Racial Attitudes Infiltrate Atlanta Politics

Kasim Reed, a former Democratic State Senator, declared victory after a close runoff election Tuesday. But his opponent Atlanta Councilmember Mary Norwood has yet to concede defeat and indicated a possible request for a recall. The city's mayoral elections have been underscored by racial overtones. If elected, Norwood would be the first white mayor to lead the city since 1974, the prospect of which has energized both her supporters and detractors for different reasons. Corey Dade, an Atlanta-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal, talks about the brewing political battle and the role of race in selecting Atlanta's next mayor.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, embattled Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon faces an uncertain political future after a jury convicted her of misusing donated gift cards meant for her poor constituents. We'll have more on that story in a moment.

But first, we turn to Atlanta, where former Democratic State Senator Kasim Reed has declared victory after yesterday's runoff mayoral election. But his opponent, Councilwoman Mary Norwood, an independent, has yet to concede defeat. Initial ballot counts show that just hundreds of votes separate the two candidates. Norwood has suggested she will call for a recount if the margin of victory remains under one percent of the vote.

Even without the results fully settled, the vote represents a fairly dramatic change in political fortunes. Polls taken before the November election showed that Norwood was a strong contender to become Atlanta's first non-black mayor in decades and she had support from significant numbers of African-Americans, while Reed - despite or perhaps because of his strong ties to the city's political leadership - lagged far behind.

Joining us now to talk more about this is Corey Dade. He's covered the Atlanta mayoral race for the Wall Street Journal. He's with us now from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Welcome. Welcome back.

Mr. COREY DADE (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Hi, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: So Corey, exactly how many votes separate the two, and how soon is this likely to be resolved?

Mr. DADE: It's estimated that about 700, maybe as many as 800 - probably somewhere in the middle - votes separate the two. It will be resolved on Thursday. The elections office for Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, has 48 hours to certify the results.

MARTIN: So let's look back for a moment. On November 3rd, Mary Norwood earned 46 percent of the vote for mayor. That's why there had to be a runoff, because no one got over 50 percent, but Reed was a fairly distant second, with 36 percent. So how did he turn this around so dramatically?

Mr. DADE: Well, for starters, the number third - number three person, the third finisher in the general election, was City Council President Lisa Borders, who's African-American and who had a sizable following among African-Americans and whites in particular in the business community.

So she threw her support behind Kasim Reed, and that was a boost for him. Beyond that, Kasim Reed, who ran - by the way, he's not just a politician. He's also been an operative. He ran the two election campaigns for the current mayor, Shirley Franklin. So he knows the landscape, and he put together what turns out to be a pretty impressive grassroots operation, where he had a machine in place where he was very, very effective in identifying likely voters and targeting them very well. So he had a slow burn for the last four months of the race.

MARTIN: And turnout was apparently fairly strong for a runoff, where typically, interest sort of falls off, right?

Mr. DADE: Right. The turnout for the general election was 30 percent, and conventional wisdom had it that the runoff election, because a lot of people do not return to the polls that quickly to vote, would be about half that.

At this point, it looks like turnout has actually exceeded the turnout for the general election. So most people and most analysts attribute that to the intense interest in this race.

MARTIN: And speaking of intense interest in this race, of course, the elephant in the room, as it were, is the question of race. I mean, we mentioned that Mary Norwood was a contender, perhaps still is a contender, to become the city's first non-African-American mayor in about three decades.

Now, you told us before when you reported on this race with us that race had largely - both contenders were trying to avoid race as a theme, or using racial themes in their campaign. Did that change in the closing days of the campaign? And in your view, what were the themes that emerged? What do you think the race hinged on, in the end?

Mr. DADE: Well, I think it's clear that neither candidate started using racial themes at all. The Democrats and the Kasim Reed campaign certainly used partisanship and the one effective means that they had was to question Mary Norwood's political party affiliation.

She is, in fact, an independent, but she in fact has voted for Democrats and Republicans and she lives in a district that - which is Buckhead, very affluent - where you have a sizeable number of Republicans. And in a city that's heavily Democratic, that certainly resonates.

Beyond that, I think that the themes that really came out were who's talking about the issues? And Mary Norwood certainly had a very popular streak. She certainly was someone running as an outsider. As time went on, what we were able to see and hear is that Kasim Reed emerged as someone who was talking about specific issues. He had a greater command of legislation, a greater command of the budget, cost structures for spending etcetera, and where to cut.

And at the end of the day, I think that end of the day, I think that Kasim Reed, what he was lacking was his ability to connect with voters personally, spend time, kind of the retail politics, getting to know people and letting people see kind of his lighter side, so to speak. And that was probably one of the big differences that helped him kind of close that gap and eventually prevail at this point, or so it seems.

MARTIN: And as you reported in your piece for the Journal, she had that ability to connect but she also had a thin legislative record which came back to haunt her. But one very final point, very briefly, if you would, both candidates courted the gay community in this campaign. Could you just briefly tell us about how that played out?

Mr. DADE: The gay community is large. It is very sizeable. It's not just concentrated in one particular area in midtown, but they both did - Kasim Reed, I would say got sort of the formal support of the gay community because he took in the endorsement of Lisa Borders and a lot of the gay activists behind Lisa Borders went for Kasim Reed.

But beyond that, I'd say it's still - I'd say he may have gotten the majority of that turnout, but Mary Norwood still cut into that. She was very out front about her support for gay marriage, which actually is impossible in the state of Georgia. There's a constitutional ban against it.

MARTIN: Corey Dade is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He was kind enough to join us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Corey, thank you.

Mr. DADE: Thank you.

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