Kasim Reed’s prowess appears to come up short with voters in a changed city

Atlanta mayoral candidate Kasim Reed turned down after finishing his speech during the election night celebration at the Hyatt Regency. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.
Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta mayoral candidate Kasim Reed turned down after finishing his speech during the election night celebration at the Hyatt Regency. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kasim Reed reentered Atlanta politics with a champion’s swagger, telling supporters at his 52nd birthday party in June: “I’m back.”

The former mayor outraised his opponents by $1 million within three weeks due in part to a $1,000-per-guest fundraiser at actor Tyrese Gibson’s Buckhead mansion. Reed accrued endorsements from other prominent celebrities, unions and politicians, immediately emerging as a frontrunner in the crowded mayor’s race.

But unofficial election results revealed a different story ― Reed appeared to lose the first election of his political career, coming in fewer than 600 votes behind City Councilman Andre Dickens and just out of the runoff with Council President Felicia Moore to be Atlanta’s 61st mayor.

As election officials were still working through provisional ballots late Wednesday afternoon, Reed had not made any public statement or conceded. He declined an interview request through a spokesperson. He also passed on responding to written questions.

State law does not require an automatic recount of votes, according to the state of Georgia’s website. But a candidate can request a recount within two business days of the results being certified if the margin is less than or equal to 0.5%.

Dickens’ lead over Reed stood at 0.6% Wednesday afternoon. According to the secretary of state’s office, there are 222 provisional ballots in DeKalb County and 748 in Fulton County — but not all of those were cast in Atlanta precincts.

“We have been here before,” Reed told his supporters just past midnight Wednesday morning, referencing how his first term as mayor began after he narrowly beat Mary Norwood by 714 votes in 2009. “We have been in close elections before. We have won close elections before. Just remember, it is not easy. But the city of Atlanta is worth it. I will be back.”

When Reed was mayor, he personified the city’s image as a sharp HBCU graduate groomed by a string of leaders who came before him. He’s received endorsements from U.S. Ambassador and former mayor Andrew Young, among other revered movers and shakers. He has boasted of his role in growing Atlanta’s economy and working closely with the state government.

An entertainment lawyer, Reed has also long been friendly with Atlanta’s movie and music industry elite, receiving support from celebrities like T.I., Ludacris, Killer Mike and Jamie Foxx.

A successful campaign would have been historic, making Reed just the second Atlanta mayor to win a third term in modern history.

But experts said Reed returned to a city that’s changed in the years since he managed it. Residents have sought solutions from City Hall amid a lack of affordable housing, economic disparities and social unrest following police misconduct.

Ultimately, Tuesday’s results suggest the former mayor — considered a frontrunner throughout the election due to his name recognition, fundraising ability and political prowess — was not able to overcome low favorability numbers across demographic lines, said Emory University political science Andra Gillespie.

“I think Kasim Reed lost because voters were ready to move on from his style of leadership,” Gillespie said. “The city changed, but also he changed, and I think his reputation had changed over the course of his mayoralty, which made a comeback difficult.”

Reed’s campaign was also dealt blows late in the election cycle. The president of the Atlanta NAACP strongly criticized Reed in a letter. He was also rebuked by legacy residents in the southeast Atlanta neighborhood of Peoplestown, who have fought with the city for years after Reed’s administration sought to use eminent domain to acquire the properties in the wake of destructive flooding.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution polling showed that many voters were less likely to vote for Reed because of the federal investigation at Atlanta City Hall that implicated seven city employees and four city contractors after Reed’s second term. The same poll found 50% of respondents had an unfavorable view of the former mayor.

Low voter turnout was also a factor this year.

More than 420,000 people are registered to vote in Atlanta, but fewer than 100,000 votes were cast in the race to replace Bottoms, who isn’t seeking reelection. Bottoms told reporters Wednesday she plans an endorsement, though she didn’t say who.

Gillespie said the undecided voters, over 40% in the AJC’s last poll, were “the big wildcard” and likely peeled off to support Moore and Dickens.

Reed got 30-40% of the vote across much of southwest Atlanta, but Dickens, a southwest Atlanta native, was close behind, beating Reed at several precincts. Reed underperformed there compared to Bottoms’ numbers in 2017.

Moore dominated in Buckhead, taking two-thirds of the vote in some precincts, and won on much of the Eastside. Votes from DeKalb precincts put Dickens over the top and into the No. 2 spot. While Moore got about 45% of the DeKalb vote, Dickens took 28%, more than double what Reed received.

“It was very clear that Felicia Moore, based on public and private polling, was surging in the No. 1 spot going into Tuesday night,” political strategist and Paramount Consulting CEO Tharon Johnson said. “What was unclear was the question around whether or not Andre Dickens could capitalize on his momentum.”

Dickens ramped up advertising and voter outreach in the final weeks, winning over enough anti-Reed voters following endorsements from former mayor Shirley Franklin, former state Sen. Vincent Fort and State Sen. Nan Orrock.

“Andre is in the runoff because he ran a campaign that touted his record as a reformer on council and sketched out a positive vision for the future of Atlanta — and one that was juxtaposed with hits on Kasim Reed showing that Reed could not be the one to deliver that vision,” said Nick Juliano, a political strategist and consultant.

Last Monday, Reed himself predicted he would enter a runoff against Moore.

Dickens, Reed said, had given up and “doesn’t have a chance of winning this election. He is done.”

It’s not official yet, but it appears the Nov. 30 runoff will be between Moore and Dickens.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Greg Bluestein, Patricia Murphy, Mark Niesse, and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this report.

Go to ajc.com for complete coverage of the 2021 Atlanta mayor’s race.