Nine candidates for mayor of Atlanta (top, from left): Peter Aman, Keisha Lance Bottoms, John Eaves; (middle, from left): Vincent Fort, Kwanza Hall, Ceasar Mitchell; (bottom, from left): Mary Norwood; Michael Sterling; Cathy Woolard.

Atlanta mayoral candidates laying foundations for election rush later

With much of the metro area’s focus lately on a collapsed interstate bridge, a congressional race with national implications and the Atlanta Braves’ new stadium, you’d be forgiven if the race for Atlanta mayor is not yet on your radar.

But that doesn’t mean the candidates aren’t trying to get your attention.

A new poll shows Mary Norwood with a double digit lead over her 11 mayoral opponents and some are again speculating that Atlanta could soon see a white mayor after a 44-year drought. (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC)

Since the beginning of the year, they’ve crisscrossed the city to shake hands and kiss babies at gatherings such as the Inman Park Festival, Castleberry Hill Chili Cookoff, Atlanta Dogwood Festival and Atlanta Streets Alive.

They’ve also flocked to candidate forums such as those put on by the Buckhead Coalition, the NAACP and Thursday’s Committee for a Better Atlanta meeting in an attempt to persuade political junkies, influencers and often donors who make up the bulk of the race’s early audience.

“This is where the candidates differentiate themselves before the people who matter, the movers and shakers,” said Harvey Newman, professor emeritus of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

Traditionally voters don’t begin to pay attention to the race until late summer or early fall, experts say, so much of what the candidates are doing is fine tuning their campaigns.

Call it spring training for candidates, says Micheal Sterling, one of nine candidates seeking to succeed term-limited Kasim Reed as mayor.

“I do think there are a lot of parallels between spring training for the Braves and the gauntlet of forums the mayoral candidates are attending this spring,” said Sterling.

“I think both are a little bit like watching those ducks at Piedmont Park - calm and cool on the surface but working like crazy just out of sight,” said Sterling, the former director of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency.

There is a lot at stake in the Nov. 7 election for Atlanta and the metro area.

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Atlanta’s mayor plays an outsized role as regional “spokesperson” and the city is the area’s economic engine. Under Reed, the city has made strides, addressing long-term pension obligations, recording record reserves of $175 million and attracting thousands of high-tech jobs, including the relocation of NCR Corp. to Midtown.

But City Hall also is embroiled in a federal investigation of allegations of pay-to-play contracting with two contractors pleading guilty to conspiracy to bribery. Reed has said he has not been interviewed by authorities.

That has led to high expectations that voters find the right person to guide Georgia’s capitol city forward, said Clark Atlanta University political scientist William Boone.

“The bribery scandal is going to be a significant part of the campaign,” Boone said. “There is no way around it.”

Along with Sterling, the candidates include former city of Atlanta COO Peter Aman, state Sen. Vincent Fort, former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, Fulton County Chairman John Eaves, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and City Councilmembers Kwanza Hall, Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood.

In addition to addressing the problems at City Hall, candidates also have focused on issues such as gentrification, income inequality, transportation and crime.

Beyond the festivals and forums, there have been attempts to break out of the pack. Aman recently released a commercial — the first among the field — designed to teach voters how to say his name.

“Peter doesn’t have the bully pulpit of elected office,” said Aman’s spokeswoman Saba Long. “It’s a name recognition commercial.”

Long said the commercial has had an impact. Several people at the Inman Park parade in late April approached him and acted out elements of the spot.

“I think more people are paying attention earlier than in 2009 because of social media,” Long said.

Not everything has run smoothly.

Norwood, the early frontrunner according to a March Channel 2 Action News poll and several conducted by individual campaigns, has been criticized by some for skipping some of the forums. Her campaign said that Norwood was ill for two of the forums.

“At this phase in the campaign, she is focused on meeting one on one with neighborhood groups, community organizations, interested voters, constituents, and subject matter experts to hear their concerns and understand what they would like to see from a Norwood administration,” said Norwood spokeswoman Ellen Adair Wyche.

Fulton Commission Chairman Eaves said while it may be early in the race and the campaign may not be on the radar of the general public, the candidates must be engaged. The city’s challenges are too important to put off to a later date.

“I have taken this campaign seriously from day 1,” he said.

The AJC's Leon Stafford keeps you updated on the latest in the Atlanta mayoral race and everything else going on at City Hall. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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