Do We Really Still Need to Talk About Atlanta’s 2017 Mayoral Election?
Yep, we do.
2017 took a lot more out of me than I’ve admitted to anybody. I didn’t know until last year that life in America could make a person sick to their stomach, or at least make an eternal optimist reconsider their outlook.
I’d heard and read warnings about this kind of stuff not being that far away as a kid growing up in Alabama in the 1980s, but it was always presented in a distant, dystopian past that we’d agreed never to resurrect. I’d believed what schools wanted me to learn, which is that an Atlanta native had saved the world by giving his own life, going to God and dying for what he believed in. And thanks to Dr. King, we didn’t have to worry anymore, because everybody who was alive back then marched with him that one time before he died (or so it seems), mandating an end to the evils of institutionalized racism and segregation.
I remember hearing, reading and seeing evidence of the hate, through the voices of authors and social critics like James Baldwin, photographers like Gordon Parks, actors like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, and deceased jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Billie Holiday, that this was the way of the world at one time. Thank God it was over and that I’d been born at a time when my parents’ generation had saved and solved the world.
But I was obviously a sucker, because all you have to do is look at that map of how Atlanta voted in December 2017 to know things ain’t changed as much as I was told, and almost changed for the worst, just like our country has, since electing its new master.
Yes, somehow we dodged the political bullet of installing someone who was obviously up to no good and about to change everything we love about Atlanta for the worst, directly lining us up with Donald Trump’s America. But good isn’t how I’ve gone back to feeling, because I want to know why. And for people like me who pay a little too much attention to politics, it’s a little too quiet these days in Atlanta. So yes, neighbors, we need to talk.
During the runup to the 2009 mayoral elections, my dad used to ask me to keep copies of Creative Loafing if they had anything particularly interesting on Atlanta politics. Dad was briefly Atlanta’s chief operating officer in the final year of Mayor Bill Campbell’s second term, backfilling the COO role for his indicted friend Larry Wallace.
Dad was never under investigation or involved in the alleged violations. He was the clean guy who came in to keep things running after it was clear there’d be prosecutions, and was therefore far enough removed to see the federal corruption investigation into City Hall from the perspective of an outsider. But in Campbell’s final days things got weird and he resigned, prior to the election of Shirley Franklin. He moved back to Tennessee, but remained interested in ATL politics, having established relationships with Atlanta’s government players and political class through off-record chats in preferred gossip bars like Manuel’s Tavern and defunct downtown soul food restaurant Sylvia’s, where the city’s power players would discuss the city’s past and future.
And even though he enjoyed staying connected to Atlanta politics through the alt-weekly newspaper, Dad said he didn’t really need Creative Loafing to tell him what was coming. No matter who Atlanta’s black voting coalition liked or wanted, the next Atlanta mayor after Shirley Franklin would be white. It had already been decided by certain people high up in city government, he said. And I’ve always remembered how he was genuinely surprised in 2009 that Mary Norwood did not become Atlanta’s 59th mayor -- the city’s first non-African-American mayor since the early 1970s.
As we now know, Norwood not only lost in 2009 to Kasim Reed, but she lost again this past December to Atlanta’s 60th mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms. And I for one am very thankful that a qualified black woman won the election because it means the city, with all its flaws, is a smarter town than we feared.
A lot of people who played behind-the-scenes parts in the various campaigns seem like they’re trying to put as much distance between themselves and the political wasteland of zombie mayoral candidates. You want to believe that people are letting the post-election dust settle and getting comfortable with our city’s new CEO, but the right kinds of ears can hear the sound of wounds being licked.
And I have a feeling that’s especially true for the most-public figures who endorsed Norwood -- candidates, political figures and such – and are either MIA in ATL or finding themselves struggling to regain any semblance of prominence, relevance or importance.
Remember that set of photos showing Ceasar Mitchell, Mary Norwood, Shirley Franklin and Peter Aman walking side-by-side down the faded walkway to announce their alliance in front of City Hall? Look it up when you can; it’s pretty hilarious now, especially who’s smiling and who isn’t. Ceasar and Shirley have less-than-enthusiastic looks on their faces, while Mary and Peter are both smiling. But it’s Peter Aman who had a smile you could feel, as if someone’s auntie had just unexpectedly grilled him a cheese sandwich. He was beaming, because he just knew he’d finessed this whole thing perfectly.
I don’t speak for black people, but I did talk to a lot of people who were disappointed at Shirley and disgusted at Ceasar. To many, the idea that you’d endorse a white candidate people really didn’t want, instead of a black candidate we just weren’t sure we wanted, was bad enough. And those people are of the mindset that Atlanta must always have a black mayor.
I’m absolutely not opposed to a white mayor. A qualified white Atlanta mayor would be just as great as a qualified unicorn. Credentials and experience though not always the clearest indication of the better person, do matter when you have to make a choice. And in the case of Keisha, her Atlanta experience is the one to which I can best relate. Who you are doesn’t matter as much as what you can do, or what I think you might.
I think Mary Norwood would have been Atlanta’s Donald Trump. I believe, from the gently phrased way she would say she wanted to be a “mayor for all Atlanta,” she was signaling that she’d be more representative of her constituents in Buckhead than all the mayors since Sam Massell (as if anybody’s been mean to Buckhead in real life). I believe she would have halted the city’s efforts to help “minorities” own businesses in Hartsfield-Jackson, and she’d do it while hiding behind some bullshit initiative to “clean up” the process of awarding airport contracts.
And hey, I’m not about to sit here and pretend like somebody hasn’t given somebody some extra fries or a few tens of thousands of dollars in order to sway the people who can approve your application to do business in the world’s busiest airport. Of course there’s gotta be some level of #janky there. But there’s also a system that, while imperfect, has helped African-Americans in Atlanta, who were once redlined out of certain neighborhoods in the metro area, build a base of political and economic sustainability that you just don’t see in another major U.S. city. Southwest Atlanta is the closest thing America has to Wakanda.
But most people looked at the race issue a little more critically: Instead of supporting a black woman born and raised in Atlanta, who attended “Doug” and had credentials that included an HBCU undergraduate degree, a Georgia State University law degree, a municipal judgeship and a seat on the city council, Ceasar had decided that he couldn’t put aside his feud with Kasim for the greater good of retaining black political power. And that’s something that certain people aren’t quickly going to forgive.
As unfortunate as that Mitchell/Norwood/Franklin/Aman photo looks today, it probably troubled our new mayor a bit back then. Even with Keisha’s six-point advantage in the general election, you had to be concerned if you thought competitors’ endorsements mattered.
By the time early runoff voting began, Mary had locked up the support of everyone in the race except two people: Vincent Fort (who claimed to be “neutral” but wasn’t too shy to save kind words for Mary during a press conference), and Kwanza Hall, who has the distinction of being the only general election candidate to have made the correct call and endorsed our new mayor.
At that point, all you had to do before the runoff, if you supported Keisha and wanted to scare yourself, was simple math. Mary and her challengers-turned-surrogates made up a combined 57 percent of the general election turnout – in theory. Keisha and Kwanza’s voters equaled 31 percent. Even if you assumed Fort voters would take his call to “vote their consciences” as a signal to vote for Keisha, that only got her to 41 percent at best. It wasn’t looking good.
I got the chance to ask our new mayor about it during a small campaign meet-and-greet on November 27, the same day Norwood trotted out Peter Aman, Shirley Franklin and Ceasar in front of City Hall. And sure, there were better questions, but I wanted to know why Bottoms thought so many former candidates had endorsed Norwood. Keisha’s answer was that it was due to some apparent hatred they all had for Kasim Reed, which she called “unnatural.” I appreciated that.
And that brings us to Kasim Reed.
Kasim may or may not be a “bully,” depending on your view or positions, but one thing’s for certain: He’s no introvert. During his time as Atlanta’s mayor, he developed a reputation for being abrasive AF when defending himself from critics, even if nobody else even knew he’d been attacked.
He’s had some classic 50-Cent-mixtape-level diss moments. He’s called Vincent Fort one of the most disappointing human beings he’s ever seen, and said on TV that Fort would be a “disaster” as mayor. He had an epic, on-air argument with Ceasar Mitchell in 2015, which I remember hearing live on V-103’s Ryan Cameron Morning Show, over a payment issue between Atlanta Public Schools and the Atlanta BeltLine. Ceasar apparently wanted the debt paid, while Kasim wanted to hold off until a dispute was settled. Sure the issue itself was worthy of the transparency it received from the broadcast discussion, but it was also an ugly display of one-upmanship and public junk-measuring that could have been resolved in private. And the petty level made it clear that two of the most powerful men in Atlanta were willing to hold a shouting match in front of the whole town.
That episode should have been embarrassing for both men, if the former mayor were the kind of guy to be embarrassed easily. But what became obvious after that moment was if there was going to be a loser in a public battle, it certainly wasn’t gonna be Kasim Reed, at least not pleasantly.
I used to think Kasim’s political style was more liability than asset. His inability to ignore the stones thrown his way, and to realize haters were just a byproduct of his job, resulted in negative press more than once. Back during the infamous 2014 “SnowJam,” he famously appeared on CNN to defend himself from accusations that he’d responded poorly to the transportation snafu that ensued from Atlanta’s iced-out highways. And he made solid points about why certain things happened the way they did -- specifically, why schools and businesses closed simultaneously, resulting in an unbelievable traffic jam and an apocalyptic scene reminiscent of the iconic Walking Dead poster, with people abandoning their cars on the interstates (the mayor does not make the call to close schools). He also reminded America that Atlanta’s mayor does not have jurisdiction over Atlanta’s highways (which CNN’s Erin Burnett acknowledged by saying “That’s fair,” with a side-eye). Yes, Kasim was correct, but still widely criticized for his performance, mostly because it was a totally self-inflicted wound.
But here’s the thing about Kasim: He’s a black man with an ego, but he’s also been an extremely effective mayor, all things considered.
Has he been everything to all people? Of course not. Did a few matters of business get his blessing, and therefore a green light, faster than they should have, without the kind of council or constituent input that would have avoided a tactical error? I don’t know; ask anyone who’s driven behind the Atlanta Streetcar. Has his ego gotten in the way? Surely. But has he governed Atlanta successfully? I would argue he has.
Ego is necessary when you are the mayor of a Democratic city surrounded by Republican Georgia. You might have to be armed with an outsized sense of self if you’re going to run a city as beautiful and socially liberal, yet also with as much wealth and growth opportunity, as Atlanta. Ego is essential if you’re going to call shots and be responsible for keeping millions of people safe every day, plus figure out how to balance budgets, spur investments, fix complicated problems, retain support among a broad coalition of residents, and save energy for yourself. It’s not like it’s an easy job; I get that. But it’s also not like he really needed to run traffic lights with his police escort, or make political punching bags out of his detractors.
That’s my big issue. What the hell could Mary Norwood, of all people, do for “all Atlanta” that Kasim Reed couldn’t? I can only come up with one answer: She could be white.
And that’s what those voting maps proved. Atlanta’s wealthy white areas wanted a wealthy white lady to call the shots now that Atlanta is becoming an undeniably viable option for incoming residents as well as international businesses seeking opportunities for continued growth and investment. Not that we weren’t already headed in that direction, but I guess it seemed like it would be fair to try something new. Most people I know aren’t afraid of new, or even a new twist on an old idea -- it’s kind of like anything related to American culture. Eventually you want to try a different approach. But most people I know also have heard the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”
Those of us with a moral conscience can figure out what kind of bullet we dodged by listening to the audio of her private meeting with the Buckhead Young Republicans. She asked them not to record her (thankfully they did), then said Mayor Reed won the 2009 election based on voter fraud that included busing “felons” who lived outside the city limits and were “getting money from the government” to polling stations in Atlanta where they were still registered, and could cast ballots for Reed. I have more trust for someone who is not caught on tape telling Republicans to call her an Independent because otherwise she couldn’t win in Atlanta. Because, you know, she could’ve just said she was being honest, and really was an independent.
You don’t have to believe political opposition sites like MaryTheRepublican.com to understand she had no business getting so close to changing Atlanta in ways that could have been irreversible. All you have to do is read what she’s been quoted as saying in the aftermath.
She gave an extremely tacky “concession” speech, where she spoke this time of unspecified voter “irregularities” and wished “a term of governance” to “her opponent,” never once offering her congratulations, and never once calling Bottoms by her name.
Then, after losing, she got in front of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods and spouted all sorts of malarkey, like how Buckhead needs to be “proactive about money in, money out” when it comes to the tax dollars the neighborhood’s citizens provide. In other words, Buckhead needs more, or it should keep its money, or else it might go to fixing areas around southwest Atlanta streets that once had names like Stewart Ave, Bankhead Ave, and Simpson Road.
She also mentioned something she called “the inequity whatever,” and advised people that there are “hundreds of neighborhoods in this town that are affordable. They just aren’t on the BeltLine.” And she also gave an eat-shit shout-out to Atlanta’s predominantly black southside, where she said “people are paying $50 to live in the city.” At least, those are the quotes attributed to her.
Sure, I admire the kind of patience and dedication a person like Mary Norwood can make to her goals. She spent many years showing up and putting on a show. She went to churches, visited the neighborhood meetings, talked to community leaders and faced her own haters. She seems comfortable in public, even when sounding unconvincing about issues affecting African-Americans residents. I’ve heard many testimonies from people in Southwest Atlanta who insist that the Buckhead resident and Augusta native had maintained a presence in the S.W.A.T.S. for more than a decade, whether cameras were around or not, and gained a reputation for listening to residents and tending to quality-of-life issues. She’d served 12 years in her at-large city council post from Buckhead, and by all accounts had shown up when it wasn’t always convenient. That’s the kind of attention to detail that would make otherwise sensible people say, “Maybe Mary Norwood isn’t a Republican after all…”
But all that hustle really proves is that she was willing to put on a bogus performance for years, and keep the phony going as long as it took until the goal was achieved. And almost half the voters were willing to go against the obvious and give her the seat of Atlanta power. And thankfully, due to her own willingness to stop pretending, the jig is up.
Bottoms, on the other hand, was born in Atlanta. She attended Frederick Douglass High School like Killer Mike and T.I. (both of whom were named to the mayor’s advisory council shortly after her inauguration), graduated Magna Cum Laude from Florida A&M (HBCU credentials matter in Atlanta), and received her law degree from Georgia State University before going into private practice, serving as an Atlanta magistrate judge and becoming a city councilmember in 2010.
So let’s not pretend that she wasn’t qualified. Perhaps the biggest reason to hate on Bottoms was that Kasim Reed clearly favored her as his successor, and Atlanta just isn’t sure what to think of our former mayor. It could also be said that we simply didn’t seem to know all of Bottoms’ qualifications until the runoff, and the only time anybody really heard much noise involving her name was when she was appointed to the Atlanta and Fulton County Recreational Authority, which oversaw the sale of Turner Field to Georgia State, and its $350 million plan for redevelopment.
News got out that Reed appointed Bottoms to the high-salaried job as the AFCRA’s executive director, instead of going through a hiring process, like the city did when it gave the job to Violet Ricks, the previous director. Between that and her city council position, Bottoms was now making close to $200,000 per year, apparently one of the highest-paid public officials in the state, according to Creative Loafing’s editorial board.
At the time, candidate Eaves, in his capacity as Fulton County Chairman, voiced opposition to the appointment, saying it “smacked of cronyism.”
And hey, maybe it did. But Eaves’ move to freeze property tax assessments certainly smacked of constituent bribery, and as a Fulton resident, I certainly saw the huge difference between the first bill I received, and the amended version after his decision to hold off on assessing properties at a higher value. I knew I’d have the same tax bill as 2016, and I had a pretty good idea why. You can’t run for mayor when voters have to pay much more in taxes right around election time. So it’s not like John Eaves, or any of the others, are above political shade. And Mary Norwood, their girl, is just shady. Maybe it all makes sense.
Ceasar Mitchell also backed the shady candidate, because he let his dispute with our former mayor cloud his vision of the greater good. Now, in City Hall and throughout Black Atlanta, there is no greater post-election pariah than Ceasar Mitchell. I don’t know for sure, but I’m inclined to believe that his Mary Norwood endorsement over Keisha was something people – black people in Atlanta – aren’t likely to forgive as quickly as he might like. And even if they do, apparently karma does not.
On December 6, the morning after Atlanta’s mayoral election runoff, Ceasar Mitchell started his car -- a blue 2009 Audi Q7. Keisha Lance Bottoms had been declared the winner, although not yet certified with a recount threat from Norwood lingering in the air, with less than one percent of the vote deciding the race. Mitchell, an attorney and Morehouse graduate who was still Atlanta’s city council president at the time, went back inside after starting the Q7, probably expecting to come back to a warm and toasty vehicle ready to ride into the final weeks of a not-so-great year.
Instead, a thief sped away in his luxury station wagon.
It was a final indignity for the man who’d come in sixth place in the general election on November 7, this time suffered on the day Atlantans woke up in a city where the mayor-elect was named Keisha, instead of Ceasar, or his chosen candidate. Mitchell had clearly hoped to warm his supporters into cruising with him on his fantastic voyage of an endorsement of Mary Norwood but he discovered that his followers, like the car thief, had other plans. This being his second time running for mayor and losing, and now having no place on the incoming city council, his political power was greatly diminished. One could say his stolen car wasn’t the only thing that was Audi.
And how about the others?
Well, Shirley Franklin recently delivered a MLK Day speech, on the day after the national holiday for whatever reason, at LaGrange College, in which she explained the Civil Rights Leader’s “call to service.” Vincent Fort is apparently considering a run for lieutenant governor of Georgia, and recently provided a soundbite for a WSB-TV story on Trump’s attendance of the National College Football Championship, saying that it was another example of the president distracting from “things that are really important,” in this case Alabama playing Georgia for the title. Michael Sterling, who dropped out of the race early and endorsed Ceasar Mitchell, has since become engaged to America’s Next Top Model winner Eva Marcille. He will likely appear on Season 10 of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. That’s not intended to be a joke; it’s just funny. John Eaves recently talked to the Atlanta Jewish Times to remind them again about his African-American/Jewish heritage, and hey… that’s great! Eaves gave up his position as Fulton County Commissioner to run for mayor, and Robb Pitts, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor back in the day against Bill Campbell, won the seat. Lisa Borders came out pretty much unscathed, and is still running the WNBA.
Cathy Woolard is a special case. Writing for the AJC’s Politically Georgia, Greg Bluestein speculated that she held the key to victory in the runoff, while hedging on the fact that it wouldn’t exactly make sense for her to throw her support behind Buckhead’s choice. “Her liberal base seems unlikely to be a natural fit for Norwood, a self-described independent painted as a ‘closet Republican’ by her adversaries,” Bluestein wrote. In a WABE story, Sam Whitehead said “Cathy Woolard is going to be a game-changer in the election.”
Woolard’s ultimate endorsement of Norwood was seen as a big indication that Bottoms could, or might, actually lose. After all, Woolard came in third place in the general election with 14 percent of the vote, behind Norwood’s 21 percent and Bottom’s 27 percent.
Today, Woolard is trying out a career as a foodie, according to this Atlanta Intown story published after the election where she speaks about pamplemousse La Croix and egg white omelets. The whole “I eat food too” angle might be a good look for Woolard. It may help folks forget that statement she made during a mayoral candidate panel put on by ONE Musicfest. The one where she said, in front of Killer Mike and all sorts of hip-hop tastemakers, thought-leaders, businesspersons and creatives (including me), that police might actually be using excessive force because they’re not getting enough sleep. At the very least, being asked about eggs should bring her ego down from where it was when she got Bottoms and Norwood to attend a pre-runoff Q&A to publicly ask for her endorsement, on that ol’ kiss-the-rainbow-mood-ring bullshit.
Only Peter Aman, who led the candidates in fundraising, has been MIA. Maybe he still enjoying that cheese sandwich. It can’t feel great right now to have been a supporter of certain candidates, much less actually be those people who ran and went down in flames putting their support behind one of the most weirdly popular politicians in recent Atlanta history.
Some say the biggest deal in all of this was the apparent breakup and dissolution of Atlanta’s black vote. Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor, did great things to empower African-American Atlantans. One of those things was helping create and maintain a voting bloc of political power in Southwest Atlanta that was strengthened by the election of his successor, Andrew Young. And while there were always winners (Bill Campbell, Shirley Franklin, Kasim Reed) and losers (Robb Pitts, Marvin Arrington, Lisa Borders), there was always an understanding that was akin to Republican chain of command -- everybody ultimately had to get behind the chosen one.
Black Atlanta rallied behind Keisha Lance Bottoms last fall to make her Atlanta’s 60th mayor, which is a good thing, because if it would have been left to Lisa Borders, Shirley Franklin, John Eaves, Peter Aman, Cathy Woolard and Ceasar Mitchell, Mary Norwood would be our mayor right now. And that’s just a ridiculous thing that would have made Atlanta as politically intellectually unfortunate as the rest of America these days.
And for the life of me, even though I can speculate reasons why each individual endorser offered support, for the life of me I cannot figure out why nobody running except Kwanza Hall endorsed Bottoms. Atlanta almost elected Mary Norwood because Atlanta is gentrifying. Folks are moving here from more expensive cities faster than ever, because Atlanta is the shit. Here, if you’re qualified, you can earn a great salary and live well at lower cost, while experiencing all four seasons of weather. You also have the ability to fly anywhere with relative ease. It’s got everything, except economic equality, sensible public transportation systems, alcohol sales before 12:30 p.m. on Sundays, and a few other things. But it’s enough, and it’s getting better all the time. And if you think the last 40 years have anything to do with how awesome Atlanta is, you need to let yourself get comfortable with the fact that black people are capable of handling city government.
But a lot of people in Atlanta aren’t comfortable with that, because they are ballot box racists and sexists who only see the flaws in a black candidate, and are OK with shade, as long as it’s not the kind that is associated with melanin or skin tone. Atlanta almost failed itself, all because some of us prefer our black men to be quiet, docile and non confrontational, even if that means they’re not getting desired results. In other words, it’s OK to be less-than-effective, as long as you are under the control of powers that be.
And then there’s the ugly nagging thought that Keisha Lance Bottoms needed Kasim Reed’s influence and bullying, or else we’d never given her a chance. A black woman in a city with a whole lot of black women, couldn’t do it by herself, and we needed her to have a man handy in order to be seen as qualified. But then we kinda didn’t. Or whatever. Maybe I’m just not supposed to understand it, because it’s so stupid.
Atlanta today is a successful city in many ways. We’re also racially divided and pretend we’re not. Everybody knows Atlanta is coming up. But whatever positives we had over the last eight years, apparently a lot of Atlantans think they could have been better at some level, apparently.
How though, exactly? Anybody could present a legitimate grievance about the city, but it’s hard to argue that Atlanta isn’t doing well. Currently ranking it ninth on its Best Places for Business and Careers list, Forbes magazine said, “Although traditional Southern culture is part of Atlanta's cultural fabric, it's mostly the backdrop to one of the nation's leading international cities.” For anybody in another city, looking for that Premium Millennial Lifestyle they were promised in the brochure but finding it hard to attain, Atlanta became a viable option in the last eight years.
Mary represents the fact that a lot of Atlanta voters just want a white mayor. Kinda like America just has a preference for white men. That’s my problem right now. Nobody really wants to talk about the election. And we need to talk about it, because it exposed a lot about who we are and what we want to be as a city. And that brings me back to Dad.
Today, when I asked my father what he thinks now that Atlanta had elected yet another black mayor, ignoring whatever these backroom power brokers wanted not once but twice, he kept it simple.
“All of the other factors, especially race, don’t mean shit,” he said. “What matters is that you can be effective, and give people who voted for you what they want, and that you’re responsive to the citizens of your city. Nothing else matters.”