The photo, taken the week before Atlanta’s mayoral runoff ended, was as demographically balanced as a fighting platoon in one of those old World War II movies.
Ceasar Mitchell, Mary Norwood, Shirley Franklin and Peter Aman strode abreast down a sidewalk near City Hall, the visual promise of a new brand of politics.
One that was less insular, and unsullied by airport vending cash, which has long served as the mother’s milk of Atlanta campaigns. A system in which character mattered first and race afterward, as Franklin, the former mayor, had phrased it. And most importantly, a City Hall in which power could be shared with a white mayor — a creature that most residents of Atlanta have only read about in history books.
The photograph, like Norwood’s mayoral campaign, was a call for revolution. And on Tuesday, Atlanta wasn’t in the mood.
Thus, Keisha Lance Bottoms, the daughter of a 1960s soul singer and protégé of incumbent Mayor Kasim Reed, will become the 60th mayor of Georgia’s capital city. (Norwood’s hope that yet-to-be-tallied provisional and overseas ballots will change the outcome is an exceedingly thin thread.)
We live in a volatile political climate, courtesy of President Donald Trump. North Korea warns of nuclear war. Jerusalem may soon detonate. Never mind the soap opera in Alabama.
In times of uncertainty, the urge to gamble is suppressed. One tends to hold on more tightly to one’s possessions.
Ownership isn’t necessarily material. It can be aspirational, too. As Bottoms claimed victory in the wee hours on Wednesday, she told of a last campaign stop at Ralph Bunch Middle School in southwest Atlanta, where she once had a desk.
“For all the little girls out there that need to believe that you’re better than your circumstances, I want you all to remember that black girl magic is real,” the mayor-elect said.
Nearly two weeks ago, on Thanksgiving Day, I was on the phone with Andrew Young, the former mayor and ambassador to the United Nations. He was supporting Bottoms in the runoff, but he was more concerned with the threat that he thought Norwood’s candidacy posed to the status quo that Atlanta had created for itself over the last half-century.
“I think it’s important that politics and business remain a cooperative partnership,” Young said. “It’s the difference between, say, Atlanta and St. Louis. Or Atlanta and Cleveland, or Atlanta and Chicago. There is an independent political base that contributes ideas and growth that really enhances business.”
Young and others like him thought they had something to lose on Tuesday, too.
My point is that, in a highly polarized political climate, a candidate such as Norwood, who was neither fish nor fowl, neither Democrat nor Republican, was as vulnerable and exposed as Mitt Romney at a Trump rally.
For in the end, the runoff for mayor of Atlanta became the mirror image of what we have seen occur among Republicans, in Georgia and D.C.
Very few issues separated Norwood and Bottoms. Both are strong on gay rights. Both support abortion rights. Lock them in a room together, and they could find common ground on gentrification and transportation. But the Democratic Party of Georgia spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it very clear that Bottoms was a Democrat and Norwood, as an independent, was something else.
Mailers pointedly pictured Norwood and Trump. For some, the fact that the councilwoman from Buckhead couldn’t bring herself to personally condemn the current resident of the White House was proof enough of her unfitness for office.
In Kasim Reed, Bottoms even had someone Trump-like watching her back — in that the current mayor was entirely willing to condemn her opponents in sharp, undiplomatic and widely publicized terms. Sometimes on Twitter.
After a first round of voting pushed him out of the race for mayor, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell endorsed Norwood. Reed’s reaction was concise. “One man, one woman, two losers,” the mayor said.
Norwood replied with indignation. “This type of disparaging remark has no place in our civic discourse. He should be ashamed of himself,” she said — sounding like every Democrat in Washington after a 140-character storm from the White House.
Much of this is caricature, of course. The most extreme forms of political argument always sacrifice subtlety.
A leaked recording of an address Norwood made before the Buckhead Young Republicans, in which she claimed Reed had stolen the mayoral runoff from her in 2009 by importing “thugs” from outside Atlanta to vote, provoked genuine concern among many African-Americans.
Likewise, Bottoms’ pursuit of Democratic purity — oddly enough — didn’t require her to return campaign contributions from top aides to Gov. Nathan Deal, a genuine Republican.
But there might be a lesson in Tuesday’s mayoral runoff for Democrats in the 2018 race for governor.
Former state lawmaker Stacey Evans of Smyrna endorsed Bottoms, and that might help her next year. Yet that’s neither here nor there.
Stacey Abrams, the former House minority leader intent on becoming the first African-American governor of Georgia, has embarked on an aggressive strategy of motivating African-Americans, other minorities and liberal white voters.
Unlike Evans, Abrams would de-emphasize outreach to independents and moderate Republicans.
Bottoms employed the same strategy to become Atlanta’s next mayor. But despite 95,000 votes cast, she won that crown with only 759 votes to spare — in a city where 8 of 10 votes were cast for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Polarized tactics might have worked for Democrats in Atlanta on Tuesday. But just barely. Whether the strategy is a viable one for a statewide campaign in 2018 may be another matter.