The political world has no reason to doubt the several polls that show Mary Norwood to be the strongest candidate in the large scrum running to become mayor of Atlanta.
But what they don’t show is that the councilwoman is probably in an inherently weaker position than she was eight years ago, when she lost a December runoff to a former state senator named Kasim Reed by a mere 700 votes.
Her current status ought not be traced to anything that she’s done, or hasn’t done. But times have changed. The U.S. Supreme Court has bestowed its blessing on same-sex marriage. And then there’s Donald Trump.
In the 2009 contest, Norwood could legitimately call herself the foremost champion of gay Atlanta. In 2017, she’s only one of many. Two of her rivals are card-carrying members of the gay community, including former council president Cathy Woolard, attempting a City Hall comeback after a 13-year absence.
Woolard has been endorsed by Georgia Equality, the most influential gay rights group in the state. The organization has retained Woolard as its Capitol lobbyist for several years.
At a recent forum sponsored by several LGBT groups, focused on young people, when the topic of discrimination came up, Norwood pointed to her authorship of an ordinance that condemned efforts in the state Capitol to give legal protections to business that don’t want to do business with same-sex couples.
“We should all be very respectful of every individual, and I will make sure we have no discrimination in the city of Atlanta,” she said.
When Woolard’s turn came, she was able to note that when she was first elected to the council in 1997, she was the first openly gay elected official in Georgia history – who then authored the city’s current anti-discrimination ordinance. “I don’t have to look to see if we have that protection, because I put it there,” Woolard said.
But it didn’t stop there. Former state Sen. Vincent Fort noted his own unsuccessful attempt to repeal a state law that critics say unfairly criminalizes the spread of the AIDS virus.
Former Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves told of his efforts to have transgender inmates in the county jail housed with members of their preferred sex. Peter Aman, former chief operating officer for the city, claimed credit for ending the “red dog” squad, the Atlanta police unit with a reputation for targeting gays.
Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms said the key to stopping state Capitol efforts to discriminate against gays was a strong alliance with the business community. “When all else fails, everybody understands money,” she said.
Council President Ceasar Mitchell expressed himself in much the same way. As did Michael Sterling, another ex-Reed administration executive.
To understand the distance Atlanta politics has traveled, hop into my Wayback Machine for a short ride:
In that runoff eight years ago, Norwood was a pioneer politician in favor of gay marriage, an opinion favored by only 37 percent of Americans at the time. Reed, who cited religious concerns and endorsed only civil unions, represented the majority in the U.S.
That mayoral contest may have been the first major display of the growing clout of the LGBT vote. “Mary essentially had Midtown on lockdown. At that time, it was really critical to chip away at some of that support,” said Reese McCranie, who is gay.
In the Reed campaign, it became McCranie’s job to do the chipping. While he would later join the Reed administration, McCranie’s boss would wait another three years before he joined President Barack Obama and endorsed marriage equality.
That kind of hesitation won’t wash today. “If you are not supportive of marriage equality, you don’t belong in the race,” said McCranie, who is now a candidate for the District 4 seat on the Fulton County Commission.
Gauging the strength of Atlanta’s LGBT community today still requires some guessing. Beth Schapiro, a mostly retired Democratic pollster, says gay voters probably make up between 10 and 12 percent of registered voters in the city – though a high rate of turnout probably could increase that influence to 13 or 14 percent.
“It’s a community that tends to be politically involved and active,” Schapiro said. She pointed down the November ballot, where gay candidates are in the race for city council president, two council seats, and that Fulton County Commission seat.
While Norwood may no longer own the franchise, she still has strong support within Atlanta’s LGBT community. “She is still beloved in the community, and has fought for us her entire career. So it’s not just that she comes here every four years, or every two. She’s there all the time,” said Jamie Ensley, her campaign treasurer.
Ensley, a Decatur bank executive, is the former president of the national Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of LGBT conservatives, and is the current president of the Georgia chapter.
Ensley may be the personification of Norwood’s future problems, should she – as is likely — survive a first November round of voting and head into another run-off.
In 2009, Norwood, who has always described herself as a political independent, was accused of Republicanism, both by Reed and the Georgia Democratic Party. She’s likely to face the same charges this time around.
But Trump has raised the ante, particularly among LGBT voters, with his ban on military service by transgender individuals.
While the national Log Cabin Republicans organization didn’t support Trump, Ensley endorsed the New York businessman during last year’s presidential primaries. Asked whether he remains a Trump backer, Ensley demurred. “I’m only concentrating on Mary Norwood now,” he said.
Candidates aside, the shift in political dialogue has been remarkable, and potent – the difference between standing on the outside of a population, looking in, and living on the inside, looking out.
At that Aug. 28 forum on the issues facing gay youth, the topic of the homeless loomed large. The estimate offered was that Atlanta has a street population of about 3,000. Roughly a third are young and gay.
“I was a gay kid,” Woolard said. “I ran away from home when I was 15, and I stayed away for weeks — caused my parents all sorts of hell.”
But it was Laban King, the other gay candidate in the mayoral contest, who brought an extended silence to the forum. King is an entrepreneur, an underfunded candidate unlikely to scratch in November.
When the renewed epidemic of HIV among young black men was mentioned, other candidates spoke of the need for more education and better access to medicines that control it. Of the need to increase discipline among those in treatment. King bluntly rejected the talk.
“If you don’t give me a reason to live, then why should I take a pill?” he asked. “The amount of emotional issues that LGBT youth face – spending your billions on science is not going to work. These people need hope.
“They need a reason to want to live. We need to let them know that their lives means something, and that they have value. And once they matter, then they’ll start to take care of themselves,” he said.
That’s something that never got said in 2009.