A Thanksgiving Day chat with Andrew Young, on the state of the Atlanta mayor’s race

Chatsworth, Ga. — The turkey had just gone into the oven when word arrived that Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador and mayor, was worried about the state of the current race for City Hall and wanted to talk.

And so we had a Thanksgiving Day chat — he in Atlanta, headed for Paschal’s, and me in the north Georgia mountains.

Young had endorsed Ceasar Mitchell, the city council president, in the mayoral contest. In the runoff, Young is backing Keisha Lance Bottoms over her city council colleague, Mary Norwood. (Mitchell went with Norwood.) It is a tight contest, with racial aspersions being cast on both sides.

Young called for two reasons. He wanted to dispel what he considers unfair concerns about Bottoms that have been generated over the last few weeks — specifically that she would be a creature of the current incumbent, Kasim Reed. And we will get to that.

But Young’s larger worry is that Atlanta is on the cusp of destroying the biracial partnership that has kept the city on a solid civic and business footing for the last half-century.

The two are connected, of course.

“I think it’s important that politics and business remain a cooperative partnership,” Young said. “It’s the difference between, say, Atlanta and St. Louis. Or Atlanta and Cleveland, or Atlanta and Chicago. There is an independent political base that contributes ideas and growth that really enhances business.”

“For the next 10 days, I’d like people to realize that this partnership requires balance between politics and business — and that that’s a very necessary and healthy part of our success,” said Young, 85.

“In Detroit, where the politics took over the business, and drove the business out, that killed the city,” the former mayor said. “In St. Louis, the business ignored the politics, and took over the politics. And that killed St. Louis. Atlanta has found a way to integrate these two phenomena.”

It was a subtle argument, but Atlanta’s politics have always been nuanced. Young was not precisely saying that, if Norwood is elected, because she is white the alliance between Atlanta’s black political structure and white business leadership — which has seen the city through many a crisis since the 1950s — would be at an end.

But the alliance might be threatened if Norwood were elected as the candidate of Atlanta business.

“I don’t want this to get to be a black-and-white thing, because it’s a whole lot more than that. There’s something special here that I don’t want to lose,” Young said.

He’s also worried that Atlanta’s practiced balance is something that might be discarded by new voters who are changing the dynamics of racial politics in Atlanta. “We have 4,000 of our newest residents and smartest residents and some of our best contributors to the economy, who don’t know how they got here,” Young said. “And they came here because of what we had done 60 years ago.”

Young is not denying the racial overtones inherent in the contest. Mary Norwood often mentions the slights that come her way, and they are in large part true. To accuse a candidate of Republican ties, in this climate, is to draw attention to her race.

But Norwood has been guilty of much the same thing. Only in the last few days has a recording surfaced of Norwood, speaking before the Buckhead Young Republicans in June. In that recording, she accused Kasim Reed of stealing the 2009 mayoral election from her through a series of hardball maneuvers that occurred before and after polls closed.

Reed dismissed her accusations, and Norwood has offered no evidence. She says she regrets that the recording was made public because of the damage it would do to the city’s reputation. Nonetheless, Norwood, who describes herself as an independent, has now identified herself with a very popular Republican meme — that African-Americans and other minorities can only win by cheating.

Which brings us to Keisha Lance Bottoms. Her endorsement by Reed has raised concern that hers would merely be a third term for an otherwise term-limited incumbent.

“They said about me, that I didn’t really want to be mayor, that Maynard [Jackson] was going to run the city. I don’t believe I ever called Maynard,” he said, chuckling. “I basically had to separate myself from him. And I think that’s going to have to happen here, too.”

Young said the most influential man in Bottoms’ life is her husband, Derek Bottoms, a Home Depot executive. Young once lived across the street from his grandfather, the Rev. Lawrence Bottoms, the first black moderator — i.e. chairman or top dog — of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In other words, the family has roots in Atlanta.

What has truly gotten under Young’s skin are the reports casting suspicion on the Bottoms’ ownership of a $1.1 million second home on Martha’s Vineyard. Keisha and Derek Bottoms are both lawyers who earned their degrees from Georgia State University law school. Keisha Bottoms has held a series of public jobs, but Derek Bottoms has risen through the ranks of one of Atlanta’s most successful businesses, Young points out.

“He has been with Home Depot for 23 years, and has collected the same kind of stock options that Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus collected. Not nearly as much, but as the company grew, his wealth grew with the company. And he’s made good investments. He’s a smart businessman,” Young said.

“But she is being criticized, and everybody assumes that because she has a million-dollar house in Martha’s Vineyard — the implication is that she’s stealing something from the city,” Young said. “It’s a combination of race and ignorance. If two white attorneys had a home down at Sea Island, that wouldn’t be a problem.

“They’re making it a problem, but they have been successful. They grew up in Atlanta, they went to public schools, and they really fulfilled the American dream. Instead of celebrating that as a success of the city, there are elements trying to claim that that’s corruption,” Young said.

“I’m just trying to make sure that people understand that Keisha and Derek Bottoms are basically good, solid Christian people who have been giving leadership quietly in this city in many ways,” Young said. “And who will be able to run the city and keep the coalition between business and human rights together.”

As mentioned before, for decades, politics in Atlanta has been a multi-faceted and nuanced activity that attempts to bridge race and class, wealth and poverty, prosperity and despair. On Dec. 5, we may very well discover whether it can survive the binary, us-them atmosphere that now dogs the rest of the country.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.