Do moot council races diminish mayoral campaign?

Six Atlanta council members will stroll through November elections without opposition — much to the chagrin of the leading candidates for mayor.

The mayoral hopefuls all understand that hotly contested council races can only improve turnout without their cash-strapped campaigns having to spend their scarce cash to drum up votes.

That becomes especially critical to strategy over the next 45 days as the campaigns break down the city into its 12 districts, dissect voting patterns and determine how much they can spend and where, all in hopes of assuring a spot in the expected runoff to succeed Shirley Franklin.

“If you’ve got an uninteresting mayor’s race that’s not generating much excitement, it becomes extremely important,” said Michael Bond, a former council member and veteran of city politics for more than 20 years. “You’ve got to first get people to the polls. And then you’ve got to get them to come back.”

Bond knows as well as anyone how critical district politics can be in a citywide race. Eight years ago, he was favored to become council president only to find himself in a runoff with Cathy Woolard.

Woolard, an openly gay candidate, won the seat when Woolard’s own heavily gay District 6 generated historic turnout.

Since then, Bond has lost two more races in attempts to get back on council and is running for a citywide post again this year.

Councilman Howard Shook, who isn’t being challenged in his Buckhead district, said he expects only two races — Districts 6 and 11 — will have enough energy to drive traffic for the mayor’s race.

Both are traditionally strong turnout areas. But this year both seats are open and they have 15 candidates between them. Shook said each those candidates will be out generating interest in city politics between now and Nov. 3.

“You can knock on 1,000 doors in a district and make a difference,” Shook said. “You can’t do that citywide. District races are much more insular.”

This fall, Atlanta will see 10 races for council seats, including the presidency. Atlanta’s unusual around the state since its elections aren’t staggered. Hence, the council has a chance for an overhaul every four years.

The 15 seats are broken down to include 12 district and three at-large posts. The at-large posts tend to have limited impact on turnout because those candidates run the same citywide campaign as the mayoral candidates, but with a fraction of the money. The 12 district seats can become the focus in Atlanta’s neighborhoods, and interest and intensity of those races can vary wildly.

When qualifying closed out Sept. 4, the 10 contested down-ticket races included 44 candidates.

But only four district races can fit the definition of hotly contested. Those four seats have packed in 22 hopefuls. The six uncontested council seats seem peculiar by comparison.

William Boone, a political scientist at Clark Atlanta University, said it’s hard to understand how so many incumbents can get a pass like that.

“Are they that good?” he asked.

The lack of council races in those districts will hurt turnout for the citywide races that fail to ignite the city, he said.

“The only elections happening now are these local elections,” Boone said. “I call them off off-cycle races. That tends to drive down participation. You really need grass-roots issues and organization [to bolster turnout].”

The two districts likely to generate interest on their own are Districts 6 in east Atlanta and District 11 in southwest Atlanta. Six candidates are squaring off to succeed Anne Fauver, who’s not seeking re-election after two terms in District 6. District 11 has drawn nine men and women fighting for the right to succeed Jim Maddox, who will retire after 32 years in office.

Council President Lisa Borders and state Sen. Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta) both live in District 11. Both have to be encouraged if turnout there is strong.

Conventional wisdom places Councilwoman Mary Norwood, the acknowledged front-runner, as the most likely beneficiary from strong performance in District 6, which includes Ansley Park and Virginia-Highland.

None of the mayoral campaign officials were willing to say how they might benefit or be harmed by turnout in individual council districts. Instead, they all said they plan to work to get votes citywide. Norwood added it’s up to the mayor’s race to drive interest in Atlanta politics and bring voters to the polls.