It’s been half a century since Atlanta, the birthplace of the American civil rights movement, last elected a white mayor. But the trend, threatened by a dramatic reshuffling of local demographics amid a surge of younger, white voters to the capital city’s urban center, is poised to boomerang.
The race to succeed Kasim Reed as mayor is among the most crowded in the modern era, with as many as 10 candidates still vying in the non-partisan election. In 2009, a mere 714 votes denied the job to Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, a self-identified independent, after a bitter head-to-head runoff with then state Senator Reed. But today Norwood possesses a formidable lead over the entire field, garnering between 25 and 29 percent of the vote in most polls, and leading her closest rival, fellow Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, a self-identified Democrat, by more than 10 points.
The two top vote-getters will advance to a December runoff. Front-runner Norwood, who is white, has already cemented her place in a runoff, and Lance Bottoms, an African American, consistently polls as second although a smattering of closely tracking rivals are biting at her heels, including City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, Councilman Kwanza Hall, former Council President Cathy Woolard, former Chief Operating Officer of the city of Atlanta Peter Aman, former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves and former state Senator Vincent Fort.
In 1973, the year after the city’s last white mayor lost reelection, Atlanta became a majority-black city. By 1990, black residents constituted 67 percent of the city. But 20 years later, the 2010 census put the city’s black population at 54 percent. Today, as young, white millennials move into the city and families leave the suburbs for the conveniences of the perimeter, some political handicappers believe the percentage of black residents has fallen below the halfway mark.
For decades, the mayor of Atlanta has resembled the city’s largest voter bloc. It’s a proposition that has had far-reaching implications for Georgia’s capital city— and one that will be tested thoroughly at the ballot box this month and likely again in December.
The author is the co-practice leader of Dentons’ US Public Policy and Regulation practice.