Over the next 25 days, Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood will attempt to reshape the race for mayor of Atlanta in terms that will give one of them at least 50 percent of the vote. Plus one more.
Both are members of the Atlanta City Council. Gender doesn’t separate them, but age and race do. Each has a quiver of different arrows that could appeal to the three-quarters of Atlanta voters who picked someone else last Tuesday.
Touchstones in the four-week runoff will surely include race, economic stability, transportation, housing, party identification, and corruption. But if you really want to know where the race for mayor of Atlanta is headed, it helps to know someone who’s been there.
On Thursday, I shared a stage with the author of a biography of Sam Massell – and the 90-year-old former mayor himself. The book focuses on Massell’s role as the city’s “first minority mayor.”
Massell is Jewish. His four-year administration followed the WASPish Ivan Allen. In 1973, he lost a re-election bid to Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first African-American mayor.
Massell, who is out to ruin the concept of retirement for the rest of us, remains head of the Buckhead Coalition, a group of businesses devoted to the encouragement of economic development in that part of Atlanta.
Massell spoke highly of incumbent Mayor Kasim Reed. He called the prospect of a MARTA rail line connecting Emory University and Buckhead, which Reed has helped put together, “the most exciting thing to happen to Atlanta in my lifetime.”
At my prodding, and in front of a sizeable book festival audience at the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody, Massell addressed the coming runoff.
“Kasim is not going to let his legacy go by without the strongest possible effort to protect it. Keisha Lance Bottoms is his ally, his protegee, his friend. He’s endorsed her, strongly, and raised money for her.
“Incidentally, I think he’s done a good job as a mayor,” Massell said. “His temper’s worse than mine, but otherwise, in my opinion, he’s represented us very well.”
But Massell also said this: “The black community is not going to give up the mayorship with ease. That’s pretty heady wine. You’re going to see, in my opinion, sub rosa appeals for a black ticket.”
He knows whereof he speaks. In “Play It Again, Sam: The Notable Life of Sam Massell,” author Charles McNair tells of that 1973 mayoral runoff that pitted Massell against Jackson.
Massell, the incumbent, had finished a distant second. He needed a spark for his campaign. A friend, Ralph McGill Jr., son of the newspaper columnist, came up with a headline that topped an ad late in the runoff: “Atlanta’s too young to die.”
Even now, Massell insists he intended no racial undertone. But a rising black electorate thought they heard it.
Forty-four years later, Norwood may be in a similar position as she heads toward a Dec. 5 runoff.
In the general election, as she did eight years ago in her first mayoral race against Reed, Norwood fended off accusations that she is a closet Republican – even as Bottoms portrayed herself as “the Democrat for mayor.”
Municipal elections are nonpartisan, and Norwood insists she’s an independent.
Yet the issue has kept her on the defensive. Two days after she made it into the runoff, Norwood hired Billy Linville as communication director for her campaign. Linville has worked for Democrats Roy Barnes and Zell Miller. More important, he handled press for both of Shirley Franklin’s mayoral campaigns.
Norwood can answer attempts to label her as a member of the GOP by raising an even more volatile issue: The federal corruption investigation at City Hall, which has already resulted in three guilty pleas.
For Norwood, who is white, the danger is that such an attack could be construed in racial terms. A strong African-American ally would be helpful.
“The most important quality in a mayor for me is honesty and integrity. I’d like to see a little humility, before I get to what color they are, what age they are, what gender they are,” said Shirley Franklin, the former mayor.
This was Wednesday, the day after the first round of voting. We were talking about corruption as an issue in the runoff — and the possibility of a racial backlash if Norwood were to use it.
“I would raise it no matter what color I was. I raise it, and not everybody who’s black wants me to raise it,” Franklin said.
“I cannot remember a time where we had three guilty pleas around bribery and conspiracy, and a million dollars in a bribe, all around procuring,” the former mayor said. “In my view, that’s the elephant in the room. Who’s honest? Who can I trust? And who do I believe on that issue?”
I asked Franklin if she might make an endorsement in the runoff. “I might. I haven’t decided,” she replied. And then moved past the interruption to pursue her topic.
As mayor, Franklin followed Bill Campbell, who served three years in a federal prison. But on tax evasion charges, his successor pointed out.
“This is very different from that,” Franklin said. “This says, if you want a contract in the city, more than one person believes that they have to spend a million dollars to do that.”
Franklin said she wants the issue addressed in this runoff, and then sent a volley in the direction of Mayor Reed.
“This notion that the adequate response is, ‘I’m cooperating with the U.S. attorney’s office’ —- it’s not adequate,” she said. “Of course, you cooperate with the U.S. attorney. Only a fool wouldn’t. Have you ever met anybody who’s not cooperating with the U.S. attorney?
“The adequate answer is ‘I own that this problem happened on my watch,’” Franklin said.
She wasn’t talking just about the man who replaced her, Franklin insisted. Two sitting council members are still running for mayor. Two more are running for city council president.
All need to weigh in on the topic of corruption in Atlanta City Hall, she said. Mary Norwood, too.