Big endorsements haven’t shifted Atlanta mayor’s race yet

Vincent Fort and the rapper Killer Mike got the crowd of 2,400 at Saint Philip AME Church to their feet, but there was no doubt as he strolled to the pulpit that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders was the main event.

Chants of "Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!" soared to the rafters of the East Lake church Saturday, as Sanders anointed Fort as a leader of a political revolution he started with his 2016 presidential bid and urged his supporters to flock to the polls in November.

That endorsement energized the largely white and millennial crowd gathered at the church, a voting bloc Fort hopes to merge with the largely black south Atlanta base of supporters he’s assembled over two decades in the state Senate.

But the event — likely the largest so far in the mayor’s race — underscored another truism in the nationally-watched race to succeed Kasim Reed.

Once, high-profile endorsements helped crystallize volatile city elections in Atlanta. Now big-name support, even from the likes of popular national figures and legendary civil rights icons, have only left this 13-person contest murkier.

It's a far cry from past elections shaped by a small group of influential Atlantans. The formidable political machine that Maynard Jackson built to win the mayor's office in 1973 helped propel a string of his favored candidates into office. Andrew Young, Bill Campbell, Shirley Franklin all had ties to the "Maynard Machine."

Those gears have now largely been dismantled, though politicians with ties to Jackson have tried to maintain influence. Still, the race is as fractured as ever, with candidates splintering both the city’s black and white electorates, carving up territory in both Buckhead to the north and Bankhead in the south.

The public polling tells the tale. City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, narrowly defeated by Reed in 2009, has built a double-digit lead and most of her rivals consider her a lock for a December runoff. But the fight for the second spot remains murky, and more than a half-dozen candidates are within striking distance.

Though Reed hasn’t formally endorsed a candidate, his tacit support of Keisha Lance Bottoms has helped buoy her campaign but hasn’t made her the clear favorite yet for the No. 2 spot.

Ditto for City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who wields endorsements from Young and civil rights leader Joseph Lowery Jr., but still remains in the thick of the fight.

Peter Aman, a former Atlanta chief operating officer, has tried to claw into Norwood’s north Atlanta support with the backing of a current and former councilmember who represented the territory. But polls still show him lagging behind Norwood.

And Fort hasn’t emerged from the pack despite help from Sanders, a string of labor unions and former Gov. Roy Barnes — though he’s confident they will help shape the race’s final weeks.

“I’ve never been one who obsesses over endorsements, but then there are endorsements that mean something,” Fort said in an interview. “Bernie Sanders’ support means something. Roy Barnes’ support means something, and the weight of almost 30 labor unions and locals endorsing me means something.”

‘A surprise’

Outside groups have done little to help clear the crowded field, fracturing along the same lines as the city’s electorate.

The city’s main police and fire unions endorsed Norwood, a smaller firefighters’ union backed Mitchell, while several prominent labor unions are behind Fort. The Log Cabin Republicans, which represents a smaller faction of LGBT conservatives, was so divided it hedged its bets by endorsing both Norwood and Mitchell.

Sometimes a major endorsement gets eclipsed by news. At a recent press conference held by Mitchell to announce endorsements by Young and C.T. Vivian, the civil rights icons' approval of Mitchell took a back seat to comments by Young concerning Confederate monuments and the need to to "re-fight the Civil War" in the wake of the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va.

Some outside groups have yet to enter the race in a big way.

The Democratic Party of Georgia, which spent $165,000 in the 2009 race to paint Norwood as a closet Republican, is likely to jump in the race. Norwood, an independent, is the only major candidate in the race who hasn’t embraced the Democratic label.

Other powerbrokers, including former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and 2014 gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter, are also staying on the sidelines for now.

Longtime City Hall observers are split over how the bold-faced names will influence the wide-open contest. Dan Franklin, a Georgia State University political scientist, said endorsements can help cue voters who are just tuning into crowded races.

“In this race, we could really have a surprise,” Franklin said. “A thousand votes here or there could really make a difference.”

Others are skeptical any high-profile endorsements could help swing the race. Michael Leo Owens, an Emory University political scientist, said the only big-name politician who might decide the contest would be former President Barack Obama, who overwhelmingly carried the city in 2008 and 2012.

Still, Owens said there are newcomers to Atlanta that might be influenced by support. He called them “shortcuts to help figure out” who the candidates are.

Wise old men

Interviews with a half-dozen Atlanta voters showed they were more likely to be influenced by their friends and family than by outsiders.

“The endorsements of people in my peer network matter much more than a big person I don’t know,” said Justin Smith, a 37-year-old who lives in the Lindbergh area.

Emika Abe, 32, said she’s hoping to do just that — after she makes up her mind. She said in an interview last week she’s weighing a few top contenders.

“Once I’m secure in whom I’m voting for and voicing that and sharing that with my friends, I will help them wade through the list,” said Abe, who lives in Candler Park. “I haven’t paid attention to who’s endorsing.”

Others said they are just as concerned with who is not getting a leg-up in the race.

Lee Osorio of Midtown said whomever Reed supports is “probably not going to get my vote.”

Still, some caution not to underestimate the subliminal impact of endorsements. Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell remembers during an early campaign for city council hunting for wizened old men to back his campaign.

“I looked so young that I had to search for someone that looked old,” Massell said. “We weren’t looking for name recognition, we were looking for three old guys to be on TV.”

These days, he said, help from bigwigs is just as important as spending the money to amplify their messages. And five weeks from the vote, candidates are just beginning to rev up their air wars.

“You’ve got to go on TV with them and put out billboards with them,” said Massell. “You’ve got to use the endorsement, the same way products do with sports figures.”

Staff writer Leon Stafford contributed to this report.