By Maria Saporta
The 2017 Atlanta mayoral election is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
And it is anybody’s guess on how it will shake out.
The back-and-forth between Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell this past week shined a spotlight on several of the complex issues that will influence the outcome.
First of all, there’s the question of whether Reed’s attack against Mitchell and several other top contenders will move the needle at all. Reed has been prone to rant against Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, his former nemesis in the 2009 election who lost becoming mayor by only 714 votes.
Hardly anyone will argue that Norwood is the clear front-runner in this year’s race, and almost everyone assumes she will make it to the run-off.
So the real drama in this year’s election is who will be in the run-off against Norwood, and whether that candidate will be able to garner enough support to beat her. There are 13 candidates on the ballot with eight considered to be contenders.
Reed is doing everything he can to make sure the race doesn’t end up being Norwood versus Mitchell – two of his least favorites.
But Reed also has targeted others he hopes won’t make it to the run-off – namely former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves and former State Sen. Vincent Fort. Over the past seven-plus years, Reed often belittled and undermined both of the African-American elected leaders.
If Reed could select his two candidates to be in a run-off, they likely would be Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms and former Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman.
But if history is our guide, Reed has a spotty record of getting his favorite candidates elected. Reed did decisively win his re-election in 2013, but virtually every candidate he endorsed (both for the Atlanta City Council and for Atlanta Board of Education) lost.
Actually, in that election, the candidates backed by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin (once Reed’s ally) won their races – most notably Atlanta City Councilman André Dickens. Interestingly enough, Dickens is the only city councilman running unopposed this year.
“It’s exciting for André to be unopposed,” Franklin wrote me on Sunday in a text from the beach.
Asked who she was supporting for Mayor, Franklin was non-committal. She said she has met with most of the candidates more than once, and she’s willingly answered questions. But she is not sure she is going to make an endorsement anytime soon.
“2017 is such a different political year,” she wrote. “Not sure endorsements matter as much as they once did.”
Billy Linville, a political operative and communications professional, countered.
“Shirley is the most important endorsement out there,” said Linville, who is now advising Ceasar Mitchell’s campaign. “I think endorsements can be very important, especially from someone like Shirley because her support can serve as a validator for a candidate. When people are trying to make up their mind, it can have a very positive impact.”
Franklin even considered jumping into the race.
“I did seriously consider it,” Franklin said in an interview in late June. “It’s hard to get out of public life. You have to be really careful to not think you are indispensable.”
So why did she decide not to run? “I’m 15 years older,” said Franklin, 72.
When asked about her legacy as mayor, Franklin boiled it down to character.
“In hindsight the most important legacy is earning and maintaining the public’s trust, being a consensus builder and maintaining it,” Franklin said. “I would much prefer being remembered for honesty, integrity and hard work.”
Franklin also said she was troubled by the corruption investigation underway at City Hall, which she described as serious.
“I’m saddened by the cases that already have been made by the U.S. Attorney,” Franklin said. “Ethics need to be front and center.”
Not surprisingly, the back-and-forth between Mitchell and Reed focused on ethics, integrity and control. Mitchell made a case against Reed rushing into long-term contracts or agreements – specifically certain retail concessions at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport that won’t expire for more than a year.
Mitchell also said the city should hold off awarding contracts – especially when City Hall is operating under the cloud of a federal investigation.
In return, Mayor Reed turned his press conference announcing a proposed sale of the Civic Center to the Atlanta Housing Authority into an opportunity to blast Mitchell.
The Mayor came prepared with poster saying Mitchell had to pay $8,000 in fines because he did not file campaign and personal disclosures on time.
Reed also made hay of a recent WSB poll that showed Mitchell in fourth place with 10.4 percent (he’s been running second in several other polls) closely behind Bottoms (12.4 percent) and Aman (12.1 percent). Again Norwood was the only top candidate outside the margin of error of 4.37 getting 25.4 percent support.
Of note, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a close confidante of our our current Mayor, has endorsed Mitchell, which must not sit well with Reed.
“What makes this election so unusual is that there eight established competitive candidates,” Linville said. “There’s never been a situation like this before.”
In addition to Norwood, Mitchell, Bottoms, Aman, Fort and Eaves, the two other leading contenders of former City Council President Cathy Woolard and Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall. Michael Sterling, former executive director of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, said he also is a contender.
Each of those candidates can make a convincing case on how he or she will be able to garner enough votes to make it into the run-off.
But in reality, it’s anybody’s guess.
All will depend on which candidates have either broad-based or deep passionate support to get their voters to show up to the polls on Nov. 7.
No matter what happens, Atlanta’s City Hall will experience an incredible turnover with at least eight new councilmembers (four are giving up their seats to run for Mayor, three are giving up their seats to run for City Council President and Atlanta City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean is not running for re-election).
Come January, Atlanta will have a new Mayor, a new President of the Atlanta City Council and a majority of new councilmembers. Again, the only councilmember who is guaranteed a council seat is Dickens.
It will be a new day – no matter who wins. And it’s a given the next mayor’s leadership style will be different than Reed, who is a combative, yet fiercely proud leader who never hesitates to lash out against his enemies – real and perceived.
During a June mayoral forum, Bottoms was asked how her leadership style would differ from Reed’s. “I will smile as I cut you,” she said half-jokingly.
“Even strong supporters of Mayor Reed want a different kind of candidate,” said Linville, who formerly worked with Mayor Franklin. “The people of Atlanta clearly want someone who will bring people together. People want a new kind of mayor.”