By Maria Saporta and Dave Williams
Friday, November 6, 2009
With the favorite of many Atlanta business leaders now out of the mayoral race, the two survivors set to meet in next month’s runoff will face tough questions from corporate executives they are looking to for financial support.
City Council President Lisa Borders finished a distant third to Councilwoman Mary Norwood and former state Sen. Kasim Reed on Nov. 3, despite the backing of some of Atlanta’s biggest corporate names.
With front-runner Norwood failing to capture a majority of the vote, she and Reed will be scrambling for enough campaign cash to see them through the Dec. 1 runoff.
Before parting with those contributions, business leaders will want some answers they didn’t hear during the general election campaign, said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
“The business community is going to demand a lot more specificity around the whole issue of city finances,” he said. “How are you going to increase police protection without raising taxes? Where are you going to find the money to implement your initiatives? How are you going to deal with the city’s pension problem?”
At the same time, Williams and other top-echelon business leaders say they respect Norwood and Reed as candidates and could work with either as mayor.
In fact, Reed scored a close second behind Borders and Norwood ranked third in an evaluation of the candidates by the Committee for a Better Atlanta, a coalition of business groups.
“We are very excited that there are still some pro-business candidates in the race,” said Jeff Wansley, the committee’s chairman and vice president of governmental affairs for Equifax Inc. “We want to continue to work with [the next mayor] and be the voice of business.”
“We can work with anybody,” added A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown-oriented business organization that works closely with Atlanta City Hall. “The business community is not a monolithic political entity and, for the most part, it is very pragmatic.”
But unlike Borders, whose background as a real estate and health-care executive gave her a leg up with business leaders, Norwood and Reed have something to prove.
The two candidates face challenges in demonstrating how they would be business-friendly mayors. Yet, they also are expected to emphasize unique aspects of their candidacies likely to give them an advantage in courting business support.
Norwood has consistently served as a watchdog on the Atlanta City Council, criticizing Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration for fiscal mismanagement. For two years running, Norwood has voted against property tax increases recommended by the mayor.
“She’s not a tax-and-regulate person,” said Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University. “She’s running on a message of being a fiscal conservative and social moderate.”
Norwood also might expect to gain traction in the business community as an owner of businesses in the communications industry.
But Harvey Newman, a political science professor at Georgia State University, said there are limits to Norwood’s appeal on that front.
“Business leadership and corporate leadership may be different,” he said. “She has been a business owner herself, but she isn’t identified with corporate leadership in this city.”
Owens said Norwood has alienated the real estate community in particular with her vocal opposition to attempts to bring infill development to Atlanta, including so-called “McMansions.”
But Norwood said she brought home builders, architects and planners together to agree on rules governing McMansions.
Indeed, she said she is pro-development, citing her ranking of redevelopment of Atlanta as a top priority during a candidate forum last June.
“We have a great opportunity to redevelop the city using green-design principles,” she said. “My background is more business-oriented than some people may have known.”
Reed said he compiled a pro-business record in the legislature, playing key roles in measures that helped fund Atlanta’s water-sewer overhaul and kept money coming to the Beltline project after a court decision threatened to shut off the flow of dollars.
“I have a bipartisan record of getting things done that have had a favorable impact on the business community,” he said.
Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition and a former mayor, said Reed got a boost among both business leaders and voters in general at the end of the general election campaign when Franklin endorsed him.
Reed ran both of Franklin’s mayoral campaigns, and her support is seen as important, especially among corporate leaders because of the strong relationships she has built in the business community.
“Shirley has done the tough things that previous mayors didn’t do,” Michael Garrett, president and CEO of Georgia Power Co., wrote in an e-mail. “In the last couple of years, she’s been dealt the same cards most of the CEOs have faced with declining revenues. I think we’ve got to have somebody who can carry on and add to what Shirley has done.”
Massell said the mayor’s endorsement will be more important for Reed in the runoff because it came so late in the general election race that many voters weren’t aware of it.
On the other hand, Reed’s ties with Franklin also connect him to a political machine that goes back to the late Maynard Jackson, elected in 1973 as Atlanta’s first black mayor.
Some of those mayors, notably Jackson and Bill Campbell, had strained relations at best with the city’s business leaders.
“Kasim has to find a way to convince voters that he isn’t just an extension of the Maynard machine, that he’s coming with new ideas and will respond to a broader array of interests,” Owens said.
If the battle for dollars during the runoff campaign is a fight over who will get the lion’s share of contributions from former Borders backers, the election itself could come down to which candidate grabs more of Borders’ voters and convinces their own supporters to head back to the polls.
How many bother to vote for a second time, however, is an open question. Historically, runoffs draw low turnouts, and only 24 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots in the general election.
Owens said a low turnout on Dec. 1 should favor Norwood, who would become Atlanta’s first white mayor since Jackson succeeded Massell.
“Her partisans are really energized,” Owens said.
But Massell said Norwood faces an uphill climb because she has less potential than Reed to pick up votes beyond the enthusiastic base she drew in the general election.
“Mary Norwood’s support was stable and constant because she had been campaigning for seven years,” he said. “You have to question, are there any other voters she can get now?”
On the other hand, Reed entered the mayoral race with little name recognition outside of his legislative district, then showed an ability to build momentum by overtaking Borders for second place.
An endorsement from Borders would be significant for either candidate, and both are expected to work hard to land her support.
In the immediate aftermath of the general election, Borders said it was too soon to consider an endorsement. But she said whoever becomes Atlanta’s next mayor must be willing and able to build strong ties with the business community.