Mayoral candidates can rise above racial tensions that have divided Atlanta in the past

For the past couple of months, I’ve been talking to the top candidates for Atlanta mayor about my concern that this could be the most divisive mayoral campaign in the past three decades.

I thought that a likely run-off election that is almost sure to include City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who is white, and any of her opponents, all of whom are all black; that race would raise its ugly head.

Little did I expect that a major racial blow-up would happen several months before the general election on Nov. 3.

But that’s what happened this week when a position statement by the Black Leadership Forum a group that remains a bit of a mystery, was widely distributed, if not authored, by Aaron Turpeau, a veteran of Atlanta politics dating back to the city’s first black mayor.

Turpeau’s message was this: If the race gets into a run-off, Norwood will win, and blacks will lose control of City Hall. So, he argues, the black candidates need to rally behind one candidate who can win without a runoff. His scenario was that all the major black candidates should withdraw and support City Council President Lisa Borders because she has the best chance of winning outright.

Fortunately, every major mayoral candidate denounced such tactics and such a racially-charged strategy. After long conversations with each of the top candidates over the past couple of months, I’m optimistic that Atlanta will rise above the racist cesspool that has divided this city in the past.

Why? Every one of the major candidates has lived and worked in biracial and multiracial worlds. Every one of them knows that they can only win if they garner support from voters from all over Atlanta — black, white, Hispanic, rich, poor, young, old…

In other words, they have no choice but to appeal to all Atlantans. And I believe each one of them is personally dedicated to not letting race tear this city apart.

Without wanting to appear naive, I now believe Atlanta is entering a post-racial era: that closely parallels the generational change in attitudes that led to last year’s election of Barack Obama as president of the United States.

It hasn’t always been that way. In 1973, the mayor’s race ended up in a run-off between incumbent Sam Massell, and Maynard Jackson, who ended up becoming Atlanta’s first African American mayor. But that run-off was vicious and racially charged. Massell’s campaign slogan during the run-off was: “A City Too Young to Die.”

During the city’s 1981 mayoral campaign, race was still front and center. This time, the top two candidates were former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, an African American. Young’s main opponent was progressive state legislator Sidney Marcus, who was white.

As a cub reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Intown Extra, I covered that contest. The message out of the Marcus camp: Do you want eight more years of Maynard Jackson? If so, elect Young.

What struck me was that with few exceptions, whites were supporting Marcus and blacks were supporting Young. Young won.

Fast forward to 2009. It would be a huge mistake to assume that only whites will support Norwood and that whites will not support the top African-American candidates.

In fact, this election could end up showing what an integrated city Atlanta has become. Demographic studies show that the city is much more racially-balanced today than it has been for decades.

Between 2000 and 2007, it is estimated that the city’s white population increased from 31 percent ot 36 percent while Atlanta’s black population declined from 61 percent to 57 percent. And when one considers likely voters, the numbers are even closer.

Norwood told me she decided to run only after she was convinced that she had support from throughout the city. She proudly says that of her 2,000 yard signs, 40 percent are in Buckhead; 40 percent are in the southside; and 20 percent are in northeast Atlanta.

“It’s hard to say I’m a divisive candidate if I have 700 yard signs in the southside,” said Norwood, who proudly says that one of her messages is: “A Mayor for Everyone.” “I’m going to do everything in my power to continue to connect with people in every part of this city.”

State Sen. Kasim Reed said the events of the past week show that Atlanta is still experiencing “growing pains” when it comes to race.

“The way we handle this election will determine whether we will be a city of the future or a city of the past,” Reed said. “Using race in the course of a political election is a tactic that was used in the past. If we are going to focus on the future, we are going to have to have the strength not to use tactics that we know will damage the city.”

Reed boasts of support from all sectors including several state legislators, both white and black. “My relationships in the legislature and my whole career has been bridging gaps between communities,” Reed said.

Borders, who distanced herself from Turpeau’s position paper by denouncing his comments and saying he wasn’t speaking for her or her campaign, has said repeatedly that the “river of race” runs through nearly every issue of Atlanta.

But Borders believes Atlanta has reached a point where it can have an open and honest discussion about race.

It is not a new subject for her. As the grand-daughter of a leading civil rights ministers, Borders grew up in both white and black Atlanta, including attending the Westminster Schools, an affluent and predominantly white private school.

Borders has bristled when some have said that she’s not black enough. “When did I quit being black?” Borders has asked rhetorically. Still Borders says that one of her major strengths is her ability to work with whites, blacks and others — professionally and politically.

The fourth leading candidate is attorney Jesse Spikes, who has spent most of his career with the law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge.

It was in that role that Inman Allen, son of late Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., (the only white Southern elected official to testify in favor of the Civil Rights Act), got to know and gain respect for Spikes. Allen, who hired Spikes to represent him in a racially-tense legal situation, recalled how Spikes showed an ability to defuse the potential conflict and find consensus.

But it’s not only the mayor’s race that could be a source of racial friction. The campaign for the president of the Atlanta City Council includes two curret high-profile city council representatives — Clair Muller, who is white; and Ceasar Mitchell, who is black.

It will be up to all the candidates in both contests to make sure that racial issues don’t polarize this city.

Reed said that if anyone associated with his campaign were to engage in racial politics that “damages the fabric of our city, then I will immediately stop it and repudiate it.”

Norwood said there’s an opportunity for all the mayoral candidates to stand together and condemn racial politics.

“I think Atlanta’s best day will be when the candidates in the course of the campaign and run-off have a press conference and say it is unacceptable,” Norwood said. “I do want to make a pledge that we would agree that Atlanta is too important, that in the city that’s been too busy to hate, that this city has no place for racial politics. We can proclaim to be a city of inclusion.”

That’s why I now believe this mayoral election will not divide or destroy our city. All the top candidates actually have shown that they can bridge the racial divides of our past. They realize that they won’t be able to win or govern this city unless they appeal to every sector.

While the mayoral candidates may not be ready to stand arm-in-arm, side-by-side on the higher plane of color-blindness, individually they offer hope that Atlanta is entering a post-racial era.

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.

3 replies
  1. Ralph Johnson says:

    What’s missing in all the analysis so far is based on the latest poll numbers, Norwood is getting 70% of the decided white vote. The fact is the vast majority of whites support Norwood and Reed and Borders have very little white support. Norwood is winning the race so far, because she has more Black support than Borders or Reed have white support. Sadly this race looks like it will be another Young/Marcus race of 1981.Report

    Reply
  2. Jason Washington says:

    It may be true that Norwood has up to this point cornered the white vote. However, those latest poll numbers that you speak of also show a substantial increase in support for Lisa Borders, while indicating that Norwood’s support remains relatively stagnant. Forget Kasim’s latest poll. It’s totally bogus. He will disclose neither the region of the city where he culled the numbers, nor what questions he asked. The real news in terms of current poll analysis is that Atlanta voters are starting to recognize that Borders represents the only candidate who is proposing a feasible vision for the city. Norwood needs to stop relying on the “I’m short and feisty” platform and start giving voters a platform they can actually have faith in.Report

    Reply
  3. Jasher Scott says:

    Ralph, how do we know about the percentage of the white vote? Was that information also included in the poll numbers? I’m a statistician, and I can tell you that top-line numbers without any cross-ties for demographic information doesn’t tell you much. Top-line numbers can be meaningless without that additional context.

    Jason, Borders may be up in the polls, but how do we know that Reed’s poll is totally bogus? Was there an earlier poll that included that same information (location of pollsters, etc.)? I have to agree with you about Norwood though. Short and feisty does not a race win.Report

    Reply

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