OPINION: Wake up, Atlanta, and pay attention to the mayor’s race

Atlanta Mayoral candidates (from left) Antonio Brown, Andre Dickens, Sharon Gay, Felicia Moore and Kasim Reed participate in the second Atlanta mayoral forum at The Works Upper Westside Atlanta in Atlanta’s Underwood Hills community, Wednesday, July 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Atlanta Mayoral candidates (from left) Antonio Brown, Andre Dickens, Sharon Gay, Felicia Moore and Kasim Reed participate in the second Atlanta mayoral forum at The Works Upper Westside Atlanta in Atlanta’s Underwood Hills community, Wednesday, July 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

If the Atlanta mayor’s race were held this Tuesday, it looks like “Undecided” might have a chance of winning without a runoff.

Summer is traditionally a lazy time of year on the political campaign front, a time when voters are more concerned about squeezing in some vacation time rather than sizing up candidates.

But it’s now August and the mayor’s race is just three months away. A recent poll by WXIA-TV demonstrated just how little thought Atlantans have paid to considering who should lead the city.

Former Mayor Kasim Reed led the poll — with just 17%. His old nemesis, City Council President Felicia Moore, got 10%.

The rest of the field garnered single digits. In third place with 6% was Walter Reeves, who turns out not to be the radio gardening guy. Tied at 5% were attorney Sharon Gay, a former City Hall insider when the Olympics were here; Councilman Antonio Brown, who likes to shake things up and is currently under federal indictment; and Alex Barrella, a cartoonist who recently tweeted, “I believe this city is ready for an openly potheaded executive to shake up our hateful steadfast arbitrary enforcement of victimless crimes.”

Interestingly, that hazy aspiring chief executive leads Councilman Andre Dickens, who has been elected twice to his citywide post and raised nearly $600,000 in two months after seeing himself as mayoral timber when Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in May suddenly decided to pull the plug on re-election. Despite all that, he hasn’t made much of an impression with the voting population.

Reed liked to brag that he, too, once hovered at 3%. But that was in 2007, two years before the mayoral election.

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Then-Atlanta City Council president Lisa Borders (right) eventually supported Kasim Reed in the 2009 mayoral race. (Credit: Vino Wong / AJC file)

Credit: VINO WONG / AJC FILE

Then-Atlanta City Council president Lisa Borders (right) eventually supported Kasim Reed in the 2009 mayoral race. (Credit: Vino  Wong / AJC file)

Credit: VINO WONG / AJC FILE

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Then-Atlanta City Council president Lisa Borders (right) eventually supported Kasim Reed in the 2009 mayoral race. (Credit: Vino Wong / AJC file)

Credit: VINO WONG / AJC FILE

Credit: VINO WONG / AJC FILE

Two years later, by August of 2009, he had improved but was still a longshot, polling at 8% to then-Councilwoman Mary Norwood’s 30% and then-City Council President Lisa Borders’ 28%. He eventually beat Norwood in an exceptionally tight runoff.

Most candidates are saying it’s still early in the race, but that’s not really true. In other years when there were “open” elections (those with no incumbent running), candidates got time — like a year, or even two — to slowly spread their wings and let their names and faces sink in with voters at the endless parade of forums. This year suddenly became an “open” race only in May with Bottoms’ surprising announcement.

This is a sprint and name recognition means a lot. That means the two candidates with the best name recognition — Reed and Moore — have a leg up on the others.

Reed, who jumped into the race in June, tried the shock-and-awe campaign strategy to scare off potential challengers by raising nearly $1.1 million in the three weeks before the June 30 financial campaign reporting deadline.

Dickens, who won a seat on the council in 2013 despite Reed working against him, is unimpressed. “If you were mayor for eight years, you should be able to raise a million dollars,” he said.

What really caught Dickens’ attention was that Reed, who is known in almost every Atlanta household, pulled in just 17% support. Another poll, from something called Safer Atlanta PAC, again had Reed at 17%, Moore at 28% and the rest of the candidates again in single digits.

“He doesn’t have much room to grow, and we only get better every day,” said Dickens. I forgot to ask if Dickens went first-person plural to mean the royal “we” or if he meant himself and the other Lilliputians.

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Atlanta mayoral candidates Andre Dickens, left, Sharon Gay, center, and Felicia Moore listen as they are questioned during the second Atlanta mayoral forum at The Works Upper Westside Atlanta in Atlanta’s Underwood Hills community on July 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Atlanta mayoral candidates Andre Dickens, left, Sharon Gay, center, and Felicia Moore listen as they are questioned during the second Atlanta mayoral forum at The Works Upper Westside Atlanta in Atlanta’s Underwood Hills community on July 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Atlanta mayoral candidates Andre Dickens, left, Sharon Gay, center, and Felicia Moore listen as they are questioned during the second Atlanta mayoral forum at The Works Upper Westside Atlanta in Atlanta’s Underwood Hills community on July 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

I called former City Council President Cathy Woolard, who ran in 2017, and she declined to buy into it being a two-person race. “It’s so unfair for people to shape a race,” she said.

Although there were a dozen or so candidates in 2017, Woolard believes her campaign was damaged when people started calling it a two-person race between Bottoms (whom Reed supported as his preferred successor) and Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who had strong name recognition for having lost a close race to Reed in 2009.

In the final analysis, Bottoms got 26% in the general election, Norwood got 21% and Woolard got nearly 17%. Many of her supporters believe if Woolard had been given more credence, she might have gotten into the runoff and even won.

But life is filled with what-ifs.

What Woolard does know is that people need to start paying attention to THIS race.

“Now, more than ever, people ought to think about the future of Atlanta,” she said. “It’s broken. It’s trashed out. Crime’s out of control. City Hall is not even open. Are we going to open the doors of government or not? It’s all about getting things in the pipeline to get done. There haven’t been things in the pipeline for years.”

“It’s going to be a challenging time for candidates to put up a vision that people can hold on to,” Woolard said. “It’s hard to be heard.”

Moore echoed Woolard. “I’m never going to underestimate anyone in the race,” Moore told me.

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Mayoral candidate Felicia Moore, who is president of the Atlanta City Council, takes questions during a mayoral debate hosted by The Young Democrats of Atlanta at Manuel’s Tavern on August 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Mayoral candidate Felicia Moore, who is president of the Atlanta City Council, takes questions during a mayoral debate hosted by The Young Democrats of Atlanta at Manuel’s Tavern on August 4, 2021, in Atlanta.   (Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Mayoral candidate Felicia Moore, who is president of the Atlanta City Council, takes questions during a mayoral debate hosted by The Young Democrats of Atlanta at Manuel’s Tavern on August 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Moore likes to say she was the only candidate who jumped into the race when it looked like she would be campaigning against an incumbent mayor, Bottoms. (Actually, Sharon Gay also jumped into the race earlier this year when it looked like Bottoms would seek reelection.)

Running against a sitting mayor means you’re either brave or crazy. I looked back over 80 years and only one incumbent mayor, Sam Massell, had been beaten. And that was in 1973, when Maynard Jackson surfed the wave of demographic change to become the city’s first African American mayor.

Gay’s campaign sees a path to the runoff for her because “she is not a standard political figure like others in this race,” said spokesman Angelo Fuster, who worked for previous mayors Jackson and Bill Campbell. “We see that as an advantage because the more people know about some of her opponents, the less they like them.”

Fuster was no doubt referring to Reed, who must overcome some heavy-duty negative perceptions from voters. Reed, who bullied his way through two terms in office, has been under a cloud from an ongoing federal investigation into fraud at City Hall. He has repeatedly said he did nothing wrong and the feds have not laid a glove on him.

Reed contends that while many Atlantans might not like him, they like his track record, especially since violent crime was reduced during his terms in office. (It was also reduced during the first two years of Bottoms’ administration.)

I spoke a few weeks ago with former Mayor Shirley Franklin, who has been harsh on Reed recently.

“I’ve heard from several people that the city has always been corrupt, that a little corruption is not that bad,” Franklin said. “It’s ridiculous. In order to be safe you need someone who’s corrupt?!? Integrity is the No. 1 thing I look at.”

It’s still sort of early and hard to know where the voters’ minds are, other than they want to be safe. Devon Holloway, who lives in the Pittsburgh neighborhood south of downtown Atlanta and is wary of crime, says public safety is “right at the top.”

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In this August 2016 photo, Devon Holloway (left) and former state Rep. Douglas Dean talk outside Holloway’s home in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Atlanta. Holloway co-founded PittsburghAtl Homeowners United, a group of relatively new Pittsburgh residents. Dean, meanwhile, heads the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Association that consists mostly of longtime residents. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

In this August 2016 photo, Devon Holloway (left) and former state Rep. Douglas Dean talk outside Holloway’s home in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Atlanta. Holloway co-founded PittsburghAtl Homeowners United, a group of relatively new Pittsburgh residents. Dean, meanwhile, heads the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Association that consists mostly of longtime residents. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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In this August 2016 photo, Devon Holloway (left) and former state Rep. Douglas Dean talk outside Holloway’s home in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Atlanta. Holloway co-founded PittsburghAtl Homeowners United, a group of relatively new Pittsburgh residents. Dean, meanwhile, heads the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Association that consists mostly of longtime residents. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

He said Reed was pretty good on the crime issue, but he also likes Moore.

“She’s been honest and fair across the board,” Holloway said. “She took it to Kasim Reed, and rightly so. We’ll just have to see what happens.”