Campaign finance reports reveal the races to watch in Atlanta

With Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed expected to coast into his second term, two citywide races involving his strongest allies have emerged as the contests to watch in this fall’s elections. In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of campaign finance reports released this week, the two at-large races each reveal credible challengers with real money to burn.

In one corner, former Reed mayoral opponent Mary Norwood and Councilman Aaron Watson are going head-to-head for the seat Norwood once held. The veteran politicians have each raised six figures to carry them to the polls in November. While Watson, a former Board of Education member, has more cash to spend, Norwood carries strong name recognition from her heated 2009 race.

In the other, Andre Dickens, a little-known candidate with the backing of former Mayor Shirley Franklin, has $61,000 in cash to take on embattled Councilman H. Lamar Willis.

It’s a race that intensified this week when Willis, a three-time councilman, was disbarred for ethical and financial misconduct in his private law practice after depositing in his bank account thousands of dollars intended for an injured child. Willis reported raising more than $71,000 this quarter and has $45,000 in campaign cash, but just how his disbarment affects his final month of fundraising is yet to be seen.

Longtime Atlanta politico Angelo Fuster said the money is intended for a single purpose: name power.

“That’s the most valuable thing donors’ money can do,” said Fuster, a former Maynard Jackson staffer.

Watson and Willis have the city’s top fundraiser — Reed — as their biggest promoter. The mayor reported $2 million in cash and is known for the impressive political network he’s already deploying to aid his allies. He’s hosted fundraisers for the men where he credits them for helping overhaul the city’s pension system and rebuilding the city’s reserves.

“What factors into my support for them is their performance in turning the city around,” Reed said, dismissing suggestions he needs the men for a majority on the City Council. “I’m supporting them based on performance and the way these gentlemen have conducted themselves in office.”

The mayor surprised some this week when he didn’t back away from Willis following his disbarment. While Reed condemned Willis’ actions, he noted challenger Dickens filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2011. Dickens has said the legal filing resulted from his furniture business failing during the recession.

“Both folks in this race have had challenges, but this does not relate to (Willis’) political career,” Reed said of the disbarment.

That didn’t sit well with Dickens supporter Jenifer Keenan, an attorney with Alston & Bird.

“To compare going through the legal bankruptcy process to the illegal taking of money from a child client … is offensive to me as a lawyer,” she said.

The complaints against Willis stem from a 2009 personal injury lawsuit he filed on behalf of an underage client. The parties settled the case, and the defendants cut a $30,000 check for the child, which Willis deposited into an account he controlled. The child was eventually paid by the defendants after a complicated series of events, including Willis’ bank reversing the initial deposit and the Georgia State Bar ordering him to settle the issue.

It’s the latest in a series of ethical lapses by Willis, who was also fined $25,000 by state officials when he raised funds for a nonprofit he hadn’t properly registered. During a news conference Monday, he accepted responsibility for an “unfortunate administrative error.” He’s previously said he made mistakes while battling depression during a divorce.

Georgia State University political science lecturer Steve Anthony believes the Willis-Dickens race is the one to watch, given Willis’ legal woes and Dickens’ financial backing. Dickens raised more than $53,500 in the most recent quarter and has been endorsed by state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, and Franklin, whose son and daughter-in-law are running the campaign.

“Even with it being spearheaded more or less by Shirley, that’s still an impressive (amount) for somebody that’s never been in office and is running against an incumbent,” Anthony said. “His totals surprised me.”

Very few, it seems, are surprised by the figures reported by Watson and Norwood. The pair kicked fundraising into high gear after she announced her candidacy in late August, with Norwood picking up $113,000 in a single month while Watson raised nearly $110,000 over the course of three. Watson took in contributions from 213 donors in the most recent quarter, compared with 567 for Norwood.

Total contributions leave Norwood with about $77,500 in cash on hand, far behind Watson’s $109,000. Watson, an attorney and accountant, enjoys much of the same backing as Reed, which includes donations from Falcons owner Arthur Blank.

Norwood, for her part, has largely reactivated the base that propelled her toward a mayoral bid. The longtime community activist raised more than $41,000 in cash from her neighbors in the Buckhead ZIP code of 30305 alone.

Janice Hall, a Peachtree Hills resident, said she donated because her candidate built her name on constituent services — not political allies.

“That’s why we need to have Mary,” she said. “We need some independence (on the council).”

Watson supporter Donna Foland said that she, too, chose her candidate based on his commitment to residents.

“Aaron will do what’s best for the city,” she said. “Anything I’ve ever called him to ask or help with, he and his staff have always gone out of their way to help.”