OPINION: Atlanta mayoral race awaits, but who’ll run is wait and see

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant update journalists on the shooting death of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie during a news conference on Dec. 29, 2020, at Atlanta Police headquarters. (photo credit: Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant update journalists on the shooting death of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie during a news conference on Dec. 29, 2020, at Atlanta Police headquarters. (photo credit: Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Last month, after a 7-year-old girl was shot in the head — fatally, it turned out — in Buckhead, Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook issued a statement that he later said was basically “screaming at the moon.”

He spoke of the worst city violence in two decades and called out Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms without naming her.

“It will take a lot to turn this around,” he wrote. “But here, in descending order, are the three things we need to begin: (1) Leadership … (2) Some leadership … (3) Any leadership.”

People are angry all over these days. Violent crime has surged, unemployment rages, politics has gotten mean, and incumbents can’t take anything for granted.

As I read Shook’s note, it occurred to me that 2021 is here and that means Atlanta’s leadership will be called for a reckoning. It’s time for the city elections, and Mayor Bottoms will be up to seek a second term. Most likely.

There are questions: Is she running? If so, will anyone of note take on an incumbent mayor? And is she raising any money?

In a text, she said, “As my grandmother used to say, ‘Unless the Lord tells me otherwise …’ I am running again. The presidential and Senate races have absorbed a lot of the fundraising attention and oxygen, so I am waiting until after the runoffs to begin my push.

I do expect challengers and will take them all seriously.”

Some Atlanta leaders are looking for a private police force amid rising crime in Buckhead, including the death of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie, who died days after being struck by a stray bullet while Christmas shopping with her family in Buckhead. (credit: Family photo / courtesy of APD)

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I looked at campaign disclosures and see that her campaign raised $105,000 in the fist six months of 2020, bringing the cash on hand to $173,000. She also has $87,000 in outstanding debt. This is not a lot of money because an Atlanta mayoral election can set you back $3 million, basically what Bottoms spent last time beating Mary Norwood in a runoff by 700-some votes.

However, if you’re an incumbent running against the usual perennial candidates, then you can win with pocket change.

Since World War II, when William Hartsfield led the city, Atlanta incumbents have been largely unassailable. The only mayor to lose re-election since was Sam Massell, who got beat in 1973 by Maynard Jackson, a time when racial demographics spurred the change.

The only other close contest with an incumbent in the past 50 years was 1997, when longtime City Council President Marvin Arrington lost to Bill Campbell, 53% to 47%. Arrington might have had a shot at winning, although during the campaign he muttered something about Maynard Jackson “passing in Cleveland” during the civil rights movement, rather than helping in the South.

Talking badly about The Patron Saint of Atlanta Politics was a massive blunder that had Arrington backpedaling big time after that.

I talked with former Mayor Andrew Young, who spoke in great detail of his first race in 1981, but couldn’t recall his opponents’ names from the 1985 race — when he got 83% of the vote.

“I don’t think anybody can beat Keisha,” he said, adding that she has a strong base with women, especially African Americans.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock greets former Mayor of Atlanta and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young (right) during early voting at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center near the Westhaven neighborhood in Atlanta on December 14, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Bottoms got plenty of national airtime as an early supporter of Joe Biden and also while feuding with Georgia’s Governor Shotgun over mask wearing in the pandemic. But many people complain that she has not been engaged in the tough local issues.

Former state Sen. Vincent Fort, who got nearly 10% of the vote in the 2017 mayoral election, said, “She has served as a celebrity mayor. If you are poor or working class, you’re worse off. If you’re wealthy or looking for a tax break, you’re better off.”

For a while, it looked like there might not be a real incumbent in the mix in the 2021 elections, as Bottoms was rumored to be headed to Washington in a Biden Cabinet post.

City Council President Felicia Moore would have been elevated to mayor, then could have run for re-election as a semi-incumbent. But that prospect caused the ambitious members of the City Council to start imagining themselves as mayoral timber. Andre Dickens, Matt Westmoreland, Marci Overstreet and Amir Farokhi are most often mentioned, as well as two mayoral candidates from last time: Cathy Woolard, who came in third with 17% of the vote, and former Councilman Kwanza Hall, who got 4%. (Perhaps he can build on that with “Congressman for a Month” on his resume, referencing being elected to serve the final few weeks of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ term.)

Most everyone I reached deferred discussing their daydreams. Farokhi and Westmoreland said they just want to keep their current gigs, and Dickens said he’d be honored to be mayor. “It’s a timing thing, and when the timing is right, I’ll make that abundantly clear,” he said.

I couldn’t reach Overstreet or Hall, and Woolard said she’s too busy trying to get the two Democratic senatorial candidates elected to even consider city politics.

Mary Norwood, who lost close elections in 2009 to Kasim Reed and 2017 to Bottoms, said “Stay tuned,” when asked if she would run. Norwood, an energetic campaigner, currently heads the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods and has been outspoken on issues like crime and public safety.

I always figured that position would keep Norwood in the public fray and allow her to launch a 2021 rematch against Bottoms, rather than wait until 2025 when everyone and their cousins will run.

But an affidavit she signed that was included as part of a recent lawsuit to help President Donald Trump overturn the election results will probably kill any chance of Norwood being elected citywide. At least in the city of Atlanta.

Norwood said she was not trying to enter the presidential election mess. She said she was simply trying to force an answer from the secretary of state’s office about an investigation into her close defeat in 2017.

Whatever her intention, having her name anywhere near a Kraken lawsuit is a political blunder that makes Arrington’s look quaint.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore. (Photo: Josh White)

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Moore, who is outspoken and was a thorn in the side of the last mayor, said things will start loosening up after the runoff.

“Anyone can say they are running, but then it comes qualifying time and they go away. Going against an incumbent is not easy,” she said. “I will be making a decision and will let people know. Stay turned.”

History may not be a good harbinger for Moore. In the past 25 years, five City Council presidents have run for mayor. None made it.

But Moore, who is liked on both sides of town, won an uphill battle in 2017 to beat Councilman Alex Wan, who had wide support from Atlanta’s powers that be. In fact, she got a few more votes in her runoff election than Bottoms got in hers.