The race for Atlanta mayor enters an unpredictable new phase Monday with the start of early voting framing a make-or-break dash to November for the crowded field of contenders.
The airwaves will soon crackle with more ads. Mailboxes in Atlanta will get more stuffed with flyers, households with landlines more inundated with robocalls. And the candidates competing to succeed a term-limited Kasim Reed will be under more pressure to step up their games or pay the price.
“Now is the time they’ve got to make their moves,” said Mark Rountree, a pollster with Landmark Communications. “This is when they have to shake up the field.”
There are already signs that the Nov. 7 contest between a dozen candidates is starting to crystallize.
Councilwoman Mary Norwood has been atop the polls for months, seeming like a sure lock for a spot in a likely December runoff among the top two finishers. But sustained attacks from her rivals, including the Democratic Party of Georgia and Reed, could be taking a toll as she’s dropped from the high 20s to the low 20s since March.
At the same time, Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms has emerged from the pack, pulling to within a few percentage points of Norwood last week in a Landmark poll commissioned by Channel 2 Action News. Bolstered by Reed’s endorsement, Bottoms is hoping to consolidate the splintered African-American vote over the next three weeks.
Also within striking distance is former Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman, who is polling in the double-digits and aims to gain more ground by eating into Norwood’s base on Atlanta’s Northside.
Several other high-profile candidates are still in the chase, including ex-Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves, former state Sen. Vincent Fort, City Councilman Kwanza Hall, City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and ex-Atlanta Council President Cathy Woolard.
In the final stretch, they’re quickly emptying campaign coffers stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars they raised for this very purpose. Many have telegraphed their final moves; at last week’s Atlanta Press Club debate, four contenders leveled bruising attacks at Bottoms. Meanwhile, Aman ripped into his favorite target, Norwood.
The trailing candidates are quick to offer a cautionary reminder that Atlanta mayoral contests can shift in a flash. After all, Reed was polling in the single-digits less than two months before the 2009 vote. He went on to win a runoff against Norwood by about 700 votes.
The real work
Beyond the dizzying miasma of competing strategies — and each campaign is quick to tout its own tantalizing path to victory — the real work over the next weeks will play out in call centers and neighborhoods where candidates and their volunteers make personal contact with voters.
The door-to-door plodding and phone bank pizza parties are the backbones of painstaking efforts to target likely voters and then make sure they get to the polls. Woolard calls her field operation the “secret sauce” of her campaign, which she said has planned 200 house parties through Election Day — including some Sundays featuring three or four in one day.
“What we do, and what a lot of candidates don’t have the discipline to do, is focus on the ground game, knocking on doors, making phone calls,” she said.
It’s in this hunt where candidates with the most passionate supporters hope to flex their muscles. Fort’s populist campaign hinges on volunteers inspired by his endorsement from Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and the dozens of unions who have pledged to mobilize new voters.
“We have at this point hundreds and hundreds of people who have pledged to volunteer, but we need more,” Fort told supporters at a recent campaign rally. “We need more people on the phones, we need more people knocking on doors and we need people to canvass. And we sure enough need money.”
As essential as it is, the field operations can also be highly embarrassing. Aman was forced to fire a paid canvasser who was caught on tape falsely telling a Woolard supporter she is preparing to support his campaign. Aman apologized to Woolard; her campaign posted a video of the incident on its website under the headline “Shameless.”
In Norwood’s camp, stinging memories of her narrow defeat to Reed eight years ago are used to galvanize her supporters in this contest.
“She lost by only 700 votes in 2009. We’re not going to let that happen again,” said Paul Gerdish, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighers Local 134. “We believe we can be a difference maker in this race.”
Anti-Norwood forces are mobilizing, too. The Democratic Party of Georgia launched a full-scale online attack against “Mary the Republican,” casting her as a far-right conservative. And Bottoms rolled out a 60-second campaign ad to magnify the Democratic assault on Norwood. In it, Reed warns of a “Republican takeover of City Hall” if Bottoms fails.
Norwood, a self-described independent, responded to the attacks by publishing on her website a list of prominent Democratic supporters.
Even as Bottoms ratchets up the rhetoric, she’s facing more attacks from rivals gunning for the No. 2 spot. At last week’s debate, she was targeted with questions about her water bills, campaign donations she returned from a contractor whose office was raided by the FBI and her job on the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority.
“Strategically, you now have two front-runners. And if you’re not one of those two, you have to knock them off that perch,” said Rountree, the pollster.
“They’ve been in the marathon stage,” he added. “Now they’re about to move to the sprint stage.”