Move over 2016, Atlanta’s focused on next mayor’s race

For months now, politicos have been abuzz over the election: Who’s running? How much money will be raised? Will a certain woman win?

But they’re not talking about the 2016 presidential race. In Atlanta, political eyes are already turning to the mayoral contest more than two years away.

Part of the frenzy can be explained by the fact that Mayor Kasim Reed is unable to run for a third consecutive term in 2017, leaving the field wide open. Speculation abounds that the city could elect its first white mayor in decades — maybe even a white woman who’s openly gay.

Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, the aforementioned woman, was the first to publicly announce interest. State Rep. Margaret Kaiser quickly followed. And current Council President Ceasar Mitchell and Councilman Kwanza Hall have done little to hide their ambitions, though neither has officially declared.

Longtime Atlanta politician Robb Pitts acknowledged through a spokeswoman this week that he is seriously considering a bid. So is Peter Aman, Reed’s former chief operating officer.

The rumor mill is busy churning out a dizzying number of other names: Councilwomen Mary Norwood and Keisha Lance Bottoms; Councilman Michael Julian Bond; Fulton Chairman John Eaves; State Sen. Vincent Fort; former State Rep. Kathy Ashe; her son, attorney Robbie Ashe; and downtown business leader A.J. Robinson, just to name a few.

Some even say Shirley Franklin is eyeing a return to the city’s top job, a notion the former mayor shot down this week, saying: “I have no such plans.”

She’s not the only past mayor fielding queries. Just ask Sam Massell, who held the office more than 40 years ago.

“Somebody asked me if I was going to run,” said Massell, now the president of the Buckhead Coalition. “I thought they were talking about the Peachtree Road Race.”

Many insisted to a reporter that they are focused on their current gigs. Others, such as Robinson and the Ashes, burst into laughter when asked if they planned to run.

Absurdity aside, there’s evidence beyond the chatter that the 2017 race is underway.

Woolard — who is expected to raise millions from national gay-rights groups — registered her campaign this month and named Franklin’s daughter-in-law, Candice Franklin, as treasurer.

A few others, largely unknowns, have already filed their declarations of intent. Fund-raising committees are forming. Even the robocall polling has begun.

“I don’t remember this many candidates or this much interest this early,” said retired Georgia State University professor and self-described political junkie Harvey Newman. He was stunned to receive a telephone survey about potential candidates a few weeks back. “It’s exciting when you have an open seat. From the minute a re-election is over, people start lining up.”

Massell offered one reason why some already in elected office might be urged to consider it.

“If you’ve got three or four people you want to get rid of, you encourage them to run for mayor,” he said.

Longtime political insider Angelo Fuster, who worked for Mayors Maynard Jackson, Ambassador Andrew Young and Bill Campbell, thinks Mitchell has been the most active.

Indeed, a political action committee called AtlantaNext has long sponsored events for him, including an upcoming “Lipstick & Lemonade” fundraiser held by a group called “Women for Ceasar.”

“I get an email from somebody on his behalf every week,” Fuster said. “He’s taking a page from Maynard Jackson’s organization, when he had groups like Young Atlantans for Maynard.”

Councilman C.T. Martin said some think that changing demographics could lead to Atlanta’s first white mayor in four decades.

Mary Norwood, who is white, came close in 2009 when she lost to Reed in a run-off by just 714 votes.

That would’ve ended a string of African-American mayors that began with Jackson, whose get-out-the-vote machine helped elect Young, Campbell, Franklin, and to some extent, Reed.

Newman agrees that lineage is part of the intrigue over 2017.

“People are curious to see if the unbroken succession since 1973 of African-American mayors elected to the city will continue, and that’s an interesting question,” Newman said. “Nobody knows the answer to it at this point.”

Derek Alphran, a longtime political observer who also worked for Jackson, was flummoxed by the mayoral buzz during a recent discussion at Manuel’s Tavern — Atlanta’s ground zero for this kind of talk.

“Why is it of such interest now, when we’ve got 2016 ahead of us?” Alphran asked.“Because we love political gossip.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.