A little west of the Beltline, a concrete truck blocked Sampson Street as workers poured the foundation for yet another new home. Nearby, 3,000-plus square-foot, tri-level residences tower over 1930s bungalows with clapboard siding.
The changing landscape of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward and demographic data tell an undeniable story: Over the past decade, this historically black neighborhood, once home to the nation’s most revered civil rights leader, has seen an inundation of wealth.
Most of it is white.
The shift, some assumed, would diminish African-American political power. Yet the precinct-level data from Tuesday’s mayoral election suggest otherwise.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis indicates that, in key battleground neighborhoods east of downtown, recent influxes of white voters did not help the white candidate, Mary Norwood, enough to sweep her into the mayor’s office.
In fact, the numbers from those areas seem to show that, although the mayor’s seat is technically non-partisan, the perceived party affiliation, more so than race, gave Keisha Lance Bottoms the victory.
With a margin of less than 1 percentage point, Norwood has said she will call for a recount, which could take place next week. The likelihood of the result being overturned, however, is slim.
Overall, Tuesday’s runoff vote largely broke along familiar racial lines throughout the city, with predominantly black neighborhoods to the west and southside of the city backing Bottoms, who is black. Norwood, who is white, got the bulk of her support from whiter and wealthier parts of Buckhead and neighborhoods east of Midtown.
“You look at how the votes broke out and you look at where the inequality is in our city, where the haves are and where the have-nots are, those were the dividing lines,” said District 2 City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who endorsed Bottoms after failing to make the mayoral runoff.
But east of downtown, enough white voters turned out for Bottoms, or chose not to cast a ballot at all, to help her seal the narrow win.
“The Old Fourth Ward is one of most gentrified, if not the most gentrified, neighborhood in the country,” said former State Senator Vincent Fort, himself an unsuccessful mayoral candidate in November’s general election. “So there is an increase in the white population. But that increase in the white population tends to be Bernie Sanders progressives.”
The voters who backed Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Primary for U.S. presidency won’t support anyone perceived as Republican in today’s polarized political environment, Fort said.
Throughout the campaign, Norwood fought back against attempts to link her with the Republican Party, identifying herself as a “progressive independent.”
But, for some, that argument rang hollow after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a recording of Norwood speaking to a group of young Republicans earlier this year.
In that audio file, Norwood blames voter manipulation for why she lost the mayoral election to Kasim Reed eight years ago.
That’s the same explanation President Donald Trump offered for losing the country’s popular vote more than a year ago.
“If I had to look at the most important issue, it was party affiliation and the inability of Mrs. Norwood to address that satisfactorily,” said Harvey Newman, professor emeritus of public management and policy at Georgia State University.
That speech, Newman said, “reinforced the message the Democratic Party had been hammering.”
From 2010 to 2017, the number of white registered voters in the Old Fourth nearly doubled from 3,311 to 6,003, according to voting records.
According to those records, white voters — in the neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King was born — now outnumber black voters by roughly 400.
Yet Norwood performed better in 2009 in Old Fourth Ward precincts than she did on Tuesday. Eight years ago, she garnered 40 percent of the votes in the Old Fourth compared to the 33 percent of the votes Tuesday.
The Old Fourth lies in Hall’s City Council District 2. In the 12-way mayoral race in November’s general election, former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard – widely regarded as one of the most progressive candidates in the race — earned more votes than anyone else in District 2.
“People come here because they seek diversity,” said Kit Sutherland, who lives in a condo off Glen Iris Drive. “People who are coming in aren’t choosing between Vinings and the Old Fourth Ward. … I don’t think young Republicans are moving to the Old Fourth Ward. I think educated white, but liberal, people are moving here.”
Vinings is an unincorporated suburb just northwest of Atlanta that is more than 80 percent white.
Sutherland, a retired historic preservation consultant and the community liaison for the Old Fourth Ward Business Association, voted for Woolard in the general election. She supported Norwood in Tuesday’s runoff because Woolard endorsed Norwood.
Though Norwood won eastern precincts that Woolard carried, with some voters, Woolard’s endorsement seems to have had a limited impact.
“The chosen candidate of the Old Fourth Ward really was Cathy Woolard,” Sutherland said. “When Cathy didn’t get elected, we all had a hard choice to make.”
Some chose to stay home.
In an election decided by fewer than 800 votes, turnout dropped significantly. Roughly 5,000 fewer ballots were cast in the runoff on Tuesday compared to the November general election.
Of the people who stayed home, 90 percent of them resided in the four city council districts won by Woolard last month.
In the days leading up to the runoff, Norwood also received endorsements from former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and, in addition to Woolard, three other former mayor candidates: former Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman, City Council President Ceasar Mitchel and former Fulton County Chairman John Eaves.
All of those prominent local figures were Democrats who insisted that Norwood had lived up to “progressive independent” label. They also said their support for Norwood didn’t stem from personality conflicts with Mayor Reed, who’s often criticized for being a bully.
Last weekend, two nationally celebrated African-American Democrats, U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, arrived in Atlanta to stump for Bottoms.
Perhaps that last minute support from two figures often mentioned as potential presidential candidates in 2020 canceled out Norwood’s local endorsements.
One way to look at Bottoms’ slim victory margin is that she and her allies better mobilized their bases, said Michael Lee Owens, an Emory University political science professor.
“The other way to think about it is this about de-mobilization,” he said. “This is about segments of the electorate standing down. There were people who made a choice not to return to the polls. … The abstentions benefited Bottoms.”
Newman, the Georgia State University professor, said Bottoms followed the same formula that put Reed and other African-American mayors in office: lock-down black voters and convince enough white to cross over racial lines.
Hall, the District 2 councilman, lamented the election becoming racialized and nationalized. State and national Democrats worked to tie Norwood to Trump.
Amid the ongoing bribery investigation into pay-to-play contracting at City Hall, factions working on behalf of Norwood insinuated black leadership was corrupt.
“I think that the political consultants, the advisers, the media spin-meisters, did the citizens of Atlanta a disservice,” Hall said.
Newman lives in the Old Fourth Ward near the old Sears, Roebuck & Co. warehouse that’s been redeveloped into the Ponce City Market. The tiny voting precinct where he cast his ballot is majority white. But it was one of three precincts where the candidates tied. The others were in downtown and East Atlanta.
In Newman’s precinct, each candidate received 79 votes — small but convincing evidence that skin color wasn’t the only factor on election day.
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