Over the past few months, the leading candidates for Atlanta mayor have dutifully taken part in dozens of public forums across the city, giving the impression that no interest group is too obscure or any issue too unimportant to be addressed.
Last week, however, a politically oriented event was held downtown without a single office-seeker in sight. But this was hardly surprising. Most candidates would prefer being waterboarded than to go on the record discussing the evening’s chosen subject: race.
It didn’t help that one of the participants in last Wednesday’s panel discussion at Uptown Lounge was Aaron Turpeau, the longtime political operative associated with a controversial memo calling for coordination among black leaders to elect a black mayor.
When the memo surfaced in August, City Council President Lisa Borders quickly denounced it. State Sen. Kasim Reed labeled it “racist.” Even Mayor Shirley Franklin weighed in, dismissing it as “bigoted.”
But like it or not, where the mayor’s race is concerned, race remains the mastodon in the room. Although few have discussed it openly, it’s quite possible that no single factor will have as much impact in determining Atlanta’s next mayor — although not necessarily in ways that seem obvious.
“Race is a central element in Atlanta politics,” says Emory University political science professor Michael Owens, “but we’re one of those cities that can’t seem to talk about it in a meaningful way.”
Owens, who’s black and specializes in studying urban politics, says even he’s been surprised by the virtual absence of any discussion of race on the campaign trail. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the topic of endless behind-the-scenes conversations.
Consider the case of Mary Norwood. The white councilwoman is leading the polls, although she hasn’t raised the most money or, by most accounts, outshone her rivals in public forums. Certainly, she’s a tireless campaigner whose high name recognition results from years of meet-and-greets in seemingly every corner of Atlanta. Her accessibility has won her support among black voters. But there may be other explanations for her apparent popularity.
“One reason Norwood could be leading is that there are several black candidates in the mayor’s race" — namely Borders and Reed — "who are splitting the black vote," Owens explains.
Atlanta has always had racial block voting, according to Owens, who points to the 2001 runoff for Council president. That was the last time a major citywide election pitted a lone white candidate against a lone black one. Because the mayor’s race had already been determined in the general election, turnout among black voters slumped in the runoff, allowing Cathy Woolard to edge Michael Julian Bond in a contest where voting fell largely along racial lines.
Perhaps the most studiously avoided topic in the 2009 mayoral race is how much of Norwood’s support comes from her status as Atlanta’s “Great White Hope,” as some pundits jokingly — and privately — refer to her.
One longtime Northside community activist observes that many of her neighbors are suddenly Norwood enthusiasts, despite that they’ve never shown much interest in previous city elections. And it’s not just Northside. Over the past decade, an influx of whites into Atlanta has altered the city’s demographics, particularly in several politically active neighborhoods. In the 2000 census, whites accounted for just over 33 percent of the city’s population; the most recent statistics, from 2007, showed a jump to 38 percent.
At last week’s panel discussion on race, longtime political observer (and former CL columnist) Tom Houck noted bluntly, “The business community likes Borders, but white voters like Norwood because she’s white.”
Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell, the last white mayor of Atlanta, explains this phenomenon in terms of identity politics. “Normally, people vote for those who they believe can best represent their interests and understand their needs,” he says.
In 1973, when Massell ran for re-election against a young Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s black community wanted to seize the reins of government as a means of achieving civic empowerment. That year, the campaign for mayor was all about race. Massell says that when polling numbers from the general election showed that the city’s demographics had shifted and blacks made up the majority of voters, he realized he’d lose the runoff.
For Turpeau — who helped get Jackson elected — and others of his era, the notion that black citizens are best served by a black mayor is a no-brainer. Arguably, it’s a mind-set founded not on racism but self-interest — and it’s hardly unique to black voters.
“Turpeau got criticized for advocating for the election of another black mayor,” Owens says. “But you know there are white people out there thinking, ‘We’ve got to take back City Hall.’”
In fact, he says, Norwood’s campaign strategy of constantly attacking Atlanta’s government as poorly run is brilliantly divisive, delivering the effective subtext: “Black mayors have screwed up the city.”
Ironically, it’s a message that doesn’t resonate only with white voters. At last week’s panel discussion, one African-American woman stepped up to the mic to complain of the potholes, crime and vacant buildings that mar the city’s Southside. “What has black leadership done for us?” she asked.
Considering that poorer areas of town — Pittsburgh, Mechanicsville, Adair Park — lead the nation in home foreclosures, Owens says he’s not surprised that some black Atlantans are questioning the effectiveness of their elected officials.
“The interests that have typically been addressed by mayors from Maynard Jackson on have been those of the black middle class,” he says.
So how are Borders and Reed countering Norwood’s message? For the most part, says Owens, they’re not.
Most of the two black candidates’ direct attacks have been aimed at each other as they battle for a presumed runoff slot against Norwood. And even the primary focus of their campaigns — public safety — is largely intended to win over white voters, Owens posits, since crime has long been an ongoing problem in many black neighborhoods.
Both Borders and Reed seem engaged in what political scientists call “deracialization,” he says, in which a black candidate downplays his race in a bid to appeal to white voters — a goal that assumes extra urgency when facing a strong white opponent.
On the other hand, when Borders appears before a mostly African-American audience, she often adopts a more colloquial tone, dropping such blackisms as “Can I get an amen?” And this past weekend, in a show of solidarity, Reed was joined on the campaign trail by Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, both of whom are African-American.
In fact, even between black candidates, there are subtle, unquantifiable — but real — racial dynamics. As moderator Maynard Eaton pointed out at last week’s panel, from Jackson and Andy Young through Bill Campbell and Franklin, Atlanta has never elected a mayor as dark-skinned as Reed. And some pundits, including Turpeau, believe the very dark Marvin Arrington torpedoed his chance to unseat Campbell in 1997 with his suggestion — although later denied — that the light-skinned Jackson had “passed” as white.
If all of the tension over race seems to help Norwood’s chances in the Nov. 3 election — and it might — the situation could change dramatically leading into the Dec. 1 runoff, when, in all likelihood, she will go head-to-head against a black opponent.
According to voter-registration figures released in April by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, black voters still hold a majority in the city. As Massell points out, “This doesn’t necessarily dictate how people will vote, but it’s frequently a major factor.”
Turpeau predicts the gloves will come off for the runoff: “I expect things to get ugly.”
And then there’s the unforeseen, as happened in the 2006 race between John Eaves and Lee Morris for Fulton County Commission chairman. On the eve of the election, a radio ad was broadcast featuring Franklin, Young and Rep. John Lewis warning that a victory by Morris, a white Republican, could “turn back the clock on equal rights and human rights.
Says Massell: “When you look at what can happen between an able black candidate and an able white candidate for commission chairman, you have to wonder about the race for a position as important as mayor of Atlanta.”