Human Behavior

There is definitely no logic to human behavior.

So, who's it going to be?

icon_atlanta.jpgThis much we know: Atlanta voters will make a historic decision in Tuesday’s runoff election for mayor. The question remains: which way is history going to tilt?

Mary Norwood, the front runner in the Nov. 3 election with 46 percent of the vote, would be the first white mayor of Atlanta in four decades if she holds on to her lead in the runoff. Former state legislator Kasim Reed, who finished behind Norwood on Nov. 3 but has moved up to a near deadlock in the latest polls, would continue the city’s tradition of black mayors.

Whoever wins, this is a runoff election that will be big news around the country.

Atlanta made history in 1973 when Maynard Jackson was elected the first black mayor of a major southern city. The majority black populace has elected black mayors ever since, although the changing demographics have made it possible for a white candidate like Norwood to have a realistic shot at winning.

Other cities like New York and Chicago have elected black mayors and then reverted back to electing white mayors, but in neither of those cities did blacks hold the mayor’s office for as long as they have in Atlanta.

After the Nov. 3 election, when it became obvious that there would be a black candidate and a white candidate in the runoff, there were concerns that the racial issue could become as divisive now as it has in past elections.

In 1973, when white mayor Sam Massell was trying to win another term against Jackson, Massell ran ads declaring that Atlanta was “too young to die” and urging whites to get out and vote for him.

In 1981, when Andrew Young was locked in a runoff campaign with white legislator Sidney Marcus, Jackson taunted Marcus’ black supporters as “grinning, shuffling Negroes” and helped Young win the racially charged runoff.

The racial remarks have not been quite that pointed in the current runoff. In the campaign’s final debate Sunday evening on WSB-TV, Reed and Norwood smacked each other around with some hard-hitting attacks on several issues but did not resort to making overt, race-based appeals.

The one exchange in the debate that came the closest to the race issue was when Reed, citing a TV commercial aired by Norwood that accused unnamed individuals of trying to “divide” the city, asked her to identify by name the people she contends are being divisive.

“Mr. Reed, surely you have read the news,” Norwood said. “If you need specifics I can certainly get my staff to get in touch with your staff.”

“You should be courageous enough to say who those individuals are,” Reed said.

No individuals were named and the debate moved on to other issues.

Norwood and Reed are both claiming to be the candidate who can bring much-needed change to Atlanta, but both candidates have ties to the current situation at city hall that dilutes their arguments.

Norwood has been on the city council for eight years and voted with other council members in 2005 to expand pension benefits for retired city employees – a pension boost that contributed to the city’s current budget crisis and threatens to wreck Atlanta’s finances for years to come.

“Mrs. Norwood talks about change, but she was there for eight years,” Reed said.

Reed, for his part, is aligned with the political machine that helped elect Jackson in 1973 and has continued to put Jackson allies like Andrew Young, Bill Campbell and Shirley Franklin in the mayor’s office ever since (Reed was Franklin’s campaign manager).

“I’m not the mayor’s protégé,” Norwood declared during the Sunday night debate. “Mary Norwood is not part of the current regime.”

There are some interesting paradoxes and connections that have marked the campaigns of both candidates.

Norwood at one time was a delegate to the Republican Party’s state convention (her maiden name, appropriately enough, is Bush) and is perceived as the more moderate of the two candidates. But in a city with a large gay population, she supports the legalization of gay marriage while Reed, who’s seen as the more liberal candidate, does not (“My faith does give me challenges,” Reed said in Sunday night’s debate when the issue was raised).

Norwood has operated an automated robo-calling firm for 18 years, a company whose past customers include . . . Kasim Reed.

While Reed is a black Democrat, he has worked effectively with the Republican majority that controls the General Assembly and is well-liked by his conservative GOP colleagues.

“This would get me in trouble with the people back home if they ever heard me say it, but I like Kasim Reed,” said a Republican lawmaker from North Georgia who has worked closely with Reed on transportation issues.

Rep. Joe Wilkinson (R-Sandy Springs), a moderate Republican who served with Reed in the Georgia House, appeared in a campaign videotape with prominent blacks like Andy Young and Hank Aaron to voice his support of Reed.

“Nothing against Mary, who is a dedicated public servant in her own right, but what a new day it would be to have an Atlanta mayor who is loved and respected at the Capitol and is willing to ‘walk up’ Mitchell Street,” Wilkinson said.

As in every runoff election, it all comes down to which campaign does the better job of persuading its supporters to get out and vote again (in runoff elections, voter turnout is generally about 50 percent of what it was in the first election).

The first-place finisher in the initial election usually wins the runoff in Georgia, especially with a lead as wide as Norwood’s (she was more than 9 percentage points ahead of Reed on Nov. 3). White voters typically are more likely to come back and vote in a runoff than black voters, which again could bode well for Norwood.

Reed has been gathering some high-powered endorsements during the four-week runoff campaign, most notably from former governor Roy Barnes, who needs to keep the black vote energized if he wants to have a shot at winning the governor’s race next year.

Even former Atlanta Hawks star Dominique Wilkins, who at first endorsed Norwood in the mayor’s race, has now changed his mind and switched to Reed.

Did Wilkins leave a sinking ship or jump onto a sinking ship? We’ll have to wait until Tuesday to find out in this race that looks like it’s too close to call.

Tags: Atlanta mayor\'s race , Kasim Reed , Mary Norwood

One Comment

  1. Amani Channel
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post. It really put this race into perspective.

    Just linked to it at

    Looking forward to your next post.

    Amani Channel

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