By Tom Baxter
“Someone said to me yesterday, whatever you do, don’t cry,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said at a press conference Friday after announcing she won’t seek a second term. “And for God’s sake, don’t have an ugly cry.”
There was a damp tissue or two, but this was definitely not an ugly cry. Bottoms’ demeanor after breaking the news seemed more like relief than anguish.
The mayor’s critics might dispute her record, but there’s no question these last three-plus years have been a rough time to be mayor of Atlanta. A crippling cyberattack three months into her term, a federal investigation into the previous administration, protests turned violent, mounting crime and, oh yes, the pandemic. It shouldn’t take too many tears to turn in your notice for that job.
Bottoms claimed she could have won re-election this year without a runoff. The critics can dispute that also, but it’s a moot point. Bottoms’ decision has changed the atmosphere of this year’s race in a way she never could have as a candidate. The relevant questions of last week aren’t relevant anymore. This was going to be a race largely about Bottoms’ record on crime, but without the incumbent as a target, the question shifts from “what did she do?” to “what could you do better?”
We should know soon enough whether, as broadly hinted, former Mayor Kasim Reed gets in the race. It might seem that the ongoing federal investigation into corruption while he was mayor would make it less likely he does. But the opposite may be true.
The bribery investigation has been going on for more than six years now. Upwards of 10 people have pleaded guilty, gone to jail or been indicted. While Reed’s name has floated through many stories about the probe, he hasn’t been charged with anything. There might be no better “put up or shut up” gesture for Reed than to announce he’s running again.
Did Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and Dentons lawyer Sharon Gay gain any traction by getting in the race before Bottoms got out, or will they be trampled by a herd of new candidates? They’ve both raised impressive war chests, which always helps. But the test for both is going to be how quickly they retool an anti-incumbent campaign into a one fit for a free-for-all.
And what about Mary Norwood, who lost to Reed by 714 votes in 2019 and to Bottoms by 759 votes in 2017? She’s announced she’s running for a city council seat, but the mayor’s race might be more attractive to her now. With an active breakaway movement which could result in her Buckhead base becoming a separate city, she might also have more than one mayor’s race in mind.
Norwood filed an affidavit in connection with the case brought by Trump supporters challenging the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. She took no side in that case but discussed her own questions about the integrity of the process in her elections.
That challenge was dismissed, but Republican unhappiness with the presidential election results led to the passage of Senate Bill 202. The Atlanta mayoral will be the first major election in Georgia to be conducted under the new rules and restrictions imposed by that legislation, and it promises to be an interesting test of how it’s going to work.
We can expect the widespread flouting of the provision which prevents the handing out of food and water to voters waiting in line. A more serious question is whether problems with this election could become part of a paper trail which could lead to the suspension of local officials and a takeover by the state down the road.
The new law says county or municipal election officials can be suspended if they have committed at least three violations of the law in the last two election cycles, or if, in at least two elections in a two-year period, they have demonstrated “nonfeasance, malfeasance or gross negligence.”
Is there a distinction between city and county elections, negligence-wise? Could problems in this year’s mayoral election be added to problems in the 2022 election to prompt state action against Fulton County officials? That’s a little fuzzy at the moment. SB 202 has been passed and signed, but the regulations that will flesh out how it will be administered haven’t been written yet, and the new chair of the State Election Board hasn’t been named. That’s a space worth watching, by the way.