Turnout Is Key In Atlanta Mayoral Runoff

Voters in Atlanta head to the polls to choose a new mayor in a runoff election Tuesday. The latest polls indicate the race is essentially tied. Though the election will determine whether the city will have its first white mayor in more than 35 years, the candidates say they want to keep race out of the debate.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Atlanta voters choose a new mayor in a runoff election tomorrow. It's expected to be very close. The race features a woman, who could become the city's first white mayor in more than three decades, and a former state senator who has the support of many African-American civil rights leaders. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: Mary Norwood, who is white, received 46 percent of the vote in November. She is a two-term city councilwoman who calls herself the candidate of change. Recently, Norwood campaigned at the Shamrock Gardens Apartments. Once filled with crime and drugs, the area was renovated into affordable housing. Resident Desiree Pernell(ph) says Norwood understands the community.

Ms. DESIREE PERNELL (Resident, Shamrock Gardens Apartments): If you want to see a change, whether it's black or white, it's about who's going to do the job. It's about quality of life and education. It's about everybody getting a chance.

LOHR: Norwood's opponent is former State Senator Kasim Reed, who is African-American. He has received support from much of Atlanta's black power structure, including former Mayor Andrew Young, who posted a video online. Civil rights icon Joseph Lowery also publicly endorsed Reed and Reed accepted in front of the historic King Center.

Mr. KASIM REED (Mayoral candidate, Atlanta): The torch has been passed. And that is so important because we must understand the sacrifices that have been made so that I can be sitting right here. And I want you to know that I do. I'm ready to lead.

LOHR: Reed was the current mayor, Shirley Franklin's, campaign manager and he recently got her endorsement, as well. But that may not necessarily help him. Reed and Norwood are both campaigning on reducing crime and on making city hall accountable. Reed's latest TV ad focuses on the issue.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Mr. REED: It's not about playing politics. It's actually about moving this city forward.

Unidentified Man: Because Kasim will clean up the mess in city hall.

Unidentified Woman: He cares about people.

Unidentified Man: Tuesday, Kasim Reed, new leadership for a new direction.

LOHR: Norwood and her staff have downplayed race, but her most recent television ad raises the issue.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Ms. NORWOOD: Well, some people are trying to divide our city along racial lines. But whether we are white or black, live on the north side or the south side, we are one city and we need to have one government.

LOHR: In a final mayoral debate last night, Reed asked Norwood to explain her ad.

Mr. REED: When you make a charge in an ad that you send out over the airwaves, and you say some people are attempting to divide our city, I think that you should be courageous enough to say who those individuals are. And if you don't, you owe the people of Atlanta an apology after 18 months that we have spent trying to keep a high-minded campaign.

LOHR: Norwood promised to provide information to Reed's campaign. Reed also charged Norwood has not done enough over her past eight years on the city council. But Norwood shot back she has fought for residents without help from the current administration.

Ms. NORWOOD: There are things that I was not able to get, Mr. Reed, because I was not the insider. I have been the outsider fighting for our citizens and fighting for our neighborhoods for years.

LOHR: Atlanta is 56 percent African-American. And this is the closest mayoral race the city has seen in decades. The latest polls show the race is a statistical dead heat. Michael Leo Owens is a political scientist at Emory University.

Dr. MICHAEL LEO OWENS (Political Science, Emory University): Atlanta is a city that is very queasy about discussing the issue of race, because, of course, to bring up the issue of race kind of goes against the longstanding idea that Atlanta is a city that's too busy to hate.

LOHR: Ultimately, the key will be which candidate can get its voters to go back to the polls on Tuesday.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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