Torpy at Large: Atlanta politics as usual? Not this mayoral runoff

Signs of retooling in the city’s black political machine

Former Mayor Shirley Franklin broke ranks this week with Atlanta's traditional black political alliance and endorsed Mary Norwood, a mayoral candidate who is noticeably white.

I called civil rights icon — and former mayor — Andrew Young to see what this means. Is the old Maynard Jackson Machine now dented and in a ditch?

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“I haven’t figured it out yet; it’s still happening,” said Young. “I don’t know what it means. It might even be good.”

Young has endorsed Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms for mayor in the runoff after backing City Council President Ceasar Mitchell in the general election. Mitchell seemed to be the heir apparent in the lineage of black mayors who trace back to Jackson, whose 1973 victory made him the patron saint of the Atlanta Way.

Young, who remains orthodox in supporting an African-American candidate, said “internal tensions in the black community” now mean monolithic support is no longer a sure thing.

Things ain’t like they used to be.

Consider this. The other day, an Atlanta resident named Stephen Lackey sent me a tape of Norwood talking to a Young Republican club. In the tape, Norwood explained her "independent" designation, saying Atlanta is overwhelmingly Democrat, "so you can't win if you're a Republican label."

I assumed this to be part of the Democratic campaign to paint Norwood as a secret Trumpite who’s posing as a sweet little ole Southern lady to win over black voters.

Interestingly, Lackey’s no anti-Republican. He’s a business consultant who spends time raising money for GOP candidates. But he is also an African-American who thinks it’s important for Atlanta, the Black Mecca, to have a black mayor. He admits Norwood is impressive with her energy in responding to constituents. He’s even seen her at many funerals.

“She’s the perfect local politician,” he said. “But the country needs some examples of black exceptionalism. I think it’s important for black people to look towards that.”

Lackey, though, is not happy with Mayor Kasim Reed, who supported Bottoms from the start and battered other black candidates to give his candidate an edge.

Reed “is blowing up a machine that has been in place since Maynard Jackson,” Lackey said. If Bottoms wins, “Kasim Reed is the new boss. He can say, ‘I did what I want, act like I want, and you can’t touch me.’ “

The Rev. Timothy McDonald and members of the Concerned Black Clergy speak with the press outside the Fulton County Jail in this 2013 AJC file photo.

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

The Rev. Timothy McDonald, former president of the Concerned Black Clergy, was part of a group of about 60 pastors who recently endorsed Bottoms.

In years past, black minsters were vital to getting out the vote, a fact that McDonald thinks will again hold true. He thinks it will be close this time, just like it was in 2009 when Reed nosed out Norwood.

I said to McDonald that Bottoms got momentum last week when some white Dems — including Jason Carter, the failed gubernatorial candidate (Kasim might even consider him a "loser") — came out in her support. But the Franklin endorsement would seem to temper that.

Bottoms still has momentum, McDonald said, but she must carve a path as her own person.

“Her problem is not Keisha, her problem is Kasim,” said McDonald, one of the city’s reliable firebrands. “You’d be hard-pressed to find black people to say he did good for black people. I’d prefer she didn’t have his endorsement. Kasim ain’t done nothing (for black people), which is what Shirley said” while endorsing Norwood.

Atlanta mayoral candidates Keisha Lance Bottoms (left) and Mary Norwood participate in a forum at the Carter Center on Tuesday, November 28, 2017.  

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Well, in Hizzoner’s defense, he did create Candidate Bottoms, turning an uninspiring councilwoman into the No. 1 vote-getter. Two years ago, community groups in her district complained they rarely saw her. (They still do.)

But next thing you know, Kasim plops her in as the part-time, $135,000 a-year Rec Authority chief. He sends his contributors, the well-connected airport contractors, her way to give her tons of donations, and then he beats up on the other candidates, bringing them down in the polls as she rises without having to dirty her own mitts.

Ceasar Mitchell was Reed’s favorite target. It seemed intensely personal with The Mayor. But in the end, it was politics. Reed knew he had to destroy the top black candidate for his pick to survive to a runoff with Norwood.

The mayoral attacks brought Mitchell, a proud man and the son of an Atlanta cop, to do the unthinkable a week before Shirley did the same — he came out in support of Norwood instead of holding his nose and dutifully endorsing Bottoms. In doing so, he effectively immolated his career in the world of black Atlanta politics.

Over the weekend, I argued with someone on Facebook who called him a “race traitor,” which is the rhetoric that bubbles up when someone breaks with the tried-and-true path.

Mitchell, who introduced Franklin at a press conference outside City Hall, smiled when I asked if he got beat up after endorsing Norwood.

Yeah, he said.

“I was the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “But I couldn’t go quietly into the night. I didn’t like the rhetoric around this Democratic and Republican stuff.”

It smacked of racial politics.

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin endorses Mary Norwood, who  watches (back, left) with former Atlanta mayoral candidates Peter Aman (back, center) and Ceasar Mitchell (back, right). 

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

Franklin, who was Reed’s mentor and supporter during his 2009 campaign, has long disliked the way The Mayor has trashed her time in office to build up his own narrative.

But Franklin said her dislike of Reed didn’t bring her forward, it was the “prolific” corruption (a federal prosecutor’s word) in the city’s contracting process that brought her out — as well as concern about how much of Black Atlanta has lagged behind as the city grows rich.

Reed has not been touched by any charges in the ongoing investigation into bribery in the contracting process, but since he's the chief, he owns the mess. Norwood and her supporters are using the issue to hammer away at Reed's candidate.

I’m told The Mayor has signed up with the same speaker’s bureau that signed Andrew Young long ago. Seems like he’s going to have some interesting tales to tell on the after-dinner circuit.