Four years after a bitter mayoral loss, Mary Norwood is returning to City HallMary Norwood, the sole candidate for the District 8 City Council seat. (Special)
Atlanta’s political future is a mystery that will be solved by major leadership shake-ups in this fall’s elections, none bigger than the replacement of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, maybe even with her former mentor, Kasim Reed.
But one thing’s already a virtual certainty: Mary Norwood is back.
The former at-large City Council member who lost bruising, razor-close mayoral races to both Reed (2009) and Bottoms (2017) is a shoo-in for Buckhead’s District 8 council seat, where she’s running unopposed this fall.
Her comeback coincides with a serious movement for Buckhead cityhood freighted with debates about racial and economic division similar to those mayoral contests. Cityhood is one of the controversial issues that Norwood claimed in a recent interview she’s agnostic about for now, and says she won’t endorse any other candidates. Instead, she said, she’s focused on tackling issues like crime with an experienced, citywide perspective.
“I have said I am a crusty old broad now and I have been in the trenches for a very long time… and whatever else people think about me, I am fearless,” she said. “That is universally known, that Mary Norwood is fearless.”
That time in the trenches started 20 years ago, when the longtime community activist from Buckhead’s Tuxedo Park won the Post 2 at-large seat. She won reelection in 2005 and then made the 2009 mayoral run, losing to Reed in a runoff by a little over 700 votes. Her first comeback came in 2013, when she regained the City Council seat. Then came the 2017 mayoral contest, which Norwood lost to Bottoms by a similar margin of under 760 votes.
An election between a white Buckhead candidate and a Black Southwest Atlanta candidate was bound to have tension over Atlanta’s future as a Black mecca and its problems with economic inequity. But the 2017 race became especially fractious and bitter in ways that haven’t yet healed. Backers of Bottoms, a Democrat, revived claims that Norwood, an independent, is a closet Republican due to some of her affiliations and more conservative positions on policy issues like public safety; Norwood has always denied that. Then came Bottoms’ blistering claim that Norwood used racially coded terms like “thug” while laying out an elaborate election-fraud theory in a secretly recorded conversation at a meeting of the Buckhead Young Republicans; Norwood claimed the tape was doctored and her intent was to defend victims of fraudsters.
It all ended with the incredibly close vote, a recount, and a lingering sense of division. Bottoms gave one of her first mayoral speeches at the prestigious annual luncheon of the nonprofit Buckhead Coalition, where she laid out a unity-themed “One Atlanta” policy program, and former Mayor Sam Massell, then the Coalition’s president, handed out glass sculptures of a handshake as an unsubtle message to play nice for four years. Norwood was left off the guest list.
It was a heck of an election to come back from, but Norwood showed an intent to do so early on — albeit in ways that didn’t work out well at first. A month after the loss, she spoke to the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods (BCN), an umbrella group of neighborhood associations, where she claimed Buckhead didn’t get its share of city resources and tried to explain the Young Republicans meeting tape, drawing a rebuke from the Bottoms administration. After nearly a year out of the spotlight, Norwood reemerged with a bungled attempt by Republican legislators to nominate her as chair of the Fulton County Board of Elections, echoing her 2013 appointment to that board as part of her post-2009 comeback.
The BCN ended up being Norwood’s vehicle back to political relevance. She became its chair in 2019 at the invitation of board members who wanted a more influential and advocacy-style voice in City policies. She rebuilt the BCN as a kind of shadow City Council, complete with specialized committees and the issuing of resolutions on key topics, all at a rapid pace. “I thought it was important that it be something action-oriented instead of time-consuming,” she says.
Under her leadership, BCN healed a longstanding rift between homeowners and the big-business community through such organizations as the Buckhead Community Improvement District and Livable Buckhead. Long at odds on development issues, they started working together on programs of public safety, housing affordability and bringing commuter buses to Buckhead. Norwood calls it “a new day that the neighborhoods and businesses of Buckhead were working so closely together.”
Then there are the BCN resolutions, approved by a supermajority of member neighborhoods, that made the organization a prominent voice on several citywide issues as well as a frequent thorn in the side of the Bottoms administration. Public safety policy, retaining the city jail, higher-density zoning in single-family areas, and tree canopy preservation tactics are among the topics where BCN has issued detailed resolutions often disagreeing with the City line. Norwood also proved skilled at rounding up supporters to testify to City Council or in other forums.
“I do think, with the Council of Neighborhoods, there were things that weren’t directly attributable to us, but we helped guide the conversation and we’ve been influential in helping to advance issues on several fronts,” said Norwood.
Sam Lenaeus, a real estate agent who heads the BCN’s housing subgroup, became a prominent founder of the Buckhead cityhood movement. “That has nothing to do with BCN,” says Norwood. She said she asked the board members if they wanted to vote on the cityhood idea, and they declined, saying they wanted more information. Earlier this year, the BCN held a mini-forum where pro- and anti-cityhood advocates gave speeches, and the group has not taken a stance since then.
Norwood says she has no personal stance on the issue, either, though she was willing to repeat a line she used when the idea of cityhood or annexation into Sandy Springs was floated informally: “What I said was, I would neither lead the parade nor would I stand in front of it to obstruct it.”
“I have not attended meetings of either side,” Norwood said of the current cityhood movement. “I don’t know who’s on either side and I believe that [in] my role as BCN chair right now, unless I get a mandate from my board members to produce a document that we could vote on, it is not appropriate for me to have a position.”
Indeed, Norwood cites that BCN chair role, which she intends to hold until taking City Council office in January, as prohibiting her from taking positions on other controversial issues, like Atlanta’s public safety training center, because the group has not. She says she’s not “evading any answers” but rather trying to remain objective for the BCN. (Current BCN vice-chair Debra Wathen will head the organization, and will lead its Sept. 9 meeting — its first gathering in months — while Norwood has minor medical treatment.)
She says she began considering a District 8 run early this year, a political lifetime ago when Bottoms intended to stay in office and City Council President Felicia Moore — a longtime political ally of Norwood — announced a mayoral run. “I was not really sure exactly where the city would head in January,” Norwood said. “We had an incumbent mayor who had said she would be running for reelection. We had a challenger who had already signed up. I saw that dynamic and said, ‘I can be helpful. I can be helpful down at City Hall.’”
Norwood said she gave a heads-up to first-term District 8 incumbent J.P. Matzigkeit, who later announced he would not run for reelection, citing the time demands of the job. She’s now focused on her own campaign, “so I will not be endorsing anyone” for other offices, she said. Hers is one of only three uncontested races among 17 on the municipal ballot.
Norwood is happy to reel off policy priorities that don’t conflict with BCN. “First and foremost are crime and public safety,” she says, with others including zoning, the condition of streets, the tree canopy, traffic and taxes. She’d like to work on an idea that came out of Livable Buckhead and its BCN partnership — employer-subsidized rent to improve housing affordability — and on a crackdown oriented approach to “bars masquerading as restaurants” and young people who sell bottled water on the streets without a vending permit. And, keeping an eye on that citywide influence, she says she has campaign fund contributors from every council district.
It’s politically remarkable that, one short term after that bitter 2017 election, Bottoms will be gone from City Hall and Norwood will be back in. But, even though there’s a nearly universal theme of bashing the current leadership style among candidates in all this year’s races, don’t ask Norwood to remark on the remarkableness.
“I have assiduously avoided … critiquing the current administration,” she says. “I have not looked back to ’17 and I have not looked back to assess the current administration. … I was down there for all those years and I enjoyed the work. Not everybody enjoys the work, but I enjoyed the work.”