On a recent midweek afternoon at the intersection of Freedom Parkway and Memorial Avenue, Mary Norwood — leading a group of campaign supporters — moved about at a frenetic pace.
She hugged constituents. She dodged traffic walking from one corner to the next with reckless abandon.
“I have two speeds,” the 5-foot-tall Norwood likes to say. “Stop and fast. And stop ain’t pretty.”
Norwood has been running fast — some say for the past eight years — toward the Atlanta mayor’s office. In last month’s general election, she scored a front-running 46 percent of the vote in a six-person field. Now, she is locked in a bitter runoff with former state Sen. Kasim Reed to see who will follow Shirley Franklin as Atlanta’s 59th mayor.
Even before she joined the City Council in 2001, Norwood was a well-known community activist working with more than 35 different groups on more than 100 projects, focusing on infill housing, sewers, crime and taxes.
In her two terms on the council, Norwood has represented an independent voice, even an outsider — especially on spending and taxes.
“She does her homework, and she knows what she is talking about,” said council member Anne Fauver. “I think Mary will do a good job cleaning up things in the city.”
Feelings about Norwood within City Hall are mixed, as she has built a reputation for being difficult to work with and unable to build consensus. But none of that seems to matter in the streets, where in many areas she is beloved.
Many gay residents love her stance on marriage equality. Rosel Fann, a community activist, said she is supporting Norwood because she returns phone calls and started a program in the Cleveland Avenue area to employ the homeless to pick up trash in rights of way.
One of her biggest critics is Franklin, who has never made her disdain for Norwood secret. Earlier this month, Franklin wrote on the AJC’s Political Insider blog that Norwood lacked “vision, competence or integrity in her public life.”
In her time on the council, Norwood has never successfully pushed through any legislation that she authored and has often had a hard time getting her proposals seconded. Two City Council presidents — Lisa Borders and Cathy Woolard — have never tapped her to chair a standing committee.
There are four current council members, including Natalyn Mosby Archibong, who was elected in 2001 with Norwood, who have also never chaired a committee.
Norwood has said that good council members either initiate legislation or fight for proposals they believe in. She acknowledges doing more of the latter. But Norwood has also not been successful in building constituent services — or working with city departments to get them to help her serve citizens — a traditional measure of success for council members who do not pass a lot of legislation.
To do well in City Hall, politicians must develop a good relationship with the administration or develop key contacts inside various city departments. Throughout the campaign, Norwood has complained that she’s had a hard time getting information from the mayor’s office and city workers.
She was the council’s most vocal opponent of the building of the so-called McMansions. But when she proposed a ban against them in 2006, it was quickly voted down. A revised bill passed 18 months later. Critics say that’s one example of how Norwood often tried to shove legislation through without seeking input or support.
Norwood’s independent streak surfaced in 2002 when she voted against a $426.3 million budget that would have raised property taxes in the city. She was on the losing end of a 10-5 vote.
A year later, Franklin vetoed as “unreasonable” a Norwood resolution that would have directed the city’s Watershed Management Department to provide detailed information on how to contain and cut project costs.
Perhaps her most important votes were her last two votes on the city budget.
In June 2008, Norwood was among several council members who were against a tax increase; its failure to pass ultimately led the city to put police officers on furlough. This year, the tax hike passed, and the furlough was lifted, but Norwood again voted against it. She said she never trusted the numbers, and past budgetary errors made her uncomfortable voting to raise taxes.
In April 2008, Norwood won the battle to get the watershed department audited. The study found, among other things, that the city continued to estimate bills rather than read meters for 10 percent of its accounts.
The audit request was prompted by Norwood’s steady complaint that it is hard to get information out of City Hall.
She said she plans to change that when she becomes mayor.
“I will work with every member of the council to keep them involved, informed and engaged,” Norwood said. “I have been around for 20 years, and I have never seen any mayor engaged.”
Norwood’s campaign platform focuses on public safety, fixing the city’s finances, improving delivery of services and promoting growth.
Norwood said her background in communications — she was a radio executive and she started one of the country’s first robo-calling services — will be an advantage to her and the city. She said along with better communication with the council, she will reach out to citizens through text messages, e-mails and robo calls.
“It can be powerful to tell people something they need to know,” Norwood said.
At the dawn of the 2001 city election and with her profile rising, Norwood put together a team to see if she could win an election. They said yes, and she ran for an at-large seat. She raised more than $250,000 and scored more than 45,000 votes — more than any other candidate in any race, including Franklin. That planted the seed that she could run for mayor one day, but running against Franklin in 2005 would have been political suicide. Norwood ran for her council seat again, unopposed.
During her mayoral bid, she’s hardly stopped moving. She’s raised more than $1.5 million and touched every corner of the city.
“She is indefatigable and has worked really hard — not just as a council member, but as a citizen to help people all over Atlanta,” said Councilman Howard Shook. “She cares passionately about neighborhoods and making sure they are well-represented.”
It is in the neighborhoods that the Buckhead resident also got her support from Atlanta’s black community. On that intersection — as at all of her campaign stops — Norwood, a white woman, was the minority. Most of her supporters — at least those who campaign publicly — are black, a fact not lost on Norwood or the electorate.
“I have been in Atlanta more than 50 years and only two politicians have come into the community to see the real needs of the people when it wasn’t election season,” said Fann, 76, who has a community center on Cleveland Avenue named after her. “Maynard Jackson and Mary Norwood. Even after she was elected, she never stopped coming to the community.”
The Maynard Jackson comparison comes up a lot. Like Jackson, Norwood is well-respected in Atlanta’s neighborhoods. And like Jackson, who made history when he became Atlanta’s first black mayor, Norwood is trying to make history by becoming the first white mayor since Jackson beat Sam Massell in 1973.
But that is where the comparisons end. The so-called Jackson political machine that backed Franklin is now solidly behind Reed.
Aside from Franklin’s support, over the last two weeks Reed has scored the endorsements of Atlanta’s black clergy members, former Gov. Roy Barnes, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient the Rev. Joseph Lowery and Lisa Borders, their chief rival in the general election.
As of last week, the only major endorsements Norwood has gotten have come from Ralph Long, a freshman state representative, and “Able” Mable Thomas, a defeated legislator. The Atlanta Professional Firefighters and the Police Benevolent Association are the only major organizations to back her.
Norwood and her supporters said her lack of that kind of support marks her independence and confirms her status as an outsider.
“On Nov. 3, we got the most endorsements and on Dec. 1, I think that’s the most important one that matters,” Norwood said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.