Maynard Eaton, the longtime Atlanta journalist and political strategist, sent out a news email titled, “Favorite political quote heard at last night’s MLK Salute to Greatness Dinner.”
OK, I’ll bite. I’m always interested in how modern politics intersects with the platitudes uttered at such celebrations, especially when we’re entering Black History Month.
Lo and behold, it was a pronouncement about a campaign still two years hence. But in politics it’s never too soon to start.
“The script, the playbook and the strategy has all changed. The next Atlanta mayoral election will be a whole new ballgame” — Councilman Kwanza Hall.
About that same time, several ministers were protesting at City Hall concerning Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran’s dismissal. The mayor, you’ll recall, canned Cochran in a spat that began with the chief’s statements about the sinfulness of gay proclivities. But some of the preachers seemed less upset by the firing than by the fear that the influence of Atlanta’s black clergy’s at City Hall might be waning.
I called Eaton, moderator of Newsmakers Live, for his take. “These things go together,” he said. “The influential black ministers feel left out.”
He continued: “This town is at a tipping point. Look at all those high-rises going up. Black folks aren’t going into those high-rises. It’s all changing. I’m not saying there won’t be another black mayor; but it’s going to be different. The housing projects are gone. Black churches don’t carry the same sway. Black neighborhoods are old and dying out.
“It’s a new game, a new day.”
If you doubt it, just take a walk along the Beltline, where a new complex rises every other week. And all that development that stalled out in 2008 in Buckhead is rolling along again. Demographics keep shifting: at last count, fewer than half of registered voters within the city identified themselves as black.
So I made a few phone calls.
The Rev. Gerald Durley, a longtime Civil Rights activist who was at the City Hall march, said, “bonds are always shifting; even in a marriage. One day you’re at the top of the totem pole, the next you’re at the bottom. The mayor today can’t just go to one segment.
“People say Mayor (Kasim) Reed might be the last African-American mayor,” he said. “The diversity is creating a healthy tension here; you can’t count on something happening. (Former Mayor) Shirley Franklin had to juggle some balls, as does Kasim. It was different for (former mayors) Maynard (Jackson) and Andy (Young.)”
Maynard and Andy, the patron saints of The Good Old Days of Black Political Clout, were secure in knowing they had large voting blocs firmly behind them. Mayors since have had to work harder to win.
The reverend noted that Franklin headed the annual gay pride parade, causing no little bit of consternation in many black churches. “People were saying, ‘What is she doing?’” Durley recalled.
She was simply being an astute politician, wooing a considerable constituency.
In her 2001 election, Franklin, a political background player not widely known among voters when she started, narrowly escaped a runoff with Council President Robb Pitts. Of more than 80,000 votes cast, she got 50.23 percent. One hundred votes the other way, and there’s a runoff. And then who knows what happens?
“If Robb Pitts won the gay vote, he would have been mayor,” she said.
Franklin noted that Atlanta’s east side has grown in both population and civic engagement in the past decade. It’s likely to have a solid say in who succeeds Reed.
Kwanza Hall, she figures, is simply “trying to divine his path and carve out his situation in the conversation” as he jockeys for position in the upcoming campaign.
Hall represents an area that includes the Old Fourth Ward, a historic and gentrifying black neighborhood seeing explosive growth spurred by the Beltline. A couple people called it “microcosm of Atlanta.”
Derrick Boazman, a former city councilman who’s now a radio host, sees the city’s metamorphosis as a tale of money pushing out longtime residents. Case in point: “We have given (Falcons owner) Arthur Blank a large check and left the surrounding neighborhood decimated.”
He might have added that the team that landed $200 million in civic money toward the $1.4 billion cost of its new stadium is one that needs, using Hall’s words, a new “script, playbook and strategy.” Not to mention a quality pass rusher.
Boazman, a bit of a rabble rouser, said voters are roiling for a change. “I’ve never seen a better time in Atlanta for an unorthodox, out-of-the-mainstream candidate to win,” he said.
He talked glowingly of the “glory days of African-American politics” and said black residents are still the largest voting bloc.
“The racial demographics aren’t so that you can forget your base,” he said. “Only winning white votes won’t make it happen.”
Councilwoman Mary Norwood, Reed’s 2009 opponent, did a good job of making inroads into the black community, he said, attending funerals, cookouts and civic meetings. She came within 714 votes (of 84,000 cast) of becoming the first white mayor since 1974, drawing more black voters than Reed drew whites.
“But the absolute irony,” Boazman said, “is that Kasim Reed’s administration has favored the white businesses.”
Late Friday, I finally got a hold of a weary Councilman Hall, who was half a world away at a State Department-sponsored trip to India that focused on public entrepreneurship. He said that conventional wisdom in Atlanta politics is slowly being turned on its head.
“If you want to do political predictions you better know calculus and differential equations,” he said. “In fact, there are a ton of variables that make it almost mathematically impossible to make a prediction.”
Hall’s council website boasts that he “represents District 2, the heart of Atlanta and the city’s most diverse council district. Its neighborhoods include Midtown, Downtown, Inman Park, Poncey Highland, Candler Park, and the Old Fourth Ward.”
It’s those areas Franklin pointed out as among the most heavily engaged, places any candidate must reckon with. In that sense, Kwanza Hall is perfectly positioned for 2017. He represents a racially mixed district, and he should have the blackest name on the ballot.
Hall pointed out that athenahealth, a med/tech company with connections to the last two GOP presidents, is moving into the old Sears building on Ponce de Leon Avenue, just skipping distance from a thoroughfare with deep black roots.
“George (H.W.) Bush’s nephew moved his company two blocks from Boulevard,” said Hall, with an inflection that said that might be one of the craziest things he’s ever heard. “What does that say about Atlanta?”
For today, it says that a big, old building got a solid tenant. In a couple more years, voters will finish answering the question.
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