Unions, Democrats helped Reed pull off daring strategy

Kasim Reed will become Atlanta's 59th mayor Monday because his campaign accomplished what normally would have been mission impossible: getting more supporters to vote in a runoff than in the general election.

Reed's deputy campaign manager, Rashad Taylor, who headed the get-out-the-vote drive, said the campaign gambled early on that it could accomplish a historic anomaly of turning out more voters on Dec. 1 than on Nov. 3. In the end, nearly 11,000 more  people cast ballots -- with the vote increasing the most in Reed-favored precincts. Reed defeated Mary Norwood by 714 votes.

"It was the best decision we made, but it was risky because it was so unconventional," Taylor said. "There were some [staff] people who were skeptical ... but by the runoff, I think the race had become more highly contested. It became more of a nationalized race, and I think people got more engaged."

Reed got a lot of help to overcome Norwood's grass-roots campaign. He won the backing of three major constituencies: the Atlanta business community,  labor unions and, eventually, the Democratic Party -- the latter two setting up "independent" operations to put Reed in office.

"It was us against the world," said Roman Levit, Norwood's campaign manager. "Everybody who had a political stake in the status quo -- the Democratic Party, the downtown business guys, the developers -- lined up on one side.

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"I’ve seen a lot of runoffs, and I have never in my life heard of -- or even thought it was possible -- that a runoff would have more votes than the general," Levit said. "The business community threw in a million dollars in a month. That would be unusual for even a Senate race."

Reed's campaign team -- which started with a candidate with nearly zero name recognition -- put together a massive ground operation that started identifying Reed voters it knew it needed to prevail in the general election against its other key opponent, Lisa Borders, and to provide the base to increase turnout in the runoff it knew would be against Norwood.

Charlie Flemming, president of the AFL-CIO's Atlanta-North Georgia Central Labor Council, said the unions got behind Reed early even though many members felt he was too close to Mayor Shirley Franklin, whom the unions -- like many neighborhood organizations -- had soured on. The unions poured cash and personnel into their own get-out-the-vote operation to elect Reed -- going so far as to bring in Kenny Diggs, a nationally known operative from Washington, to run it.

Norwood's major sin as far as organized labor was concerned was her failure to back a City Council resolution expressing support for the Employee Free Choice Act, a union-backed bill before Congress. Flemming saw it as an inexplicable blunder because from a municipal perspective the vote was symbolic, and labor was looking for a candidate who would push corporations that received city tax breaks to raise wages.

"Mary pretty much shot herself in the foot," Flemming said. "There was no way in hell we were going to support her. I told her point-blank when the resolution was up for a vote that if she didn’t support it there was no way we were going to endorse her.”

The unions poured cash and personnel into their parallel campaign -- by law Reed's campaign couldn't coordinate with labor's effort -- to turn out the vote, first in the general election to ensure he beat Borders, who as the City Council president had higher name recognition. In the runoff, the unions focused largely on southwest Atlanta, where they knew they had to increase turnout to achieve a Reed victory, Flemming said.

Taylor said the union support was critical. "The early support helped boost our canvassing," he said. "No mayor has won without the support of labor."

The Reed campaign fought Norwood's popularity in African-American neighborhoods by portraying her as a Buckhead Republican running for control of a largely Democratic city. Norwood denied the GOP affiliation, but the state Democratic Party wasn't convinced she had the partisan credentials.

"The bottom line is Atlanta is a big Southern Democratic city and it is important that the mayor be a big Southern Democrat," said Jane Kidd, chairwoman of the  Democratic Party of Georgia, which didn't come out in force until the runoff between Norwood and Reed.

Levit, a veteran Democratic operative, said Norwood's progressive credentials -- she supported gay marriage and abortion rights, and she was pro neighborhood over business -- proved her Democratic bona fides -- not to mention that the Washington consultant doing her media, Jim Duffy, was a veteran of Democratic campaigns.

But Reed and his allies had strong ties to both the state and the national Democratic establishment. Taylor had been the political director for the state party, and the campaign's co-chairman, Dan Halpern, is a member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee.

The state party, which portrayed Norwood as a Republican in the general election, poured cash and personnel into the runoff, Kidd said.

Filings with the State Ethics Commission show that hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the state party from businesses, unions and individuals  nationwide during the campaign. This -- along with independent expenditures by unions -- provided Reed with a multiplier effect because the party can accept unlimited contributions; if Reed supporters had given the maximum contribution, they could then donate to the party for its campaign, Kidd said.

"Those resources came from supporters of Kasim -- a lot of resources were put into the party for that reason," Kidd said. "I can tell you the DNC and the Obama administration were watching this race very closely."

The party redirected much of that cash to increasing voter turnout in the runoff by paying for advertising and putting people on the street, according to expenditures listed in the party's filings with the State Ethics Commission. Kidd said the DNC made its resources available -- while also acknowledging that it was rare for the state party, much less the national party, to take such an interest.

"They have to target their resources where they think it matters, and Atlanta just happened to be one," she said.

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