OPINION: Andre who? Quiet mayoral candidate is not to be overlooked

Atlanta mayoral runoff candidates Andre Dickens and Felicia Moore. (Hyosub Shin/AJC / Ben Gray/AP Photo)
Caption
Atlanta mayoral runoff candidates Andre Dickens and Felicia Moore. (Hyosub Shin/AJC / Ben Gray/AP Photo)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC / Ben Gray/AP Photo

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC / Ben Gray/AP Photo

The day after he snagged second place and got into Atlanta’s mayoral runoff, I sent Andre Dickens a text: “Congrats. Who’d of thunk it?”

I quickly followed up with, “Well actually you did.”

Mea culpa. I was among those (and there were lots of us) who saw Dickens, a two-term city councilman, as an afterthought, a candidate destined to dwell in the second tier while City Council President Felicia Moore and her mortal rival, former Mayor Kasim Reed, headed to the eventual runoff.

A few weeks ago, I got calls from both Dickens and later from one of his campaign advisers, former state Sen. Vincent Fort, imploring me to stop ignoring him. Dickens said his campaign was getting some momentum.

But it was sneaky Mo. In the two polls conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in September and then last month, Dickens languished at 6% while Reed and Moore battled it out in the low 20% range. The most telling thing about the two polls was that 40% of Atlanta’s electorate shrugged their shoulders and said they were undecided.

Come election night, it was no big surprise Moore was running away with it, getting more than 40% of the vote. Meanwhile, Reed’s numbers hadn’t changed from the polls (he was still in the low 20s) and Dickens was nipping at his heels for second place and a ticket to the runoff.

Caption
Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed speaks to the hopeful crowd during Tuesday's election night celebration at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. He asked the public to follow the elections closely, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed speaks to the hopeful crowd during Tuesday's election night celebration at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. He asked the public to follow the elections closely, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed speaks to the hopeful crowd during Tuesday's election night celebration at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. He asked the public to follow the elections closely, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It then hit me that Dickens, a low-key, smart, likable and somewhat wooden candidate, might be for real. I remember telling a couple folks at Reed’s election night party that Dickens would probably be a tougher opponent for Moore than Hizzoner.

Despite being a two-term mayor with wide name recognition and having raised more than $3 million in campaign donations in just five months, Reed couldn’t get a quarter of the voters to tap his name on Election Day.

If Reed, who lost by 600-plus votes (23% for Dickens to 22.4% for Reed), squeaked into the runoff, he almost certainly would have been thumped by Moore. She has been on the City Council for 24 years and has carved out a niche as a voice in the wilderness for transparency and has bumped heads with four different mayors since the 1990s. She’s either brave or foolhardy, but that has built her a loyal following.

“She’s not a politician; she’s bold enough to tell it like it is and make the changes we need,” said Margaret Kaiser, a former Democratic state rep who owns a Grant Park pizzeria. She credited Moore for announcing early this year that she was running against Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Running against an incumbent mayor in Atlanta is political suicide. Months later, Bottoms dropped out and, Kaiser said, “Andre stepped into the race when he saw an easier path.”

Reed had a ceiling when it came to the number of votes he might collect in the runoff, and it looked like one of those low basement ceilings. According to the AJC poll, 50% of voters had an unfavorable view of the former mayor, while just 35% said they liked him. Moore had a 50% favorability rating and just a 14% unfavorable.

Dickens, meanwhile, had a 33% favorable rating, while 59% of the prospective voters gave the pollsters a blank stare when asked his name. That meant that he was like a lump of clay in voters’ minds. He had room to mold their thinking.

Caption
Mayoral candidate Andre Dickens visited WSB-TV and WSB Radio Wednesday morning, Nov. 3, 2021, as numbers from Tuesday's election were still being tallied. Ultimately, Dickens made it into the runoff. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Mayoral candidate Andre Dickens visited WSB-TV and WSB Radio Wednesday morning, Nov. 3, 2021, as numbers from Tuesday's election were still being tallied. Ultimately, Dickens made it into the runoff. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
Mayoral candidate Andre Dickens visited WSB-TV and WSB Radio Wednesday morning, Nov. 3, 2021, as numbers from Tuesday's election were still being tallied. Ultimately, Dickens made it into the runoff. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Dickens’ supporters are relishing the underdog role, one that Moore has played for many years.

“I was with Andre when no one gave us a snowball’s chance,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, a veteran player in the Atlanta political scene. “I think we have two good candidates now. Our goal was to beat Kasim, um, I mean to get in the runoff.”

Reed has complained that unrelenting media coverage of corruption at City Hall hampered his efforts. Also, he was hammered by a trifecta of body blows in recent weeks. Former Mayor Shirley Franklin has been trolling him hard; the head of the Atlanta NAACP recently bashed him and a senior citizen from the Peoplestown neighborhood confronted Reed at a forum last week and scolded him for trying to take her house away because of a flooding problem.

Reed’s fight-or-flight instinct was held in check and he had to sit there like a hostage and take it because it doesn’t look good to fire back at a senior citizen decrying eminent domain, nor does it look good to skedaddle out of a forum.

“When that came out, we were like ‘That’s what we’ve been looking for!’” said McDonald.

Reed countered with his own press conference later, saying that something had to be done about terrible flooding there. And the local NAACP chief was taken to task by higher-ups for stepping out of line. Still, the damage was done.

And Dickens was there to deliver the knockout blow. Well, actually, it wasn’t a knockout, it was more like Dickens wriggling his way in.

Overall, Moore won about 50 precincts citywide, running away with the north side, whose population is predominantly white. Reed won almost 50 precincts, carrying almost all of the city’s southwest side, whose voters are mostly Black. Dickens carried just 16 precincts, but he came in second place in most of the precincts on the south side.

Unfortunately for Reed, there were enough voters there, like Allean Brown, who helped Dickens squeak into the runoff. Brown has been active in community affairs concerning the privatization of Fort McPherson. She said that Reed “sold us out” in the deal.

In the Atlanta precincts in DeKalb County, which are east of Moreland Avenue and have been gentrifying for 25 years, Dickens beat Reed by more than 1,600 votes, which is more than twice the margin that got him into the runoff. (Moore won all but one of those precincts, most of them by large margins.)

The question remains, what will become of Kasim Reed’s voters?

The residents of the southwest side have put a person in the mayoral chair for nearly 50 years. My hunch is that more of Reed’s voters there will head Dickens’ way than Moore’s, a fact that will tighten up the race.

Al Bartel, who has been active in Atlanta politics and neighborhood affairs for years, said Dickens’ campaign “will want to paint Felicia to be the new Mary Norwood.”

Norwood, the former and future councilwoman from Buckhead, famously lost razor-thin races to Reed in 2009 and Bottoms in 2017 and was portrayed as a Republican. I’ve already seen a bit of that on some African American social media sites.

Moore, who for two decades was the councilwoman for a diverse district in northwest Atlanta, likes to say she represented “Bankhead to Buckhead.”

Maynard Eaton, a former TV reporter in Atlanta who has been involved in politics for decades, said the runoff offers a new chapter in local politics.

“Andre represents a new Atlanta, a new age, a techie Atlanta,” he said. “Felicia is steady as you go. She gets things done. Felicia is more for today. Andre is the future.”

And apparently, Kasim was the past.

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