The stage is set. The field is fixed. The race is on.
Although qualifying is still nearly four months away and the election itself is not until Nov. 3, few if any political observers expect the next mayor of Atlanta to be anyone who hasn’t already joined the race. In fact, conventional wisdom holds that, come a year from now, the office will be occupied by one of the three apparent front-runners: City Council President Lisa Borders, Councilwoman Mary Norwood, or state Sen. Kasim Reed.
It won’t take anywhere near that long, however, for the rest of us to be sick of hearing about the mayor’s race. Typically, yard signs for city races start to appear sometime in late summer. You can thank Norwood for kicking the effort off early, peppering Atlanta lawns with her campaign logo last month.
“If you can find a neighborhood in the city where she doesn’t have a yard sign, it’s because someone stole it,” jokes one local politico.
But this year’s race started long before this year. Before she temporarily dropped out last fall, Borders had been a declared candidate since April 2007. And Norwood was engaged in de facto campaigning even before that, though she was consistently coy when asked if her busy schedule of meet-and-greets, splashy fliers and expensive polling meant she was running.
The 2009 mayor’s race differs from previous races in other significant ways. In the 2001 showdown between Shirley Franklin and then-Council President Robb Pitts, each raised and spent more than $3 million, a high-water mark for a city campaign. In these dark economic times, the current candidates could be lucky to break $1 million in fundraising.
As of the end of March, Norwood had $314,400 in her campaign war chest, compared to $265,100 for Reed, who was forced to suspend fundraising during the recent state General Assembly. Borders, who rejoined the race in early April, had somewhere around $230,000 left over from a year earlier. Just last week, Tom Bell, CEO of Cousins Properties and Borders’ former boss, announced a fundraiser for her at his Buckhead manse. Minimum contribution: $500.
As of now, the candidates are still in full fundraising mode. It’s possible that, by fall, all three front-runners could be fairly equally matched in terms of money. By contrast, campaign collections for lawyer Jesse Spikes, the leading second-tier candidate, took a plunge during the first quarter; his cash on hand amounted to $181,100.
It’s tempting to give the early edge to Norwood. After winning several citywide elections, she has arguably the best name recognition, followed by Borders. An energetic, seemingly tireless campaigner, Norwood has the strongest grassroots support — a fact underscored by thousands of small donations from housewives, blue-collar workers and other run-of-the-mill voters. And she has the most money.
Another seeming advantage for Norwood is Atlanta’s changing demographics, a subject much discussed in political circles. But former Mayor Sam Massell believes some of that talk is premature.
“Whereas Atlanta’s overall population continues to grow, the racial profile has not changed as greatly as some presume,” he says. “Voter registration itself is heavily African-American, with the black-white spread in the neighborhood of 50 percent to 40 percent. This doesn’t necessarily dictate how people will vote, but it’s frequently a major factor.”
According to figures released by the Georgia secretary of state’s office last month, Atlanta’s 280,500 registered voters are 51 percent black to 36 percent white.
With no breakaway favorite and numerous candidates on the November ballot, the mayor’s race will be decided in a runoff. Even her critics consider Norwood a lock for a runoff berth, but winning a runoff against a black candidate in a majority-black city is a tall order.
Reed will need to boost his name recognition, but that’s where campaign funds come in. Among many Atlantans, he’s best known for managing both of Franklin’s successful races — which, to some, makes him the putative “machine candidate.” Reed’s advisers include some of the same folks who helped Maynard Jackson win, but his campaign is being guided by a former staffer for U.S. Rep. John Lewis and the same media consulting firm that brought the Obama campaign in for a landing.
Although Mayor Franklin is expected to back Reed, she hasn’t yet done so publicly. Asked last Thursday if she was leaning toward one of the candidates, Franklin answered: “I’m not leaning any way. I’m standing straight. I’m not involved in that yet. I might be a liability.”
Early signs indicate that Reed and Borders will largely ignore Norwood for the time being and focus on battling each other for a runoff spot. Reed’s campaign literature touts his “commitment,” a clear dig at Borders for dropping out of the race for eight months. Borders, for her part, points to Reed only having moved inside the city limits a little more than a year ago.
Meanwhile, last week presented a potential stumbling block for Norwood in the form of a budget proposal by Franklin that calls for a property tax increase to end furloughs for police and other city workers. In a Friday press release, Norwood said she wouldn’t support a tax increase, adding that the city had enough money to “fund priorities” and calling the city budget “nothing more than a shell game.”
As the only candidate who must cast a vote on the budget and other City Council issues in the next few months, Norwood has to be careful not to give her adversaries ammunition to use against her later. That they’d use that ammunition, when the time comes, is not a matter for dispute.