Election was ‘last gasp’ for city’s political machine

By Dave Williams and Maria Saporta
Friday, December 4, 2009

The Atlanta political machine that elected Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young, Bill Campbell and Shirley Franklin is still alive.

But some political observers say the razor-thin margin of Kasim Reed’s apparent victory over Mary Norwood in the Dec. 1 mayoral runoff shows that it’s on life support.

Reed, a former state senator from southwest Atlanta, led Norwood, a city councilwoman from Buckhead, by fewer than 700 votes when the ballots from all 170 precincts had been tabulated, according to unofficial results. Norwood on Dec. 2 asked for a recount.

“We’ve seen the last gasp of the machine,” said Matt Towery, CEO of the media and polling firm Insider Advantage. “When [Reed] runs for re-election, it will never be what we remember back in the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.”

In 1973, Jackson was the first Atlanta politician to tap into the networks offered by the city’s black churches and predominantly black public housing complexes to become the city’s first African-American mayor.

Young then built on his predecessor’s success by bringing Atlanta’s business community into the fold.

Having managed both of Franklin’s campaigns, Reed was a logical successor to that legacy. He lined up strong support in the city’s black communities during the general election campaign, then added business backing after he bested city council President Lisa Borders, a former real estate and health-care executive, to make the runoff against front-runner Norwood.

But something nearly wrecked that neat formula for victory.

For one thing, Atlanta’s white population has grown substantially since the last seriously contested mayoral election in 2001, thanks to infill development. Norwood drew much of her support from those areas.

At the same time, Towery said, the get-out-the-vote networks black candidates in Atlanta have relied upon for more than 30 years either are no longer there or have weakened.

Atlanta’s public housing complexes have been demolished, while the city doesn’t have as many African-American mega-churches as it boasted in the past, he said.

“Because of demographic changes and the way people are scattered about the city … it’s just a different turnout mechanism,” he said.

But Harvey Newman, a political science professor at Georgia State University, said one component of the old machine — the black church — was still strong enough to make a major contribution to Reed.

“I think it played a significant role in mobilizing votes,” Newman said. “This is not a new phenomenon. Daddy King did it. It was part of a long-standing trend in the city among African-American clergy and congregations for word to spread that voting is important.”

While “old-school” voter mobilization efforts helped Reed, Newman and others also gave the candidate credit for running a smart campaign. Having never served at City Hall, he entered the race with little name recognition and was polling in the single digits in September.

“To come from that place in the polls is a real tribute to him,” said Eric Tanenblatt, former chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue and senior managing director at the Atlanta office of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.

Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University, said Reed excelled at every aspect of what candidates need to do to win in modern politics: He was good at fundraising, articulated his positions well during debates and used the various forms of media effectively, including radio, TV and mailings.

“Reed’s victory is the result of the more modern campaign mixing with the old turnout machine,” Towery said.

Owens, however, downplayed the role of machine politics. Given that voter turnout for the runoff was higher than the general election — virtually unheard of in politics — he argued that voters didn’t need mobilizing.

“People wanted to vote, period … just because of the way the race was polarizing,” Owens said. “You had the black candidate against the white candidate.”

Norwood, who outpolled the second-place Reed in the general election by 10 points only to fall short of a majority, received much of the credit for driving up the turnout.

Towery said her campaign as an “outsider” demanding accountability from a city government often criticized for financial mismanagement resonated with voters hurting from the recession.

“I think there has been an anti-incumbency and anti-establishment mood, not just in Atlanta, but all over the country,” said Franklin, who endorsed Reed late in the general-election campaign. “I’m not warm and fuzzy, [so] it could be a backlash to my management style.”

Either way, it wasn’t enough to put Norwood over the top.

Still, Owens said, the closeness of Reed’s apparent victory should put fear into black politicians in Atlanta. He said Norwood had some flaws as a candidate that might not be present in the next white politician who runs for mayor, including a widespread perception she wasn’t prepared for the job.

“There’s no way the business community was going to support Mary Norwood,” Owens said. “She was unpredictable. What the business community wants is predictability.”

Tanenblatt said he believes Norwood’s strong showing won’t be lost on Reed.

“For obvious reasons … he spent the last three to four weeks raising money and energizing his base (in the south side),” Tanenblatt said. “He didn’t seem to reach out as much to the northern part of the city. If he reaches out quickly and shows he’ll be the mayor for the entire city, that will go a long way.”

But Owens said that might not be enough. He said Norwood’s “change” message not only appealed to white Atlantans but struck a chord with many black voters. “That suggests black politicians need to pay attention to the high degree of disgust many African-Americans feel toward municipal government in Atlanta,” he said. “This close call becomes a wake-up call.”

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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