Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard said Wednesday she will support rival Mary Norwood over Keisha Lance Bottoms in the Tuesday runoff for mayor, a highly-coveted endorsement in the tight race to succeed Mayor Kasim Reed.
The endorsement by the progressive Woolard of the self-styled “progressive independent” Norwood was both a reflection of common stances on issues and a rebuke of Reed, who endorsed Bottoms last month and used his bully-pulpit throughout the campaign to bash Woolard and other top contenders.
Kendra King Momon, an Oglethorpe University political science professor, said in a close runoff, where neither of the finalists came close to earning a majority of general election votes, endorsements such as Woolard’s could be a factor for the undecided voters who could swing the race.
“I think there is going to be a couple thousand voters who will have the say over who’s the next mayor,” she said.
Woolard collected about 17 percent of the vote in the general election, and both Bottoms, with 26 percent of the vote, and Norwood, with 21 percent, made wooing Woolard’s supporters a top priority as they sought to consolidate support among the backers of their vanquished rivals.
Woolard said she holds Bottoms in high regard, and Woolard gave Bottoms an edge on issues of social justice and affordable housing, while also noting the importance of African-American leadership in a majority-black city. But Woolard gave Norwood the edge on managing the growth of the city and on ethics.
City Hall is mired in a federal bribery investigation, which has led to the convictions of two contractors and the city’s former chief purchasing officer. Woolard focused on ethics and rooting out corruption throughout the campaign.
“I feel like the lack of transparency at City Hall has crushed the spirit of our city, and I feel like we need a clean break with this administration and a new start here with a fresh set of players,” Woolard said at a Wednesday press conference outside City Hall.
Reed has pledged the city’s cooperation with the federal probe, and Bottoms joined her rivals in calling for an overhaul of city purchasing.
Woolard also was critical during the campaign of Bottoms’ former role as the head of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority while she served on the council. Reed appointed Bottoms to the role, where she oversaw the sale of Turner Field. Woolard has maintained that Bottoms serving in both roles was “illegal,” though Bottoms said she got the approval of the city’s ethics office.
Woolard’s comments Wednesday were a stinging rebuke of Reed, who tapped Bottoms as his successor and helped introduce her to his network of donors and supporters.
Representatives for Reed did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
In a statement to Channel 2 Action News, Bottoms said she had hoped to earn Woolard’s backing, but “I remain best suited to address the issues facing our communities, including affordability, income inequality, transportation, crime and education.”
Bottoms’ Twitter feed, however, retweeted a message by Atlanta supporter Isaac Hayes III with a prior Woolard statement warning of Norwood’s ties to the Republican Party.
Asked if she worried about Norwood being “sufficiently progressive,” Woolard said she does not.
“I worry sometimes about the people around her not being sufficiently progressive, but I don’t worry about her,” Woolard said.
Norwood is seeking to become the first white Atlanta mayor in more than 40 years. This week, Norwood, a candidate that her opponents have branded as a “closeted Republican,” has gained some support from high-profile city Democrats and African-American political leaders that didn’t happen in 2009 when Reed beat her by a razor-thin margin that largely broke along racial lines.
Norwood on Wednesday also earned the endorsement of prominent LGBTQ group Georgia Equality.
Norwood has now locked up the support of former mayoral candidates, including former city Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman, City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves.
Bottoms earned the endorsement of Councilman Kwanza Hall as well as those from high-profile civil rights leaders, including former Mayor Andrew Young.
Bottoms also has touted endorsements by national political figures, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
On Monday, in an extraordinary scene in Atlanta politics, former Mayor Shirley Franklin, Reed’s predecessor, endorsed Norwood over Bottoms. In 2009, Franklin backed Reed, but the relationship has since soured.
“All of these endorsements are tinged with a degree of retribution,” said Michael Leo Owens, an Emory University political science professor. Some of the defeated candidates have had personal and political run-ins with Reed and could have sat out the runoff, he said, but instead they’re supporting Reed’s rival from 2009.
“These candidates are making a deliberate statement to stand with Mary Norwood,” he said. “If you went back eight years, you could not imagine what we are seeing this week. It’s quite amazing.”
Reed lashed out at rivals including Mitchell, whom he called a “loser” last week and “a disaster” on another occasion. He also once labeled Woolard “a quitter,” as she took aim at his policies on the campaign trail.
“In some ways, the seeds of these endorsements were sewn by the antics of the mayor of the city of Atlanta,” Owens said. “If it turns out that Keisha Lance Bottoms loses next week, some of that loss will be attributed to the great intrusion of Mayor Kasim Reed into the race.”
The Woolard endorsement came the morning after a Tuesday night community forum where Woolard quizzed Bottoms and Norwood, both sitting councilmembers, on their stances on issues including the Beltline, affordability and transit.
Woolard said the forum didn’t sway her one way or the other. She said she’s gotten to know each of the candidates after months of nearly nightly forums. Woolard said she was undecided about her endorsement until about five minutes before the scheduled press conference.
Woolard also said she would be interested in a possible role at City Hall working on her core issues such as affordability and transportation, but she said she’s had no detailed talks about a position. She said she had not shared her endorsement plans with either candidate before her announcement.
Harold Shumacher, who is white, lives in Midtown and voted for Woolard this month, planned to back Norwood. He said he wrestled with the decision and Woolard’s endorsement of the Buckhead councilwoman is validating.
He said Norwood’s answers at the Tuesday forum were more specific about issues such as transit and handling growth.
“It felt like she had a keener structural understanding of the mechanics of government in the city of Atlanta,” he said.
In a statement, Norwood said she was “delighted” to have Woolard’s support.
“I admire and respect her commitment to Atlanta, and look forward to working with her closely as we manage our growth and solve our transportation and affordable housing issues,” Norwood said. “Cathy and I are also committed to transparency in government, rooting out corruption, and restoring trust and ethics in city government.”
Elaine Hudson, a Woolard supporter who is white and lives in southwest Atlanta, said Norwood is not her ideal candidate. But she said she respects the endorsements of Woolard and Franklin.
The federal bribery investigation also weighed heavily on her mind, Hudson said. So, too, have large community decisions, such as the sale of Turner Field, which she said lacked proper input from nearby neighborhoods.
“There was no community input. That’s been a pattern of the Reed administration,” she said.
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