Norwood and Dickens unseat incumbents in confluence of political energies

In what many are calling a rare political feat, two incumbents were ousted from the Atlanta City Council, despite heavy backing from Mayor Kasim Reed.

Just how Mary Norwood and Andre Dickens overtook Aaron Watson and H. Lamar Willis for two city-wide seats in Tuesday’s election is the talk of the town.

“It’s incredibly difficult (to unseat an incumbent); to have two of them go down on a city-wide level is pretty amazing,” said Mark Rountree, a political consultant and head of Landmark Communications. “But they’re isolated … you can’t make a sweeping conclusion.”

Was it Norwood’s incredible name recognition — earned after years in office and a high profile bid for mayor against Reed in 2009 — that returned her to City Hall? Or former mayor Shirley Franklin’s endorsement of Dickens, effectively launching him from a relative unknown to a candidate to watch?

Could it have been Willis’ legal woes, which resulted in his disbarment, that cost him his seat? Did changing demographics shift the political structure?

“Yes, all of the above,” quipped Harvey Newman, a Georgia State University public management and policy professor.

Like Rountree, Newman says the election’s outcome can’t be pinned on any one factor. It resulted from a mix of political forces culminating in upsets that could change the direction of the city council.

Norwood, who has won three of her four bids for city-wide office, and Dickens, a political nascent, were up against more than a pair of veteran councilmen; they were effectively taking on Reed, as well.

With millions in his campaign war chest and political allies as high up as the White House, Reed and his camp pumped thousands into both incumbents’ campaigns and into a Super PAC to help steer the outcome of the elections as a whole.

The mayor, who sailed into his second term, has credited both men with helping accomplish goals such as growing the city’s reserves to more than $120 million and a 2,000-officer police force. He called for voters to return them to the council to continue the city’s current trajectory.

But in the end, it was Norwood and Dickens declaring victory in a pair of close races that couldn’t be called until the wee hours. Theirs were the only surprises in city council contests that saw 14 incumbents returned to their seats.

Nearly 46,700 Atlantans cast votes in the Post 2 At-Large race, with 53 percent backing Norwood and 47 percent for Watson, a former school board president known largely for bicycle advocacy.

About 42,500 voted in the Post 3 At-Large race, with Dickens also securing 53 percent of the vote over Willis, who introduced pension reform legislation during his tenure.

Michael Leo Owens, a political scientist with Emory University, sees the results largely through the prism of Norwood’s brand power and Willis’ legal woes, namely his disbarment last month following depositing a client’s funds into his own account.

“In the case of Willis … he was soiled, and the degree to which he was soiled by his ethical challenges was pretty severe,” Owens said. “But Mary (Norwood) is back. … It’s almost like zombie politics. She’s like even more powerful than a zombie; you can’t keep her down, which I think is why a lot of people like her.”

All agreed Dickens, a Georgia Tech administrator and first-time candidate, was undoubtedly boosted by the support of the Franklin machine.

Franklin’s endorsement brought credibility to his candidacy, while her son, Cabral, steered his campaign.

In some ways, the Post 3 race tested the power of Franklin’s endorsement over Reed’s backing of Willis, said Paul Zucca, a Grant Park neighborhood leader and city politics junkie.

“Even though the sitting mayor supported Mr. Willis in a very aggressive way, the voters looked at that and said ‘nope,’” he said. “It helped (Andre) immensely to have a former mayor and the only female mayor in the history of Atlanta come forward and say he was a good guy. I think that is what got Andre to where he is.”

Rountree said the fact two of Reed’s candidates lost, despite him funneling thousands into their respective races, suggest “his coat-tails ended up being not really strong.”

Newman, a longtime Atlanta politics watcher, offers a simpler intangible for the pair of victories: energy.

“I think there were folks running who just had a little more energy in their step and campaign, and that won the day,” he said, acknowledging the anecdotal nature of his take. “I was feeling a sense of energy from Andre’s campaign that I wasn’t sensing from Lamar’s, and I think the same is true of Norwood. She had more energy in the campaign than her opponent did.”

Owens says whether Atlantans like or hate the results, one thing is certain about the council-elect: “Between now and 2017, it’s going to be really fascinating.”