The two rivals for Atlanta mayor scrambled Tuesday to lock up support from political power brokers, each jockeying to secure in the runoff election the giant chunk of the city’s electorate that declined to back them in the first round of the vote.
Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the endorsements of several well-known white Democrats in a series of events that included a celebratory press conference with Stacey Evans, a former state lawmaker who is running for governor.
Her rival, Councilwoman Mary Norwood, countered with an announcement of her own: City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who tallied about 9 percent of the vote to finish in sixth place, endorsed her campaign.
Both are locked in a bitter duel to succeed Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a technically nonpartisan race that’s taking on increasingly partisan undertones.
Norwood, who would be the first white mayor of Atlanta since 1973, is pressing for high-profile black supporters to counter attacks by opponents who have been trying to paint her as a “closet Republican” since she was narrowly defeated by Reed in the 2009 mayoral race.
And Bottoms is racing to consolidate support of white Democrats who didn't back her in the first round of votes and are still undecided. Support from Reed in October appeared to help her emerge from a crowded field of contenders, but some voters remain wary of her ties to City Hall.
Still unknown is how other high-profile state and city leaders will factor into the Dec. 5 runoff.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes backed ex-state Sen. Vincent Fort's unsuccessful mayoral bid, and both have so far stayed out of the runoff. So has Stacey Abrams, the party's other contender for governor.
And Cathy Woolard, the third-place finisher in the Nov. 7 vote, is holding an event next week to help hash out her decision. Her formidable constituency, centered in vote-rich east Atlanta, has fast become a key battleground in the race.
She was the leading vote-getter in the DeKalb portion of Atlanta – the eastern-most part of the city where she racked up nearly 4,000 votes, more than doubling her closest competitor.
And she dominated in a ring of precincts along Atlanta’s eastern edge, winning territory that stretched from Grant Park and trendy Old Fourth Ward neighborhoods north along the Beltline through Virginia Highland and Piedmont Park.
‘A heart for service’
Both candidates hope the big-name endorsements play an influential role in the closing days of the race. That’s because Bottoms and Norwood combined to tally about 47 percent of the vote – meaning more than half of the electorate is up for grabs.
Bottoms started the week at a press conference in the Old Fourth Ward to announce the endorsement of about a half-dozen current and former Democratic lawmakers from within the city’s limits. Several of the lawmakers, including former gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, are popular in an eastern stretch of the city that could sway the vote.
"I have known Keisha Lance Bottoms for a long time. And when she says we are partners, I am telling the truth," said former state Sen. Jason Carter, the 2014 Democratic candidate for governor. "The City of Atlanta is not going to embrace someone who stands with Donald Trump."
Supporters of Bottoms hope the spate of endorsements is a sign that different Democratic factions and forces are starting to align behind her campaign.
And Evans, a Smyrna attorney, talked glowingly about how both were raised by single mothers and grew up to seek public office. At her campaign office in Midtown Atlanta, Evans praised Bottoms as a candidate who has a “head and heart for service.”
That endorsement could also pay dividends for Evans. Bottoms said Tuesday she was likely to return the favor and endorse Evans’ campaign for governor, giving her a potentially formidable ally in next year’s vote. Abrams is competing to be the nation’s first black female governor, and Evans hopes to have prominent African-American women to make her case.
Norwood has staked her campaign on a promise to work across party lines as she tries to appeal to her core supporters in north Atlanta. She calls herself a “progressive independent,” who voted for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and has blasted rivals for what she said is a false depiction as a conservative.
“I am the independent in this race, and I have expressed that a lot,” she said, pointing to early support for abortion rights and marriage equality.
At an endorsement event on Tuesday, Mitchell stood on the steps of City Hall and declared that Norwood, “at this moment in time, is the best person to lead this city.”
“This is not a decision I made lightly, as a black man,” Mitchell said. “Let’s be real about this. It’s not a decision I made lightly as a Democrat.”
He said he understands the significance of the city’s long tradition of having a black mayor.
During the campaign, Reed and Mitchell clashed when Mitchell called for a moratorium on certain city contracts because of federal bribery investigation into City Hall. But Mitchell said that conflict did not influence his decision.
Bottoms said she was unfazed by Mitchell’s decision, and contended the two were “collaborating” through the first phase of the race. And Reed said he’s “totally unsurprised” by Mitchell’s endorsement.
“Ceasar Mitchell supporting Mary Norwood is one man, one woman, two losers,” he said.
Norwood fire back, saying the mayor should be “ashamed” for using that language and urged him to apologize.
“A mayor should be a role model, and when I am elected I will treat everyone with respect,” she said.
Mitchell said he was troubled by the rhetoric coming out of the mayor’s office, calling it divisive and demeaning. He said it “would ultimately lead to the disintegration of our community.”
“Our community of this city is made up of many different tribes,” Mitchell said. “And cities that are made up of many tribes have to find a way to live together harmoniously.”
On Wednesday morning, Andrew Young, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, announced he was endorsing Bottoms.
A half hour later in a press conference, former State Sen. Vincent Fort, who placed fifth in general mayoral election on Nov. 7, said Norwood helped improve the tri-party Olympic Agreement during the 1990s and that “working with her is viable option.”
But then, he said he would not campaign or endorse either candidate.
“At this point, I’m asking my supporters to follow their consciences in how they vote,” Fort said. “I am releasing them to do as they see fit.”