The Atlanta mayoral race and an election season in search of opposites

I can tell you who will be the next mayor of Atlanta. She’ll be the candidate who doesn’t stop talking about neighborhoods.

Which is to say, Keisha Lance Bottoms or Mary Norwood. One of the two.

Whether out of fatigue or mere contrariness, we know that elections can resemble the swings of a pendulum. George W. Bush led to Barack Obama, who was followed by Donald Trump.

Atlanta’s mayoral contest has been a search for opposites as well. The gender issue has been settled without a runoff. On Nov. 7, nearly two-thirds of voters expressed their preference for a female mayor this time around.

And many have pointed to incumbent Kasim Reed’s volatile demeanor as something worthy of a Newtonian equal-and-opposite reaction.

“I don’t have a problem apologizing, I don’t always have to be right. And I don’t always have to be the loudest voice in the room,” Bottoms told a group of business leaders Monday — even as she insisted she wasn’t describing Reed, who has endorsed her.

Norwood spoke to the same crowd a few minutes later: “The things that I need to fix I will fix. But I’m not going to grandstand, I’m not going to be out there publicly,” she said.

Yet the Dec. 5 runoff will bring more than an attitude adjustment. If the rhetoric of the remaining two candidates is any guide, the next mayor of Atlanta will be more parochial than the one we have now.

She’ll put less emphasis on becoming part of the national dialogue and more focus on the nuts-and-bolts basics of city living.

Part of this is situational. When Reed was elected eight years ago, he was a young man on the rise. Many a timeline, discarded after the rebuff of Georgia Democrats in 2014 and the Trump revolution of 2016, had him running for governor next year.

Upon becoming mayor, Reed immediately put himself forward as a surrogate for Obama. And had Hillary Clinton won the White House last year, there’s every possibility that he would have become a member of her Cabinet.

Norwood, in her mid-60s, has no such ambitions. And neighborhood politics have been her mantra since she was first elected to the Atlanta City Council in 2001.

Nor has Bottoms, who is in her late 40s and only slightly younger than Reed, given us any hint that the mayor’s office is a rung on a tall ladder. While Norwood has been an at-large member of the City Council, the District 11 that Bottoms has represented covers southwest Atlanta. Her stump speeches reflect this.

But there is more than biography at work here. Gentrification and the problems that accompany an economic boom have become a central focus of the campaign for both women.

On the north side, residents of Buckhead worry that an eruption of condos and apartments will squeeze them out. On the south side, rising property values could push low-income homeowners out of the market. We have biracial concerns centered on who will be allowed to remain inside the new, churning city of Atlanta.

And who might be forced out.

It’s not a problem that has been ignored by the Reed administration. On Tuesday, the city closed the $31 million sale of the Atlanta Civic Center to the Atlanta Housing Authority. Thirty percent of the new housing to come will be aimed at low-income and working families.

But again, we’re talking emphasis.

Let’s go back to that gathering of business leaders on Monday. The event was hosted by Dentons, the law and consulting firm, on the 53rd floor of its Peachtree Street headquarters.

The room offered a grand view of the just-exploded Georgia Dome. Her great-grandmother once had a house on that piece of real estate, Bottoms told the crowd of perhaps two dozen.

“I really think the biggest challenge we have in this city is balancing out our communities,” she said. Bottoms specifically pointed to an area that may hold the swing voters who determine the outcome of this race.

“You have young families who are moving to east Atlanta, which is known as an education destination. You have a population boom, and you have businesses that move to east Atlanta,” Bottoms said.

“We have to focus on making sure that each of our communities are destination communities. So when there’s a family looking for a good school cluster, they aren’t just looking at east Atlanta, they aren’t just looking on the north side,” she said.

Her bragging point: She wants a $1 billion program, with funding split 50-50 between the public and private spheres, to concentrate on affordable housing.

It’s also worth noting that when discussing the expansion of MARTA rail, Bottoms always makes a pitch for southwest Atlanta — “rail into areas that actually need it, not just areas where it’s convenient right now.”

When Norwood followed, she was quick with her biography — and her first experience with City Hall politics in the 1990s.

“I went down to City Hall with a neighborhood issue that I had worked on for a year. And I had 400 people on my side and five people against me — one of them well-connected. After a whole year of work, I lost by one vote,” she said.

Norwood says the city of Atlanta has 242 neighborhoods, and that she has visited each one. One is not inclined to doubt her.

“I understand each part of the city and what their problems are right now — whether it’s roads that are awful, whether it is traffic congestion, whether it’s blight in neighborhoods that have seen no development,” Norwood said.

“I have been a neighborhood advocate for a long time. Neighborhoods have our tree canopy. Our neighborhoods bring so much to our city, and I want to make sure no one is displaced,” Norwood said.

She wants to rewrite the city’s zoning code and update its tree ordinance. On Monday, Norwood claimed some of the credit for the recent freezing of the Fulton County tax digest — which may have thrown school systems and governments into chaos but protected homeowners from tax hikes based on rising real estate prices.

She wants a property tax deferral for seniors with incomes under $55,000.

The irony, of course, is that gentrification is fueled by prosperity, and it's a sign that the next mayor of Atlanta will preside over a city in the midst of good times. At least for the moment.

But it also marks a re-emphasis of the most important rule in civic affairs: All politics is local.

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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.