The first large Southern city to elect a black mayor in 1973, Atlanta has had African-American leadership ever since. However, this year, a white city council member is leading in polls over three black challengers, causing some to fret that her election could lead to a setback for a "black agenda" of racial and social justice.
But in an age of "post-racial" politics, the current Atlanta mayor's race is resisting attempts to paint it in crude black-and-white. For one, the cliche of black political organizers facing off against white corporate elites doesn't fit. The black candidates include a former real estate corporate vice president, a state senator, and a corporate-law attorney who was a Rhodes Scholar. The white candidate, re-elected city-wide four years ago, is a longtime community activist and the candidate most likely to be photographed with a bullhorn in her hand. This all comes at a time when Atlanta is struggling with financial red ink, rising crime, and an increasingly affluent population fed up with high taxes and poor services. When November comes, Atlantans will have to give the mayor's job to someone other than incumbent Shirley Franklin, who is term-limited after eight years in office.
All four candidates have loudly rejected a call for black Atlantans who make up 57% of the city's population to rally around a single black candidate in order to defeat Mary Norwood, the white city council member. "Mary's not focused on [the race angle]," says Norwood campaign manager Roman Levit. "She's focused on two things: making the city safe, and bringing accountability to the city government."
Lisa Borders, the candidate second to Norwood in most polls, complains that attempts to inject race into the campaign obscures her claim that Norwood is the least-qualified candidate. Borders heads the city council, and was also elected citywide. State Sen. Kasim Reed told a breakfast meeting of black ministers, "One Atlanta is a strong Atlanta. Two Atlantas is not Atlanta at all." Attorney Jesse Spikes also deplored the injection of race into the campaign. A second white candidate, political novice Kyle Keyser, has not shown up in polling.
Two Clark-Atlanta University professors recently defended a memo they had written for the Atlanta Black Leadership Forum, which caused a media ruckus when it was leaked. Their memo collected a number of statements supposedly circulating in the black community, including a call to rally around Borders in order to avoid a head-to-head runoff election with Norwood. "We have said very clearly that African-American concerns should be considered by all of the candidates," says Clark-Atlanta professor Keith Boone. "It's no more racist for the African-American community to have an agenda than it is for the gay community."
Race, if not racism, has long tinged politics in Atlanta. The city saw a dynamic population shift in the 1960s, from a heavily white population to a majority-black makeup that neared 70% in the 1980s. But while the legacy of the segregationist past caused strains, the city never fractured along racial lines. "Atlanta is a city that has been built on black hope and white pragmatism," says Gary Pomerantz, who wrote the Atlanta history Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn. "Race isn't everything in Atlanta, but it is in everything."
If there ever was a Black political machine, it was headed by Maynard Jackson, who was elected as mayor at age 35 in 1973, served consecutive terms and a single term in the 1990s. He endorsed every winning candidate before his death in 2003. Now the "Jackson machine" is largely history, Atlanta political insiders tell TIME, its membership dispersed since Jackson left office.
Jackson's center of political gravity was the city's public housing. But the tactic of busing poor African-American voters from the projects is no longer viable, even if there were a machine dedicated to it. The projects have been bulldozed or turned into mixed-income developments over the past two decades, Meanwhile, Atlanta's black mayors encouraged affluent whites to move into blighted or vacant areas of the city, and the real estate boom of the 1990s made it happen. In the past decade, Atlanta has elected whites to a number of city-wide offices, including the council president before Borders.
Jackson built a broad program to push city contracts to black-owned businesses. But the current crop of candidates black and white put balancing the city's books and stemming rising crime at the top of their agenda. "Atlanta is broke and broken," says Borders spokeswoman Liz Flowers. "This is about fixing a broken city."