Atlanta mayor race could be history in the unmaking

Credit: George Mathis

Credit: George Mathis

In America, anyone can grow up to be president.

If you want to be mayor of Atlanta, it helps to know somebody.

I've often thought it curious that every Atlanta mayor since the historic election of 1973 has served two terms and been closely linked to the man who won that race, Maynard Jackson, or his allies.

Jackson, the first African-American mayor of a major Southern city in U.S. history, became a powerful force in Atlanta politics. In 1973, he won with 60 percent of the vote over incumbent Sam Massell.

[Diagram: The friends and enemies of Atlanta’s mayors]

Andrew Young, whom Jackson personally recruited as his replacement, won 55 percent of the vote in 1981. State Rep. Sidney Marcus, whose name you might have seen while stuck in Buckhead traffic, got 45 percent.

Credit: George Mathis

Credit: George Mathis

Jackson returned to office for a third term in 1989 and captured an amazing 80 percent of the vote. The "white candidate," Michael Lomax, chairman of the Fulton County Commission, dropped out of the race. Jackson's closest competitor, civil rights activist Hosea Williams, who also has a street named after him, got trounced.

Jackson suffered health problems during his third term and helped longtime city councilman Bill Campbell win 73 percent of the vote in the 1993 election.

Campbell, according to federal prosecutors, wasn't Atlanta's best mayor. Campbell was indicted on racketeering, bribery and wire fraud charges but not convicted. Instead, he was nabbed for tax evasion, sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and never got a street sign.

Credit: George Mathis

Credit: George Mathis

After that bit of unpleasantness came Shirley Franklin, Atlanta's first female mayor and giant flower enthusiast. She had long worked in city government, serving high positions in both the Jackson and Young administrations. She was also the former wife of David Franklin, a political strategist for Jackson and Young.

But, Franklin had never run for office. She defeated fellow Democrat Robb Pitts with just 50 percent of the vote in 2001.

Franklin's campaign manager was also her successor, Kasim Reed, who, in 2009 was elected mayor after defeating City Councilwoman Mary Norwood in a runoff by only 714 votes.

Now, after his eight years at the top, Reed is steering voters to his preferred candidate in the Nov. 7 mayoral election, City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms. Reed has endorsed Bottoms and openly feuded with her chief African-American competitor, City Council President Ceasar Mitchell.

Credit: George Mathis

Credit: George Mathis

Polls suggest Norwood leads a crowded field of candidates and will face Bottoms in a Dec. 5 runoff.

We've been here before.

In 2009, Norwood won the most votes initially, but failed to capture 50 percent of the vote and was forced into a runoff with Reed, who pulled off a squeaker.

Tuesday's election might be another one for the history books. Could Atlanta elect a white mayor?

Or will recent runoff history repeat itself?

I don't know. But grab some popcorn and a seat. Someone new is about to get a street, or maybe even an airport, named after them.