newsmakers Live/Journal board chairwoman Eleanorjan Welcome.
“This was not an easy decision given the legacy and rich history of Atlanta’s Black mayors since Maynard Jackson’s historic election in 1974,” says Welcome, who has owned and orchestrated an African American online news website for the past decade along with her husband Jim and this reporter. “Our Monday night NEWSMAKERS Live interview shows are broadcast just one block from the revered Butler Street YMCA where legendary Black community leaders like Jesse Hill, Herman Russell and State Senator Leroy Johnson among others hand picked who would be the Black choice to run for mayor. But those days are gone, and so too is the fierce focus on being exclusively committed to Black mayoral candidates. This is a new day and a new political order. Mary Norwood has been working for the past 12 years or more to earn our trust and our vote. Mary is the quintessential public servant; not a self-serving or power-hungry politician.”
There’ve been a chorus of African-American women singing the praises of Norwood and her candidacy. The Dorsey sisters are among those that consider her the quintessential choice for mayor.
“You don’t know somebody for over 40 years and then you turn your back on them because of color,” says Dr. Joyce Dorsey, president of the Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority [FACCA]. “I know of Mary’s work and her dedication to all people. She has liberated many people who are going through circumstances in the low-income community. I will support anybody that supports the people that I serve. I’m just sad she lost the last time. A lot of folks who are my color just don’t know how to take Mary. She sounds southern, she is White – so what? We’ve got to overcome that like we’re telling White folks to overcome us.”
“I have been a long-time friend of Mary Norwood,” adds Hattie Dorsey, the politically astute former president of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership [ANDP]. “She has been in every neighborhood, rich or poor, in this city. She doesn’t need a Google map. I don’t take anything away from the [mayors] that have served us in the past, so now we have a white woman who is stepping to the plate, and she cares about all of Atlanta. I want this city to have good leadership, fair leadership, open doors and not be selective based on friendship and cronyism.”
With the successive drumbeat of bombshell endorsements for Norwood by her former mayoral rivals -- Peter Aman, who finished with 11% of the vote, Ceasar Mitchell, who received 9%; and former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves-- it has been something of a slam dunk of Norwood’s mayoral competitors favoring her over Bottoms.
Mitchell, is a 16-year veteran City Councilmember and former City Council President whose father was an Atlanta cop and founder of the Afro-American Patrolman’s League, who was born, raised and educated in Atlanta. Many political pundits agree that Mitchell was repeatedly “punked,” humiliated and “ridiculed” by Mayor Reed during the general election mayoral contest.
“Mary, at this moment in time, is the best person to lead this city and I’m going to support her,” Mitchell says during a news conference on the City Hall steps. “This is not a decision I make lightly as a black man. Let’s be real about this. This is not a decision I make lightly as a Democrat. This is about what is best for the city of Atlanta. For me, there really is no other choice.”
"Ceasar Mitchell supporting Mary Norwood is one man, one woman, two losers," opined Mayor Reed, a fierce Bottoms fan.
“I am appalled that this mayor has demeaned the dignity of the office of mayor of a major US city,” says Norwood. “Mayor Reed, this is not worthy of Atlanta. I won’t have it. We do not need a barn yard, school age bully running this city.”
But that and other meaningful endorsements pale in comparison to the biggest and most surprising expression of support for Norwood. It comes from Atlanta’s first African American female mayor, Shirley Franklin. Many believe Franklin’s effusive endorsement amounts to a “game-changer” in the outcome of the December 5th election.
“Between these two candidates, I feel my involvement is necessary and required for we are at a crossroads in leadership,” says Franklin during a Nov. 27 City Hall news conference. “Atlanta is the worst place to be born poor because it is nearly impossible to gain financially or to move up the financial ladder to self-sufficiency. This election is about equity. It is also about integrity, transparency and issues that affect people – not race, not religion, not party.”
In an exclusive interview with this reporter, Franklin also condemned Reed, her former campaign manager, for his harsh, brazen and abusive comments about other candidates that surfaced during this bitter campaign.
“For eight years Mayor Reed has attacked and assailed many who have disagreed with him. He has attacked them publicly and personally,” she passionately replies in writing. “Hardly ever has any leader spoken up to defend those who are attacked leaving the person who speaks up standing alone. Years ago, Mayor Maynard Jackson warned me to expect such behavior. And David Franklin predicted Mayor Reed’s behavior.
"My children and I have been the object of Mayor Reed’s ridicule and private attacks. A recent example is his very quick, flippant, mean, petty response and name calling, when President Mitchell decided to endorse Mary Norwood,” Franklin continues. “Somehow leaders in Atlanta have allowed Mayor Reed to set a combative and mean tone, which has infected the politics of the current city elections. With a few weeks left in his term as Mayor, the tempers of others have boiled over. As in the cases of sexual harassment, where women are speaking up, there are more and more people in Atlanta pushing back when Mayor Reed attacks.
“You and I have known mayors - strong willed, iconic and charismatic men - none of whom have behaved with rudeness, pettiness and disrespect for others as Mayor Reed has,” former mayor Franklin concludes in her scathing denouncement. “It is very sad to witness because his behavior distracts from any celebration of his administration’s accomplishments. It is a tone that is less civil and less respectful than any time in my 40 plus years as a resident of Atlanta and as a keen observer of city politics.”
Mayor Franklin’s all-important public endorsement of Norwood and her robust rebuke of Mayor Reed may have been why Norwood now leads Bottoms by six percentage points in the latest WSB-TV poll.
“There is no way to overstate how important that [Shirley Franklin’s] endorsement was, and I am so grateful to Mayor Franklin for her careful and thoughtful analysis of the candidates,” Norwood told this reporter during our Monday night NEWSMAKERS Live interview last week. “We have all seen in this election season where there have been demeaning, disparaging, divisive untruths spread. And, that Atlanta at its finest. Mayor Franklin’s [endorsement] today was Atlanta at its finest.”
But Atlanta voters, not so fast my friends, this remains a very tight and very close race. This promises to be a nail-biter. The outcome is in serious doubt. This election could well prove to be a new day and new era for Atlanta mayoral politics. Some voters welcome and eagerly await that possibility, others lament and dislike that likelihood.
Election day turnout is expected to be the determining factor, and Mayor Reed, among others expect it to be an historic number of Atlantans who cast their vote on Tuesday, December 5th. “The early vote came out very favorably,” Reed reports. “More people voted in one week of early voting than people did in three weeks in the primaries. So, that suggests you are going to have a huge turnout election. There was about 47% African American turnout, 44% of our white brothers and sisters and then our other friends. So, as things stand right now in the early vote space, we know that on election day you are going to have a record turnout. The biggest thing you can do to impact the vote is person-to-person contact with 10 to 15 people who you know have direct relationships in Atlanta. All of us just need to go out here and go get it.”
To fuel that turnout in the Black community for Bottoms, Reed personally invited New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker to Atlanta to campaign for her and excite her black voter base. Booker, the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey which is a majority black city, was charming, captivating, compelling and convincing in his engaging and entertaining get-out-the-vote talk to an affluent group of some 50 young African American entrepreneurs and legal lions at the marvelous Morningside home of attorney Brandon and his wife, Mishon Williams. Brandon’s mother is noted personal injury attorney Rita Williams.
“It’s never been about the opposition,” Booker told the hastily arranged Sunday afternoon gathering. “We have all the power we need in every major election, but we don’t use that power. I don’t need to talk about another candidate because it is not about them. It’s about what we do. And, everyone of us in this room has the capacity, between now and Tuesday, to activate two or three other people. That’s what we’ve got to do; dominate our social media. Get the word out. And, ladies ‘withhold some stuff’ if somebody is not voting. I’m serious. There is so much on the line; this is such an incredible city, this is such a special community. Kasim has taken it so far. He’s about to hand the baton off. I want him to hand it off with forward momentum. I do not want him to hand that baton backwards.”
Bottoms has collected a hearty handful of political endorsements for her runoff election—ranging from Hank Aaron to Kwanza Hall to former mayor and civil rights icon Ambassador Andrew Young. Young weighed in at a news conference last week, saying he wants to continue "Atlanta's social contract" between black community leaders and white business barons, which has made "Atlanta different from any other city in the nation and, we've got to keep it special." He believes Keisha Lance Bottoms is the candidate to do that.
“I basically want to continue what we have been doing here in Atlanta,” Young says. “When I came here to Atlanta, I found a social contract that made Atlanta different from any city in America. It was a city where the business community decided that for them to grow, and to deal with the turmoil and the turbulence that was affecting other cities in this nation, they needed a coalition -- almost a social contract – between the business community and the human rights community. And, that social contract has made Atlanta different from maybe any city in the world. We’re here and we are getting along pretty good because our most recent mayors.”
Last Tuesday also saw some 50 or more prominent Atlanta black preachers such as Rev. Dr. Walter Kimbrough, Dr. Gerald Durley, Rev. Bernice King, Rev. Raphael Warnock, and Rev. Timothy McDonald and others attending a rally to endorse/support Bottoms’ candidacy. It was a spiritually and emotionally riveting session at Paschal’s Restaurant, an iconic political venue.
Atlanta’s African American church community was once the political calling-card for black elected officials and candidates. Some suggest their indelible influence has waned.
“There is no question that the black church is still a strong engine in our community,” says Rev. Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. “And, as I move through the streets of Atlanta, people were really divided in this election and they were looking for the clergy leadership to figure out which way to go. That’s still true in the runoff race, but remember the African American pulpit is still a major platform.”
“POWER—this race revolves around the word,” opines Dr. Joseph Williams, the dynamic 40-year-old co-pastor of Salem Bible Church. Dr. Williams is the creator and founder of The Journey, a 40-day holistic transformation of the mind, body and spirit that results in a complete and sustained life change. “The stakes of power, as it relates to Atlanta’s mayoral race, are at an all-time high. All the chips are on the table and one side will lose it all and the other will gain it all.The stakes being so high has brought the worse out of people. It has caused some to do and say things none of us would imagine. The quest for power is bringing out the true character of all who want it. Mayor Reed is full speed ahead with guns blazing. He is a highly competent political machine who’s run the city like he wanted to run the city while being apathetic of what people thought of him or his actions. Keisha Lance Bottoms becoming the next Mayor of the city will shelter his legacy and reserve his seat at the table. Personally, this makes sense to me and why would we expect him to do it any other way?”
Rev. McDonald told me it was tough to get the preachers there for the Paschal's luncheon because of Mayor Reed’s intimidating political presence and provocative prestige. McDonald, a politically savvy civil rights activist and pastor of First Iconium Baptist church, says they fear that a Keisha Bottoms administration will be a shadow government for the black status quo that Kasim Reed has continued and nourished because of his hotheaded temperament and polarizing persona. Pastor McDonald wonders whether Reed is a blessing or a curse and albatross for Keisha's election chances.
“This has been one of the most hurtful and divisive campaigns that I have witnessed in 40 years, and a lot of it has to do with the present mayor more so with Keisha Lance Bottoms,” McDonald tells this reporter. “Some of the divisiveness and uncertainty and anxiety we are experiencing is not about Keisha, it’s about her relationship with the mayor and whether or not there will be a break away from that. The biggest challenge I have had in talking to clergy is to seek to say she will not be a puppet.”
Councilwoman Bottoms ruefully admits that this runoff race getting testy and confrontational. She blames the current controversy on Norwood, not Mayor Reed.
“It is the ugliness of politics and it really speaks to the desire of some to have power at any cost,” Bottoms says to this reporter. “And, that means that there are lies and things that are being said to distract people from the factual issues. The real analysis in this campaign must be who we are as individuals, and what our vision is for the city, and what we’ve already done for our city. And, when you don’t have a record to stand on, then you must find things to distract from that. That’s what my opponent is doing.”
Others disagree with that analysis.
“The biggest impediment to Keisha Lance Bottoms winning is the support of Kasim Reed who has fiercely supported her in this race,” Atlanta political commentator Robert Patillo told TV One News host Roland Martin during his nationally syndicated morning broadcast.
“Kasim Reed has done more to destroy Black churches in Atlanta than any white Republican could ever do. He’s currently working on trying to turn Morris Brown’s campus into a movie studio. He’s done more for gentrification to move Black people outside of the city of Atlanta. He’s attacked every Black man in the race from Vincent Fort to John Eaves to Kwanza Hall to Ceasar Mitchell, so him going to barber shops in the hood, that he has not helped in the last eight years, is not going to be what pushes Keisha Lance Bottoms over the top.”
Mayor Reed sees it differently as he told his friends and contemporaries on Sunday while campaigning with Senator Booker. “My perception is that a lot of folks that have problems with me are directing it towards Keisha. But the city is at risk,” he warns. “You had a shot at me. I ran for re-election. I’m not on the ballot. We were in a situation where if I hadn’t gotten involved, I think you might have had two people from the majority community in the runoff. Fundamentally, after running the city for eight years you have a lot of people who are upset, and they view this as their shot to do what they could not do when my name was on the ballot. But, my goodness, you’re going to give Atlanta away?”
Booker likened Reed’s local impact and political clout to President Obama’s. “This guy could have won a third term [as Atlanta mayor] but he is stepping down right now, and there are a whole lot of games being played.”
Still, will black preachers and their congregations prove to be the deciding factor in this heated and racially charged runoff race? “Atlanta’s faith community is in a disarray,” says Dr. Williams. “There is no clear candidate to support.”
Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, a leading member of the city’s growing and influential LBGTQ voting bloc, finished third in the mayoral general election with 17% of the vote. Her supporters are educated, passionate political participants who are very likely to vote December 5th. Woolard’s recent endorsement of Norwood could prove to be the deciding factor in a week defined by significant endorsements from all segments of the new Atlanta electorate.
As expected, Norwood leads in recent polls among White, independent, and Republican voters, while Lance Bottoms maintains her lead from the first round of voting among blacks and Democrats.
"Atlanta is not a Black city due to its elected leadership. It’s Black because of its people,” says conservative political commentator Shelley Wynter. It is Black because of its entertainment. It’s Hip-hop clubs. Its restaurants and its beautiful sisters (I am a man). These are the things that make it a Black city. So, if a White female mayor is elected, it will not stop being a Black city. No more than if you elect a gay Asian male as city council president it will be a gay or Asian city. No, Atlanta is a Black city culturally and will remain so for the foreseeable future. So, excuse me if my fear of a White mayor is not scary as many in power want me to believe. For the people wanting me to fear a White mayor, are the same people who ran out the working poor and many Black residents. As Bottoms said in a candidate forum I moderated, she will do nothing different than Mayor Reed. Except ‘smile when she cuts you’.”
With both candidates campaigning feverishly and picking up endorsements across the board—on the left and right politically –this mayoral race seemingly remains too close to call or predict.