Upcoming city elections will show how Atlanta is undergoing profound changes

The Atlanta elections of 2009 likely will go down in history as turning point for our city.

This is our generation’s version of the 1969 election when for voters broke rank and defeated the candidate of the business community in favor of Sam Massell, a Jewish businessman whose family had long ties to Atlanta.

Up until Massell’s election, it had been customary for the mayor of the city of Atlanta to become an honorary member of the Piedmont Driving Club. But that offer was not extended to Massell.

And by 1973, when Atlanta’s first black mayor — Maynard Jackson — was elected, the transition was complete. The predominantly white business community no longer had a hold on the mayor’s office.

I predict that the 2009 elections will be just as transformative — not just the mayor’s race but also with the city council elections.

Since the days of Mayor Jackson, the political power in our city has been dominated by what has been called the Maynard machine. That machine was able to galvanize enough voter support to elect every mayor we’ve had until now.

What we are witnessing today is the weakened remnant of that machine, and it is looking less likely that its chosen mayoral candidate — Kasim Reed — will be victorious.

The two frontrunners in the race are City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, a white woman from Buckhead who has made deep inroads in the black community; and City Council President Lisa Borders, whose family has a rich Civil Rights heritage and is considered to be the business community’s candidate in the race.

Let’s let that soak in for a minute. Eight years ago, Shirley Franklin was elected as Atlanta’s first female mayor.

(I remember right after she had been elected, at the end of the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s annual meeting, I asked her a question. She said she really needed to go to the bathroom, so could we talk in the ladies’ room. “You’ve never been able to do that with a mayor before, have you?,” Franklin asked with a twinkle in her eye).

Think of how far we’ve come in eight years. The fact that our next mayor will most likely be a woman has barely been mentioned.

We are in a transformative period of Atlanta. The old rules of the game no longer apply. And while I can’t predict the outcome, I do know the sands of our city have shifted to a much more complex metropolis with an amazingly rich texture of race, ethnicity, wealth and power.

Starting with the mayor’s race, much has been said of Norwood being the first viable white candidate in nearly 30 years. But what has not been given nearly as much attention is her broad-based support in the African-American community.

According to InsiderAdvantage’s most recent poll released Oct. 16, 30.2 percent of black voters are supporting Norwood. That’s a larger percentage than the three top black candidates: Lisa Borders (23.8 percent); Kasim Reed (21.1 percent); and attorney Jesse Spikes (6.8 percent).

The total numbers show Norwood polling at 38.7 percent; Borders with 24.1 percent; Reed with 16.6 percent; and Spikes with 5.3 percent. The undecided makes up 13.4 percent of those polled, which means it is almost certain that the mayoral election will be decided in a run-off.

A politically powerful white attorney, who is supporting Reed, told me that if Norwood’s support in the black community holds up, she will be our next mayor. Much will depend on whether the supporters for the losing candidates will unite behind an “Anybody but Norwood” campaign or whether she will get a fair share of those votes.

No matter what, longtime City Hall operatives are worried.

Aaron Turpeau, who has worked at or around City Hall for several decades, said as much during Thursday night’s Newsmakers Live program at the Uptown Restaurant and Lounge. Turpeau gained notoriety earlier in the campaign for widely distributing a controversial memo that strategized on how to make sure blacks remained in power at City Hall.

When both Reed and Borders denounced Turpeau for thrusting race in the campaign, Turpeau said he got “pissed off.” He added that he was “disappointed” in their reaction.

Commentator Tom Houck then brought up a topic that usually is saved for back rooms.

“The question that is raised is how will the culture of Atlanta’s City Hall change if there’s a white woman mayor,” Houck said. “Atlanta is a city that is known a the black mecca. If there is a white woman, will there be a change in contracts?

To that Turpeau said: “No question there is a concern on what the culture will be.”

Also on Thursday night’s panel was state Rep. Ralph Long, a young African American leader who is supporting Norwood. He told the others that the times they are changing.

“It’s the end of injecting race into politics,” said Long, who had strongly criticized the “black” memo. “The Atlanta that I know is trying to work to resolve issues, not create issues.”

Turpeau then said he had nothing against Norwood per-se. “I’m a black person,” he said. “I think the city will continue to prosper if we continue black leadership.”

But in response to a question from moderator Maynard Eaton about whether the city is at a crossroads, even Turpeau acknowledged that change was in the air.

“It is at a juncture,” he said. “No matter which one (wins), it’s going to be a big change. Who is going to be at the table for black folks.”

To make matters even more complex, look at the amazing diversity in many of the other city races.

The City Council President race has two city council representatives running — Ceasar Mitchell, a young black leader who has won city-wide; and Clair Muller, a longtime white councilwoman from Buckhead. Dave Walker, a citizen activist and watchdog, also is in that race.

Post 1, the citywide seat being vacated by Mitchell, has three black candidates and an openly gay white candidate — Adam Brackman.

Post 2 has Amir Farokhi, whose father is Iranian and mother is an eighth generation Georgian; Aaron Watson, a black attorney and accountant who served eight years on the Atlanta school board and has lived in Saudi Arabia; and Weslee Knapp, a white real estate broker.

One of the most interesting district races is District 6: Liz Coyle, a married white neighborhood activist; Alex Wan, a gay man of Asian descent; Steve Brodie, a gay white man; Bahareh Azizi, a community leader whose family is from Kuwait; Tad Christian, who is white and is now a stay-at-home dad; and Miguel Gallegos, a gay man of Hispanic descent. It can hardly get any more diverse than that.

Another hotly contested city council race is District 11 with nine candidates running. A political observer said to me that the mayoral run-off could end up being determined by District 6 (Northeast intown) and District 11 (Southwest Atlanta), both certain to end in run-offs, ensuring a large turnout in those two areas of the city.

What these and the other races demonstrate is that Atlanta’s demographic profile is multi-dimensional and ever-changing.

It is an exciting time to be in Atlanta to witness a real-life “out with old and in with the new” state of transition.

About Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.
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3 comments
John
John

This is an interesting and insightful commentary, Maria.

Whoever wins the election will have a difficult job, though not because of the racial makeup of the City. The real challenges arise from the fact that Atlanta has fewer than half a million residents, yet it in many ways functions as a city twice as large, serving as the region's center of commerce, transportation, tourism, etc.

As an example of the bind this creates, we can look to the number of police officers in Atlanta. Several (all?) mayoral candidates support increasing the number of police officers. Few Atlantans would oppose this goal. Unfortunately, the tax base of the City makes funding additional positions difficult. Moreover, Atlanta already has an above-average number of officers among "large" cities. A May 2002 Department of Justice report shows that, as of 2000, Atlanta had the 11th most police officers per 100,000 residents of all cities with populations over 250,000. See http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/pdlc00.pdf

So what do we do? We should begin by acknowledging the problem: Atlanta's tax base is too small to provide all the services that major cities provide. I have no idea what the "right" answer is: raise taxes? cut services? change priorities? But in choosing the next set of city leaders, we should listen to carefully to make sure that the persons seeking to fill those positions are being forthright in addressing the issue.

Native Atlantan
Native Atlantan

I believe Atlantan's south and north are figuring out they are all underserved for the taxes we pay. For many decades the community has been split, south thinking north was getting everything and visa-versa. One day, I think we all figured out that all communities were underserved and special interests were the only to benefit.

The common theme that I hear - if this person, if this party (thankfully our elections are non-partisan) or this machine can't get the job done - then it is simply time to give the next guy (or gal as the case may be) a chance. I believe that will happen in this election.

I remember all of the talk that President Obama could not win because white people would go into the polls and vote against him because of his race - that was simply not correct. I believe the same will be true if not on election day then on December 1st.

Atlantan's young and old believe our City needs to be managed better and that special interests do not serve our needs. Thank-you for your insights Maria.

Native Atlantan

Lauren
Lauren

Such a thoughtful point that we should all step back for a moment and consider the significance of this election outside of our own personal interests.

I'm an Atlanta native and proud that we have such a diverse pool of interested and concerned citizens and that our elections are not simply political, but historical.

There are times when we need to look beyond just the stats. And then there are time when we need to remember to just look at the facts. You are great at helping us do both when it is needed most.