Atlanta mayor's race: Words of support

Voters tell the AJC their thoughts about who should lead the city

Southwest Atlanta homeowner Charles Butler who lives on the same street as outgoing Mayor Shirley Franklin -- has a campaign sign for leading candidates Lisa Borders, Kasim Reed and Jesse Spikes all next to each other on his large front lawn.

Butler said he’s caught some flak from the neighbors about his indecisiveness, but he doesn’t care.

“I’d let (front-runner Mary Norwood) put a sign out on my lawn if she’d like,” he said.

Butler, 74, a “Grady baby,” is similar to many Atlantans in two ways: One, he’s worried about his hometown, and two, he’s not sure who he wants to vote for on Tuesday.

In interviews, voters seemed more committed in their support for Norwood, particularly in Buckhead, her home turf. But most said they were leaning toward one of the frontline candidates or completely undecided.

Three Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters went to five different parts of Atlanta last week and interviewed 45 voters about the campaign and the city. Voters said they’re concerned about crime, the city budget, the condition of roads and sidewalks, the lack of jobs and the physical appearance of the city. Some voters blame Franklin. Others blame the economic recession.

Against this backdrop, Atlantans head to the polls Tuesday in the first seriously contested mayor’s race since 2001, when Franklin made history becoming the first African-American woman elected to lead a major Southern city.

This election could be historic as well. Many experts believe Norwood could become Atlanta’s first white mayor since Sam Massell left office at the end of 1973.

Race has been a frequent storyline in the campaign, and evidence shows it will play a part in the tale of Election Day. One in eight respondents to the SurveyUSA poll said race will be a factor in their vote.

Still, many voters say they’re not enthused about any of the candidates, even though they’ve debated and appeared at about 50 forums. Fulton County officials project a paltry 35 percent of the city’s 258,000 registered voters will turn out to cast ballots Tuesday. Turnout was 41 percent in 2001.

Many say no matter who’s the next mayor, he or she will not be able to fix all of the city’s problems.

“One person can’t solve everything. I don’t care who’s the mayor,” said Christina McLendon, 75, one of Butler’s neighbors.

The concerns expressed to the AJC are similar to a SurveyUSA poll released Monday for WXIA-TV and radio station V-103. Thirty-six percent of voters said crime was their biggest concern, 23 percent said jobs and 14 percent said the budget.

Norwood’s neighborhood

In Garden Hills, Norwood’s blue signs are as abundant as Halloween decorations. Norwood lives in Tuxedo Park, a neighborhood nearby in the Buckhead enclave. Garden Hills is overwhelmingly white, affluent and one of the few portions of the city that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in last year’s presidential election. The neighborhood was built in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s had several facelifts over time, but remains a stable, family-friendly neighborhood with college-educated families with good incomes.

Just 17 percent of residents in the precinct that includes Garden Hills voted for Franklin during her first mayoral bid in 2001. It’s still not Franklin Country. They say she has not offered a friendly ear to their complaints, mainly that taxes are too high.

Mike Hanson, 50, a Delta pilot building a 4,500-square-foot, energy-efficient home in Garden Hills, said city services are awful. He said it took nine months to get his home permitted, a process where he had to pay an “expediter” $1,600 to shepherd his plans through the building department and another $2,600 in fees to the city to be allowed to cut down two trees.

“City services have to be more streamlined,” he said.

Hanson believes Borders, a former marketing vice president for the influential development firm Cousins Properties who’s now president of Atlanta City Council, might have the business acumen to straighten things out.

Gwendy Johnston, 44, an interior designer, is also critical of city services, saying they’re too slow. She’s also worried about taxes. Her bill was $12,000 and she fears taxes will drive middle-income residents out of Atlanta.

Johnston is supporting Norwood on Tuesday.

“She’s from my area,” Johnston said. “She gets it.”

Paul Weinzierl, who was tending to his immaculate garden in a battered Braves cap, is disappointed in the mayor’s second-term performance.

Weinzierl, a Pennsylvania native who “fell in love with the city” 51 years ago, has lived in the same home for 47 years. Anytime City Hall has money troubles and more tax money is needed, he said, “They always look to this area.”

Weinzierl, 83, is voting for Norwood because he believes she presents the best opportunity for the type of change he says Atlanta needs, although she’s been on the council for nearly eight years.

“I’m just tired of what’s going on down there,” he said.

Mayor Franklin’s neighborhood

Mayor Franklin has refused to say which candidate she supports, saying voters can make up their own minds. But on her own street, many say they haven’t made a choice yet.

Franklin has made it clear she doesn’t support Norwood. In an entry on the AJC’s Political Insider blog earlier this week, she said Norwood hasn’t demonstrated “vision, competence or integrity” during her tenure on the council.

Franklin lives on a quiet street with tall pine trees and brick ranch homes that were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Known as the Cascade community, it’s home to many of Atlanta’s upper-income African-Americans and Grady babies who’ve lived in their homes for decades. Borders, Reed and Spikes each have homes in the area.

Real estate broker Charles Lawrence wants more police across the city, but his greater concern is how can the city afford it. He’s also frustrated by rising water bills. The city raised water bills by 12.5 percent in July to pay for its $4 billion water and sewer system improvements. They’re scheduled to rise by another 12 percent in July 2010. Lawrence, 49, is looking for a mayor who can improve the city’s finances. He’s leaning toward Spikes, a corporate attorney at McKenna, Long & Aldridge.

Lawrence’s wife, Briggette, is thinking about casting her ballot for Borders, who has a yard sign posted on their lawn. The couple hopes the next mayor will continue Franklin’s program to help high school students get college scholarships. The program helped their son.

Lawrence focuses on the positive when talking about his neighbor, the mayor, such as the opening of Atlantic Station.

“It’s a real challenge to run a city, especially when you come into a situation with the economy,” he said.

Christina McClendon, who raked rust-colored leaves on her front lawn, said the current state of the city is “deplorable.” She says jobs going overseas are largely responsible for rising crime. She doesn’t blame Franklin for the city’s problems.

“She’s a wonderful lady,” McClendon said of her neighbor.

McClendon, an antiques dealer, apologizes for “preaching” as she talks about “babies having babies,” young men wearing saggy pants and a decline in respect, noting how some folks call her “mama.”

McClendon won’t say who her choice is for mayor.

“I’m going to vote for someone who I think will do a good job,” she said.

Charles Butler, who has the signs of Borders, Reed and Spikes on his lawn, wishes he could vote for all of them. He wants the next mayor to put more cops on the street, lower taxes and get more federal economic stimulus money to fix the streets.

After some prodding, Butler says he’s leaning toward Reed, the former state lawmaker who ran both of Franklin’s mayoral campaigns.

“(Reed) looks like he might do something,” Butler said.

Grant Park

Grant Park resident Alan Ford is clear about the election. “There’s only one issue -- money,” he said. “Everything revolves around it, or the lack of it.”

Ford, 60, who is trying to open a pub in the Old Fourth Ward, has lived in Grant Park for 10 years. He likes Spikes, but says he can’t win and vacillating between Borders and Norwood.

He’s largely pleased with the tone of the campaign.

“You don’t have the divisional politics so much,” Ford said. “It’s not white versus black. It’s middle class. The rich had a say, the poor had advocates, but the middle class never had anybody. Until now.”

Grant Park became Ground Zero for the volatile issue of crime when earlier this year a popular bartender was shot and killed at the Standard Food & Spirits on Memorial Drive. Angry residents, many of them “urban pioneers” who’ve moved to Atlanta since 2000, started a campaign to be heard by City Hall and put the crime issue front and center in the campaign.

Not far away on Auburn Avenue, the birthplace of African-American achievement in Atlanta, there is progress and regress. Care-free Georgia State University students walk to their dorms while men who seem to have nothing to do wander near dilapidated buildings.

“What is Atlanta going to do about urban sprawl?” asked Shatiba Bradley, 29, who likes Borders and Reed, but is still undecided. “What are they going to do about the long-term Atlantans who have invested here?”

Mood in Midtown

On Piedmont Road, between 6th and 7th streets, the only campaign yard signs were for Norwood on four different homes. The homeowners were away, but for the joggers and dog walkers on the street, the election is far from decided.

“Mary Norwood is not going to be good for me and my industry,” said Rogue Nation, a drag performer, citing the candidate’s efforts to force bars to close at 2 a.m. a few years ago. “I live in the night life and what little night life that hasn’t been destroyed, we are losing. She wants to throw it away.”

This portion of Midtown could swing the election. It’s located in City Council District 2, which has more registered voters (26,441 as of July) than any part of the city. Midtown has the second-highest number of car thefts and larcenies so far this year in the city.

The neighborhood is home to many of Atlanta’s gay residents, a voting bloc that has not united behind one candidate. One prominent gay rights group, Georgia Equality, endorsed Borders. Another, Stonewall Democrats, went with Reed.

Debbie McCord, who owns the Shellmont Inn, a cozy boutique hotel at the corner of Piedmont and 6th, said she was undecided.

“They’re all about equal. I just want someone who is going to be able to balance the budget,” said McCord, as she replanted flower baskets to hand from her inn’s massive porch.

Bryan Oekel, a brand research consultant who moved along with his wife and their dog to Midtown in May from St. Louis, said his main concern is crime.

“It can be a little scary,” he said. “We walk around and see glass in the gutter, where someone’s car has been broken into, a lot...The other day, I saw a homeless man out urinating on the street. It was 10 a.m.”

As for his vote, he shares the same outlook as many long-time city residents. “I’ll probably make up my mind in the next few days,” he said.