Race re-emerges in tight Atlanta mayoral election

AtlantaA neighborhood activist with crossover appeal on the verge of making history. A city leader with a civil rights legacy. A native son seen by some as the heir apparent to the city’s first black mayor.

Three of Atlanta’s prominent political personalities are colliding in the race for mayor, which is on course for a runoff that could polarize the Southern capital along racial lines. With two formidable black candidates splitting the African-American vote amid a predicted low voter turnout, this predominantly black city could end up electing its first white mayor in a generation.

“If we get a white mayor, some people will begin to say that African-Americans in Atlanta may be losing their clout or their influence,” said Marcellus Barksdale, a professor at Morehouse College who focuses on black Southern history. “That would be the perception, real or imagined. Atlanta has become what Harlem was in the 1920s. It’s the black mecca.”

City Councilwoman Mary Norwood is seeking to become the city’s first white mayor since 1972 ? but must get past some tough competition from city council President Lisa Borders and state Sen. Kasim Reed. If no one in the six-person race receives a majority on Tuesday, a run-off will be set for Dec. 1.

The campaign has centered around two major issues ? cops and money ? but has been complicated by race.

The development that had been a boon to Atlanta’s coffers screeched to a halt in the down economy, and city officials moved to shutter fire stations and furlough police officers in recent months. And high-profile murders have fed fears of a return to rampant crime, despite FBI statistics suggesting violent crimes have gone down in the city, though property crimes are up.

The candidates have all looked to appear tough on crime and have promised more transparency and accountability in City Hall. Though Reed is the only front-runner not currently in City Hall, Norwood has done the most to paint herself as the outsider in the race, pledging to fix the city’s broken bureaucracy and blaming ? and baiting ? current Mayor Shirley Franklin, who is barred by term limits from running again, for the city’s woes.

Norwood, who heads an automated telephone call business and whose beginnings as a historic preservation champion earned her a citywide council seat, has been endorsed by the city’s firefighters and a black state legislator. Franklin has called Norwood “incompetent” and not ready for the city’s top job.

Franklin, who has been in office since 2002, has not endorsed any of the candidates, though Reed ran both of her campaigns.

The issue of race heated up this summer, when a memo written by two Clark Atlanta University professors caused a firestorm. The message warned that black Atlantans should rally around Borders to foil a Norwood victory and maintain black political control of City Hall.

For their part, the candidates denounced and distanced themselves from the memo. The incident soured Rev. Joseph Lowery, a revered civil rights leader whose support is coveted, on endorsing either Reed or Borders. He has instead focused on increasing voter turnout.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with discussing black candidates for mayor,” Lowery said. “We’d be silly not to discuss the issue. It’s a reality. I think the most qualified candidates in this race are black.”

Atlanta, nicknamed The City Too Busy To Hate by former Mayor William Hartsfield during the 1950s, elected Maynard Jackson as its first black mayor in 1973. He was followed by a string of black successors who each served two terms: Andrew Young, Bill Campbell and Franklin, the city’s first female mayor.

But in the past decade, Atlanta ? with a population of about 500,000 ? has lost a bit of its black population, going from 61 percent to 57 percent between 2000 and 2007, according to the U.S. Census. And much of the black electorate has disappeared with the city’s public housing in recent years.

The issue of race looms over the campaign. Norwood’s Web site features a video of supporters at a soul food restaurant in a black neighborhood. Reed has been endorsed by Young, a former U.N. ambassador and lieutenant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Borders has been endorsed by many of the city’s black clergy and the police union ? in part an homage to her grandfather who helped integrate the city’s police department. She has headed the city council since 2004 and rejoined the race in April after dropping out for family reasons.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Borders supporter and pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, MLK’s spiritual home, described her as a smart, committed public servant who knows how to bring people together.

“The question is who will be able to excite their supporters enough to actually deliver them to the polls not just once, but twice,” he said of Borders, who has a background in consulting and marketing.

Campaign watchers say Reed may have the majority of the black support, and high-profile endorsements from Young to rapper Ludacris have helped him raise the most money in the campaign ? more than $1.4 million. Some see Reed as next in line to the Jackson legacy. This will be the first election without Jackson, a larger-than-life kingmaker who died in 2003 and whose influence had historically swayed city politics.

“He seems to be extremely comfortable with all levels of Atlanta,” said Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, who was married to Jackson during his first term in office, and is supporting Reed’s campaign. “I’ve seen him with the man in the street. I’ve seen him in the boardroom. He’s got that charisma, I think, that Maynard had.”

Norwood is regarded by political observers as having the most support ? including the backing of most whites. But the Junior League veteran and former radio executive has been working since last summer to overcome her affluent address in the mostly white suburb of Buckhead by appealing to voters citywide, especially blacks.

Race will likely become even more of a factor in a runoff election, said Sam Massell, the last white mayor of Atlanta and head of the Buckhead Coalition.

“Most people vote along racial lines, understandably,” Massell said. “They feel persons of the same race better understand their needs and pressures and expectations.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.