Atlanta's Political Sweepstakes – The 2009 Mayor's Race|
Georgia Online News Service
Much like the Olympic games, every four years the local electorate and politicos across the nation are enthralled by Atlanta's championship season -- the Atlanta mayor's race, which is already on and popping although Election Day is still eight months away.
But what now appears to be a dicey duel between perceived frontrunners state Sen. Kasim Reed and Councilwoman Mary Norwood could soon evolve into a hotly contested Kentucky Derby-like horse race featuring a plethora of political thoroughbreds.
That, combined with the arrival of about 100,000 new Atlanta residents since 2000, says Georgia State University professor Harvey Newman, who has studied city politics, is "going to make for one of the most interesting races in a long time."
The conventional wisdom of the cognoscenti now suggests that Reed and Norwood are currently jockeying for the lead with Councilman Caesar Mitchell and Rhodes scholar attorney Jesse Spikes hot on their heels. The middle of the mayoral field is bunched with a bevy of no-names, long-shots such as City Hall provocateur Dave Walker and quixotic young political newcomers exemplified by executive manager Glenn Thomas. Thus far, 14 people have filed to raise money to run for mayor. And even more are poised at the starting gate – notably two political racehorses with upset credentials and clout, Fulton Commissioner Rob Pitts and City Council President Lisa Borders.
"Clearly these two [Reed and Norwood] are going to be the frontrunners," says political strategist Vincent Watkins.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Reed, who is attempting to inherit the mantle of his mentor, Mayor Shirley Franklin, has the edge.
"I don't feel that way at all," Reed vehemently reacts. His swagger is his signature, but Reed, who has represented southwest Atlanta and south Fulton County in the House and Senate for a decade, flatly rejects the notion of him being a frontrunner.
"I perceive that it is going to be a tough fight for the entire time," he says. "What's important in a campaign is what the candidate thinks and that is not my perception. I think everyone in this campaign are serious people with valid ideas and we are all going to have to fight very hard [to win]. The notion that I am walking around fancying myself as the frontrunner is simply false."
"I'm out there everyday working," says Norwood, an at-large councilwoman from Buckhead and a former radio station owner. She believes voters "know the work I've done" during the past 20 years, which she contends amounts to "a tremendous connect" between her and citizens all across the city. "They are very supportive," she claims.
In keeping with the sports vernacular appropriate in the passionate political contests that have characterized Atlanta's mayoral elections since Maynard Jackson's historical victory in 1973, the 2009 contest will likely be a photo finish. It promises to be a tough, taxing and costly, compelling campaign with crime and competence being the caveat for crowning the next city champion.
"Atlanta is at a very critical political moment in time and that's why I think the mayor's office is open to a black or white candidate," says Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of East Atlanta's First Iconium Baptist Church. "The economy is such that people don't really care if you are black or white right now; can you get us out of this mess that we are in? Race is not going to be the issue this time. The black community is very divided and very independent. Absolutely a white candidate can win."
But Rev. Darryl Winston, pastor of Southeast Atlanta's Greater Works Assembly and president of the Greater American Ministerial Alliance, disagrees.
"Race will still continue to play a significant role in the mayoral election," Winston says. "Some people are not ready for a white and female mayor, but Mary Norwood has endeared herself well. We've called on her for a number of things and she's been right there."
In order to win the mayoral race Reed must come across as "the non-racial candidate," political columnist Tom Houck believes.
It is a pivotal election for an Atlanta armed with an array of new voters that no longer guarantees a solidly black public-housing base and the first strong and popular white candidate since the late Sidney Marcus narrowly lost to Andy Young in 1982.
Norwood has already raised plenty of money, and arguably enjoys plenty of support. She raised $510,327, more money than any candidate in 2008, according to her campaign disclosure report, and had $275,172 to spend. Reed, a partner at Holland & Knight LLP, an international law firm with offices in Atlanta, finished second in fund-raising with $431,479, but spent less than Norwood and had more money in his campaign account, $328,129. While most of the other candidates have raised little or no money in comparison to those war chests, the winning candidate will likely be forced to raise and spend millions to capture the coveted prize in play.
"On Valentine's Day last year I decided to take a look at it," Norwood says of her heart-felt candidacy. "I filed a green card and put together a 120-member exploratory committee."
Members of the exploratory committee came back three months later, she says, and almost unanimously told her, "We think you ought to run."
Houck laments that Norwood has had "ample opportunity" to be a voice for change as a city councilwoman but "hasn't" made an impactful difference.
Now according to a poll she commissioned by Lake Research Partners, Norwood has a sizeable lead over her opponents and that her recognition is both "deep and wide." The poll surveyed 400 likely voters on Feb.3-5.
"Mary Norwood has more support than all the other candidates combined. She is supported by a broad coalition made up of white and African-American voters all over the city. Norwood has 39 percent of the vote, followed by Reed at 9 percent, Mitchell at 7 percent, and Spikes at 1 percent," says David Mermin, a partner with Lake Research.
Norwood, whose campaign headquarters is in the Old Fourth Ward community near historic Auburn Avenue, says the poll shows voters "hunger for change. They want their city to work for them again. I am the candidate of change."
Lake Research Partners conducted polls for the Shirley Franklin Mayoral 2001 campaign, the 2004 Leah Sears Supreme Court campaign, the 2006 Hank Johnson Congressional and Carol Hunstein Supreme Court campaigns, and the 2008 Burrell Ellis DeKalb County CEO campaign. Still, some find their Norwood poll results suspect.
"One thing that we know is that your pollster can tell whatever story you want them to tell," scoffs strategist Vincent Watkins, who most recently spearheaded the re-election of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jackson Bedford. "It's very seldom you find a published poll that will have your opponent ahead that's been done by your pollster. I certainly question those 400 people that were interviewed unless they polled 400 people that came out of her rolodex."
For his part, Reed isn't dismissive of Norwood's poll. He says her lead is really not surprising nor stressful.
"I have a great deal of work to do in terms of introducing myself to voters citywide," Reed acknowledges. "Some of my colleagues in the race have better name recognition. But that will change."
Like Reed, Spikes is a corporate attorney for an Atlanta law firm. Also like Reed he's not surprised by Norwood's poll.
"I was pleased to show as well as I did given that we've done no branding in the community," he says. We're now ramping up our campaign. I think it is a wide-open race."
Reed has never been on a citywide ballot but says his team is "executing a strategy" to counter Norwood's lead in the early rounds of this mayoral match. "We are not intimidated in all candor by other [candidates'] polls."
To hone that strategy and eat away at Norwood's reported advantage, Reed has hired of two heavyweights who were instrumental in President Obama's election. The campaign's media consultant will be AKPD Message & Media, which served as the lead media consultant to Obama's presidential campaign. He will compete on messaging against Norwood's media guru, Jim Duffy, formerly of Strother-Duffy-Strother, which ironically worked in Shirley Franklin's campaigns where Reed was the campaign manager.
The Kasim Reed campaign's pollster and strategic advisor will be Cornell Belcher of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies, which was pollster to the Obama for President campaign. As the lead pollster for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from 2004 to 2008, Belcher helped to lay the foundation for the current Democratic political realignment and the victory of the Obama presidential campaign. As message architect for the 50-State Strategy, he helped to build a new Democratic majority nationwide.
"It says that we wanted to have the most talented team that we could have in place," explains Reed who has introduced legislation to let city voters decide in November if they want to raise property taxes to pay for as many as 200 more police officers and firefighters. "It says that we have a very real sense of the challenge ahead. We wanted to make sure that we surrounded ourselves with a group of individuals –both locally and nationally—that understand this kind of challenge and are prepared for it."
Looming large on the periphery of the race is the much-rumored re-entry into the campaign of City Council President Lisa Borders, who dropped out of the campaign citing the poor health of her parents. Prior to that withdrawal she had been talked about as the heir apparent. Since then, Borders has taken a high-paying gig as president of the non-profit foundation that raises money for Grady Hospital but is currying favor with voters with a series of Public Safety Town Hall meetings that have the look and feel of a campaign road show.
Borders boldly asserted last week that it was Mayor Franklin's decision and fault to undercut police and fire services in budget cutbacks, not the Atlanta City Council.
Borders' potential return to the mayoral sweepstakes is a dicey proposition. It could bite into both Reed and Norwood. But no mayoral candidate in modern memory has ever dropped out and reversed that decision with a re-entry attempt. Critics suggest it would label her as "wishy-washy," while Norwood questions Borders' competing priorities. "The mayor's job isn't a part-time job," she quips.
Rev. McDonald, the former power broker president of the influential Concerned Black Clergy, says Reed and his campaign consorts are impressive, but admits Borders looked like a candidate with her galvanizing March 3 town hall meeting at his church.
"She ran that thing," he says. "I was very impressed. She looked mayoral. Kasim and Mary better hope she don't get back in it because that will really be a battle. She had the chief of police, the fire chief and a church full of folks."
Donna Williamon, spokeswoman for safe-Atlanta.org, an anti-crime activist group, told Borders at the public safety hearing: "We are no longer going to accept business as usual practices. Our city leaders need to realize that we are going to be demanding and expecting an improved city of Atlanta in this election year. We need a new type of city leader so as we need a new type of citizen."
The electorate is exasperated; the masses are mad about increased crime and quality of life city service cuts, she says.
The campaign really hasn't started in earnest yet, says Councilman Mitchell. "I think it is going to be a short race [to the finish line] with very capable candidates."
"It's too early for the polls," says Rev. McDonald, a political and community activist since 1976. "The polls didn't see Barack Obama winning it a year out. And, I don't think all the candidates are in yet. If Lisa gets back in the race all these dynamics change. I think there might be another white candidate getting in it. That would change the dynamics for Mary Norwood if that happens. Robb Pitts is still talking about he is going to run; that would change things for Mary and Kasim even if Lisa doesn't get in. So we've got to wait and see."
And he adds ominously, "The black church has not really gotten excited about any of the candidates thus far; I do read that. Right now no one has connected. It's not like a Maynard [Jackson] an Andy [Young] or even a Bill [Campbell], I mean that was excitement and enthusiasm. That is not being felt out there [in this mayoral election] at all."
Maynard Eaton, formerly a multi-Emmy Award winning newsman with WXIA-TV and deputy press secretary for Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, is now the moderator of Newsmakers Live and executive editor of the Newsmakers Journal. [full bio]