Rare challenge of incumbent Atlanta mayor means another tense political year

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore (left) announced Thursday, Jan. 28, she is challenging Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in the 2021 mayoral race. (AJC file photos)
Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore (left) announced Thursday, Jan. 28, she is challenging Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in the 2021 mayoral race. (AJC file photos)

Credit: AJC file photos

Credit: AJC file photos

Georgians may have endured months of non-stop political mailers and television ads during the closely watched contests for president and U.S. Senate last year, but voters in Atlanta won’t get much of a break in 2021.

The race for mayor of Georgia’s largest city will dominate politics in the coming months, as City Council President Felicia Moore has announced plans to run against incumbent Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in the Nov. 2 election.

The rare challenge of an incumbent mayor angling for a second term sets up a contested race with crime and public safety at the forefront, after the city experienced a record number of homicides in 2020.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed political experts, consultants, residents and former elected officials, who say Bottoms is in a strong position heading into reelection season given her rising national profile and close connections to President Joe Biden.

“I don’t think anybody can beat Keisha,” former Mayor Andrew Young told the AJC, citing her strong base of support, especially among Black women.

But experts say Bottoms has some vulnerabilities.

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Moore has already staked out a public safety platform that may resonate with some voters who view the current administration’s response to last year’s deadly violence as lackluster. She’s also called for more government transparency and improved city services.

Her decision to challenge Bottoms is a gamble. The mayor’s nationwide popularity and name recognition have skyrocketed in the past year, largely because she was one of a handful of potential running mates considered by Biden’s presidential campaign. Bottoms then turned down an opportunity to serve in Biden’s Cabinet in favor of a run at reelection.

ExploreMedia, Biden endorsement raises Atlanta Mayor Bottoms’ national profile

“If you want a long political career, you usually don’t challenge incumbents because your probability of winning is going to be lower,” said Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie.

Moore has already had a long political career. She represented a northwest Atlanta district on the City Council for 20 years before winning the city-wide race to become council president in 2017 with nearly 47,000 votes — more than Bottoms received in her 2017 runoff against former councilwoman Mary Norwood.

Moore formally launched her mayoral campaign Thursday, saying she is running against “crime that is out of control in every neighborhood” and not mentioning Bottoms by name.

And experts say her foray into the race could cause other candidates to jump in, which would increase the chances of a runoff.

Norwood, chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, said she is considering a mayoral campaign. Former Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Meria Carstarphen said she hasn’t decided her next step.

“Like many Atlantans,” Carstarphen told the AJC, “I am concerned with the rise in crime across our city, the lingering issues of corruption at City Hall and the long-standing issues of intergenerational poverty in Atlanta especially during the pandemic.”

In an interview hours after she announced, Moore said she was also concerned about crime, and that the time to act is now: “Change is certainly needed in our city government, and it can’t wait another four years.”

As council president, Moore can guide policy discussions but cannot introduce legislation or vote, except to break a tie.

“At some points, it comes to weigh on you because you care about the city. I want to be in the position to say: ‘I can get this done,’” she said. “And I think four years from now, it will only be worse and not better.”

Bottoms, who declined an interview request for this story, will likely make her case to voters by pointing to her criminal justice reform record. That includes eliminating cash bonds, signing an executive order ending the city jail’s practice of holding Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, and making a pledge to permanently close the jail and turn it into an equity center.

The mayor will also likely focus on affordable housing, which was a central tenet of her 2017 campaign. Bottoms, who set a goal of investing $1 billion of public and private funds in affordable housing, signed legislation in January authorizing the issuance of $50 million in bonds for that purpose.

Four years ago, Bottoms faced off against several other candidates in a historically expensive mayoral race and narrowly defeated Norwood by 750 votes in the runoff.

Bottoms has “shown she can elbow her way through a crowded field and emerge victorious,” said Republican political consultant and strategist Brian Robinson, who served as a deputy chief of staff for Gov. Nathan Deal. “She did what it took in 2017. That was not an easy race.”

ExploreBottoms confident in new public safety efforts following violent year

Since then, the mayor has faced a number of crises in the first three years of her term. Months after she took office, a ransomware cyber attack hobbled the city of Atlanta’s computer network. In 2020, protests against police brutality and racism filled the streets of downtown Atlanta, and unrest came again after the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks — all that on top of a global pandemic in which Bottoms fought Gov. Brian Kemp over COVID-related restrictions.

The mayor said at a recent press briefing that she is expecting a serious race and is proud of her record as the city’s leader for the last three years.

“I know that I’m going to have to prove myself to everybody who will show up to vote,” Bottoms said.

In addition to grappling with critical issues like crime and inequity, the next leader at City Hall will be operating in a state that’s becoming more blue with each election cycle — making the mayor’s office a powerful perch in state politics, particularly with a Democrat in the White House. The mayor also wields immense power on regional issues, influencing everything from metro Atlanta transit policy to whether a Fortune 500 company will bring its workforce here.

Running against history

In Atlanta, history heavily favors the incumbent mayor.

The last time a mayor lost a bid for reelection was 1973, when Sam Massell was defeated by Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor.

Since then, the last five City Council presidents before Moore — Ceasar Mitchell, Lisa Borders, Cathy Woolard, Robb Pitts and Marvin Arrington Sr. — have all run unsuccessful mayoral campaigns.

Of that group, only Arrington challenged a sitting mayor. He ran against Bill Campbell in 1997, a race that ended in a bitter runoff with Campbell squeaking out a win. Woolard and Mitchell were part of the 2017 mayor’s race. Woolard finished third and Mitchell placed a distant fifth.

Shirley Franklin and Kasim Reed both skated to second terms without any major challengers.

Atlanta mayoral candidate Marvin Arrington held his election night party at the Hilton Hotel during the run-off on Nov. 25, 1997. Arrington lost the mayoral election that night to the incumbent mayor Bill Campbell. (Rich Addicks / AJC Archive at GSU Library AJCNS1997-11-25-01e)
Atlanta mayoral candidate Marvin Arrington held his election night party at the Hilton Hotel during the run-off on Nov. 25, 1997. Arrington lost the mayoral election that night to the incumbent mayor Bill Campbell. (Rich Addicks / AJC Archive at GSU Library AJCNS1997-11-25-01e)

Credit: Rich Addicks

Credit: Rich Addicks

Gillespie said she expects Moore will try to appeal to Norwood’s coalition, which was heavily centered in and around Buckhead, where residents have been vocal about their concerns related to crime. Bottoms, she said, is likely to appeal to that group with a message of continuity.

Greg Zimmerman, a longtime resident of Buckhead’s Peachtree Park neighborhood, said he feels Bottoms hasn’t done enough on crime especially after dozens of Atlanta Police Department officers left the force over the summer.

“The administration has not taken the appropriate steps to ensure we have a complete police force that is able to perform their duties as they should,” said Zimmerman, 56.

Kiyomi Rollins, who lives and owns a business in Westview in southwest Atlanta, said she appreciates many things Bottoms has accomplished in her first term, including the implementation a building moratorium on the Westside. She said she was particularly impressed by the elimination of the city court’s cash bond requirement for many low-level offenders who’d otherwise be in jail because they can’t afford bail.

“Not having that in place helps keep legacy Black folks who are in the neighborhood here,” the 45-year-old mother of three said.

But Rollins, who voted for Bottoms in 2017, said the mayor will have to work to win her vote again. She’ll be looking for a candidate who will do right by southwest Atlanta with policies to protect business owners like her.

“Even though I voted for Mayor Bottoms last time, I don’t want an elected official to assume I’m going to lend my vote again,” Rollins said. “I’d be open to seeing what names are in there.

January 28, 2021 Atlanta - Kiyomi Rollins, co-founder of The Ke'nekt Cooperative, poses outside The Ke'nekt Cooperative in Southwest Atlanta on Thursday, January 28, 2021. Rollins voted for Mayor Bottoms last time, but she isn't exactly please with how the mayor has handled the city.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
January 28, 2021 Atlanta - Kiyomi Rollins, co-founder of The Ke'nekt Cooperative, poses outside The Ke'nekt Cooperative in Southwest Atlanta on Thursday, January 28, 2021. Rollins voted for Mayor Bottoms last time, but she isn't exactly please with how the mayor has handled the city.(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A referendum on crime?

Robinson said reelection challenges often become a referendum on the incumbent. Crime will be Bottoms’ major vulnerability, he said.

“The biggest challenge [Bottoms] faces here is the feeling that the city is less safe than it used to be,” Robinson said.

Earlier in her term, some heralded Bottoms as the “public safety mayor” after she announced 30% pay raises for police officers and 20% increases for firefighters.

But as the number of homicides and aggravated assaults continued to rise last year, and shootings took the lives of two young girls, Bottoms faced increasingly harsh criticism from the public and council members who said she was not taking enough of a leadership role on the issue.

Bottoms maintains she is focused on crime and in January announced a number of measures, including targeted enforcement on gangs and gun violence; improving police recruiting and retention; expanding enforcement of nuisance properties; and disrupting street racing.

“It’s something I continue to focus on and take very seriously, not for purposes of reelection, but because this is my city,” Bottoms told reporters. “The care and concern I have about crime in this city extends far beyond any race that I’ll be a part of.”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms Public Safety Press Briefing

Moore has not detailed how she would fight crime as mayor, but said she will release her plan in the coming weeks.

Bottoms’ nationwide popularity also soared last year, after the night of destruction in downtown Atlanta that followed peaceful Black Lives Matter protests.

As storefronts were being destroyed, Bottoms delivered an impassioned plea alongside police officials and public figures, saying: “If you care about this city, then go home.”

The appearance drew widespread praise for Bottoms from officials around the country, including from Biden who called her response “incredible.”

Bottoms was nominated by the president earlier this month to serve as the Democratic National Committee’s vice chair of civic engagement and voter protection, a voluntary role she will perform while continuing to serve as mayor.

Her close ties to the new administration could help bring more federal dollars to the city and give the mayor more of a voice on policy issues. That will likely help Bottoms as she makes her case for reelection, experts said.

Moore acknowledged that Bottoms’ close ties to the White House can be beneficial for the city, but “that does not mean a mayor of the city of Atlanta, like myself, would not be able to develop relationships with the Biden administration to help the city.”


Keisha Lance Bottoms

Age: 51

Hometown: Atlanta

Profession: attorney and former magistrate judge

Political experience: joined City Council in 2010, elected mayor in 2017

Alumna of: Florida A&M University (Bachelor’s degree in communications) and Georgia State University (law degree)

Affiliations: Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Felicia Moore

Age: 59

Hometown: Indianapolis, Indiana

Profession: associate real estate broker

Political experience: joined City Council in 1997, elected council president in 2017

Alumna of: Central State University in Ohio (Bachelor’s degree in communications) and Central Michigan University (Master’s degree in public administration)

Affiliations: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.


Recent Atlanta City Council presidents who have run for mayor: (top row) Marvin Arrington Sr. (Council president 1980-1998); Robb Pitts (Council president 1998-2002); Cathy Woolard (Council president 2002-2004); (bottom row) Lisa Borders (Council president 2004-2010); Ceasar Mitchell (Council president 2010-2018) and Felicia Moore (Council president 2018-presdent).
Recent Atlanta City Council presidents who have run for mayor: (top row) Marvin Arrington Sr. (Council president 1980-1998); Robb Pitts (Council president 1998-2002); Cathy Woolard (Council president 2002-2004); (bottom row) Lisa Borders (Council president 2004-2010); Ceasar Mitchell (Council president 2010-2018) and Felicia Moore (Council president 2018-presdent).

Former Atlanta City Council presidents who have run for mayor:

Marvin Arrington Sr.: Council president 1980-1998. Ran against incumbent Mayor Bill Campbell in 1997. Lost in runoff.

Robb Pitts: Council president 1998-2002. Ran for open mayoral seat in 2001. Lost to Shirley Franklin.

Cathy Woolard: Council president 2002-2004. Ran for open mayoral seat in 2017. Did not make runoff, which Keisha Lance Bottoms won.

Lisa Borders: Council president 2004-2010. Ran for open mayoral seat in 2009. Did not make runoff, which Kasim Reed won.

Ceasar Mitchell: Council president 2010-2018. Ran for open mayoral seat in 2017. Did not make runoff.

Felicia Moore: Council president 2018-presdent. Running against incumbent Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in this year’s election.

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