Atlanta’s crowded mayoral race is going to a runoff. Now what?

Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood will face off on December 5. Our takeaways from last night and the long election season.
Mary Norwood
Mary Norwood speaks at her election night party.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

For Mary Norwood, it must have felt like déjà vu. Back in 2009 at her election night party at the Varsity—with a runoff against Kasim Reed looming and Fulton County results glacially slow to come in—she urged her supporters to save their energy and settle in for the long haul. Tuesday night wasn’t much different. This time, though, her opponent wasn’t Reed, but Reed’s heir apparent, Keisha Lance Bottoms. Around 11 p.m., Norwood took to the podium at 103 West, in her home turf of Buckhead, and gave the crowd—mostly over 50, mostly white—her blessing to call it a night. The writing was on the wall, after all.

“I know our ground game,” Norwood said on her way out. “I know we have thousands of yard signs. I know we have support in every corner of the city. I know I [have had] double-digit support across the entire city for the past year. I think that’s a great position of strength going into the runoff.

“We have a campaign that is totally inclusive, totally embracing of everyone in this town, whether it’s citizen, resident, business, visitor, regardless of nationality, ethnic background, or orientation. We are the all-encompassing campaign. That speaks to the Atlanta of the 21st century,” she said.

Keisha Lance Bottoms
Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks at her election night party.

Photograph by Steve Fennessy

Just after midnight, seven miles to the south, Reed left his suite on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta and headed down to the Regency V ballroom to warm up the crowd for Bottoms. Security paced him, photographers surrounded him. On the stage, Reed introduced Bottoms as the “60th mayor of Atlanta,” and indeed, Bottoms’ subsequent remarks felt almost like a coronation. To listen to her, you’d have thought she had won outright. “I don’t take the responsibility of being the 60th mayor of this city lightly,” she told the enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred.

She made no mention of the runoff battle against Norwood—a battle that had, effectively, already begun. Indeed, Bottoms ticked off the names of each of her many opponents during the race—even the early, more obscure ones, like Rohit Amannamanchi—before adding, “I stand here a better person for having spent the last year with each of them, because each of us has a very unique style, but we all have a love for this city. I look forward to working with each of my new friends—my new best friends—over the next four years.”

The rest of her remarks were a reminder of why her personal narrative (helped along by Reed’s strident endorsement and fierce advocacy) resonated with voters.

“As I walk through the kitchen to get in here,” she said, “I looked at the bags of trash and paper and I thought about my grandfather. My grandfather used to go to hotels—he called it ‘uptown,’ we call it ‘downtown’—and he would go in the back door of hotels and haul out their paper. Their trash was his gold. He would take it to a paperhouse and he would sell it. And that’s the way he fed his children. I thought about my grandfather walking through that back door so I could stand here tonight.”

“I woke up this morning,” she said, “and there was a poem that was on my heart—it played over and over again. It was a line from ‘Still I Rise’ from Maya Angelou and it said, ‘I am the hope of the slave.’ I stand here with the blood of slaves and slaveowners running through my veins. And I look at each of you and I’m reminded of what is possible in this city.”

Reed’s endorsement is a double-edged sword for Bottoms in the days leading up to the December 5 runoff. Reed’s job approval ratings are in the mid-60s, according to his office, so it makes sense to ride his coattails. But she also needs to show that she’ll be no one’s puppet, along with distancing herself from the shadow of the ongoing federal investigation into corruption at City Hall. During her nine-minute remarks, she gave a glimpse of how she’ll thread that needle.

“I’ve mentioned my friend Kasim Reed, and I’ve mentioned what a great job he’s done on behalf of this city. And because this city has come so very far in eight years financially, we can now go back and pour into our communities the same resources and the same energy that we poured into getting this city on [solid] financial footing.”

By the time all the ballots were finally counted, Bottoms won 28 percent of the vote, with Norwood winning 21 percent. Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president, trailed four percentage points behind Norwood, with 17 percent.

Now comes a four-week sprint to the finish. For Norwood, it won’t be enough to simply bring her supporters out to the polls one more time. She’ll need to draw significant support from voters who’d supported the six other candidates on the ballot. As of today, none of them has endorsed Norwood or Bottoms, or even said they planned to. Perhaps most daunting for Norwood? Bottoms is wisely playing up her own Democrat bona fides, which stand in marked contrast to what’s seen as Norwood’s own political fluidity.

Some other takeaways:

  • Just a few months ago, this election seemed Ceasar Mitchell’s to lose. After all, the city council president had patiently waited his turn and even had the endorsement of Ambassador Andrew Young and C.T. Vivian. But on election night, Mitchell barely scraped into the double digits. You could say Mitchell’s message got lost in the crowded field, but all the candidates had that same challenge. What likely hurt Mitchell the most was Reed, who used his bully pulpit to publicly chastise and belittle Mitchell.
  • Cathy Woolard and Peter Aman weren’t carbon-copy candidates, but they shared many priorities, including transit and affordability. Many voters we talked to were on the fence between the two, and so we have to think the two candidates split votes that otherwise could have all gone to one if the other hadn’t run.
  • Identity politics are alive and well—especially in a race where all the candidates seemed to be saying the same things. Here are two facts: The largest voting bloc in the city are black women, and Bottoms was the only black female candidate. Likewise, this election seemed to identify a new voting bloc: the eastside. Though Bottoms carried southwest Atlanta and Norwood won over Buckhead, Woolard dominated the predominantly white and gentrifying neighborhoods east of Downtown. (You can see a map of how this played out in Fulton County here.) In Atlanta-in-DeKalb communities (which include East Atlanta, Kirkwood, and Edgewood), Woolard garnered more than 37 percent of the vote.
  • Though the runoff for the mayor’s race will dominate Reed’s attention, at least one of his allies still needs his help. Councilwoman Cleta Winslow has a tough runoff challenge for her seat representing West End against military veteran advocate Jason Dozier. And we imagine he’s not done with the Atlanta City Council president race, either. C.T. Martin, a strong ally on the council, lost his bid to oversee the legislative body, failing to make a runoff against council colleagues Alex Wan and Felicia Moore—the most loyal of Reed’s opposition.
  • All through this race, we’ve seen a series of polls that showed most of the candidates clustered in the low single digits, with as many as 20 percent of voters undecided. The fact that the majority of Atlantans stayed home on election night showed either that candidates were getting more favorable internal polling or, following the 2016 elections, they figured polling is worthless and that they’d take their shot. Woolard’s strong showing supports the flawed polling argument. The only question is, did polling actually influence people’s votes?
  • It’s worth arguing whether Atlanta was shortchanged by the sheer number of candidates in the race. It was nearly impossible to get much of a sense of how the candidates differed on policy by going to a forum because no one had much time to speak. Local media’s attention was more focused on the Jon Ossoff-Karen Handel race earlier this year and was unprepared to cover a contest with as many as ten candidates. Forget about city council and Atlanta Public Schools contests on top of that. Unless they attended a number of meet-and-greets, many Atlantans likely cast their vote on fairly superficial grounds.