Whether the result of unexciting candidates, a disinterested electorate, or collapsing local media outlets, the contest to be Atlanta’s next mayor flew under the radar until a couple of weeks before election day. The sole entertainment injected in the race was when Mary Norwood was attacked for being a Republican, and was silly enough to take the bait. Over the few days running up to election day, she first “forgot” for whom she’s ever voted for President, and then went out of her way to prove that she hates partisan politics, but seems to hate Republicans – or at least the concept of being thought of as a Republican – even more.
Yet this appears to be lost on many of my Republican friends who live outside the perimeter in the Atlanta region and beyond. The runoff between Kasim Reed and Mary Norwood is a race between two Democrats. This is not an election between one evil, socialist, godless-humanist, flag burning commie and one principled, blue dog, somewhat confused partisan who is really a conservative. These two are each mainstream, City of Atlanta Democrats.
Officially, the race is non-partisan, but let’s not kid ourselves. If there were party labels required for qualification, both would have proudly qualified as Democrats. And there’s nothing wrong with that, given that the vast majority of their constituents are also Democrats. Thus, Democrats are about to choose their next Democratic mayor.
Most of us are relegated to a spectator’s role in this contest. But we are spectators with a vested interest. As the few hundred thousand who actually live within the City Of Atlanta will choose the mayor, the 4+ million who live within the region, and to some extent, all Georgians, will live with the consequences. Thus, we justify our kibitzing based on the regional impact of the position, with the feigned pledge of more State or regional support to the City if only there were leadership there we could trust.
And with this unspoken pledge of feigned support, suburban Republicans seem to be pulling hard for Mary Norwood as the champion of those who will break the Maynard Machine. The enemies within this boogeyman are myriad: the city payroll as a bloated jobs program; procurement set asides to disadvantaged firms whose last names only seem to be Jackson, Young, or Franklin; city codes that promote panhandling and penalize property owners and capital investment; boondoggles dejour as an excuse to float new bonds; and a callous disregard to provide heavily taxed citizens and businesses the basic public safety that are supposed to be the cornerstone of city services. The remnants of the Maynard Machine give non-Atlantans a certain moral superiority when such time regional cooperation or leadership is necessary. By writing off the city’s management as corrupt, incompetent, or ineffective, outsiders easily relieve themselves of any responsibility to be any part of solutions to the city’s problems.
To be fair, the City has certainly done its part to earn this scorn. Bill Campbell spent his 8 years sending raw sewage downstream to West Point instead of dealing with a consent order to fix the sewers. Meanwhile, the stench of theft and corruption coming from City Hall during his terms as Mayor would overwhelm anything discharged from the R. M. Clayton plant. While there was a brief glimmer of hope at the onset of the Franklin administration, all goodwill was exchanged during her famous “Bull Connor” commercial over a Fulton County Commission seat.
And while some have attempted to interject race into the race, the candidates have avoided the issue wherever possible. They understand, in reality, that both the demographics of the residents, as well as citizen expectations of their government, are changing. Atlanta is facing serious financial, infrastructure, public safety, and other service delivery issues. The non-public safety payrolls remain bloated. Pension obligations alone threaten to bankrupt the city. And the next mayor must put the city squarely on the path to solving these problems.
Mary Norwood is presenting herself as an outsider who will tackle these issues. Yet, she has served 8 years on council with no record of accomplishment. Creative Loafing describes her as such:
Unfortunately, her skill as a campaigner obscures the fact that, during two terms on Council, Norwood has been strikingly ineffective. She’s never chaired a Council committee; she endlessly laments her inability to gain access to city documents; she concedes that Mayor Shirley Franklin has spoken to her only a couple of times in eight years; and she complains that her legislation is often ignored by city department heads.
Norwood’s cultivated image is that of a powerful rabble-rouser who’s been thwarted in her efforts to challenge the status quo. But the reality is that Norwood is considered a lightweight inside City Hall because she has a tendency to flit from one issue to the next, often taking reactionary positions based on superficial information, seemingly unable to maintain the focus needed to craft thoughtful civic policy.
And Norwood’s campaign platform is financially irresponsible. She calls for a large increase in public-safety spending, but dismisses the city budget as incomprehensible, readily admitting she’ll have no clue how to fund her initiatives until after she’s sworn in. However well-intentioned, Norwood lacks the temperament, analytical thinking, leadership skills, and, frankly, the vision needed to succeed as mayor.
Meanwhile, Kasim Reed presents himself as a classic Maynard Machine candidate. He is endorsed by most City Employee Unions/Groups. He holds the endorsement of Shirley Franklin. His solution to the city’s budget problems was to use the State Legislature to try to force Atlanta to raise taxes.
So why on Earth would a Republican pull for a Kasim Reed victory in this runoff?
Republicans were pretty good at mocking the “Hope & Change” chants from Obama’s campaign just one year ago. They could easily articulate that even things weren’t going great with the economy, it was no reason to dive off into the unknown with the untested Barack Obama. Yet, when faced with the same choice, they seem overly zealous to cheer for the unproven and unaccomplished Mary Norwood.
Sure she represents change, but is there any evidence it will be change for the better? Or would her inability to communicate or get along with fellow council members or city staff make her a figurehead who goes largely ignored while the city continues to spiral out of control under the weight of its own entropy?
Meanwhile, Kasim Reed has the backing of all groups within the City Of Atlanta who must buy into fundamental change. He also commands respect and has good working relationships with the other group that must be brought into discussions to provide the carrot and stick to force the City Hall constituencies to change their ways: The State Legislature.
Kasim Reed holds a unique position in this pivotal point in time. He has the respect of two distinct and distant constituencies who are both integral to the future growth and success of the City. Worst case scenario, it is four more years of status quo while the forces for change are able to recruit a better candidate. But if Kasim is to live up to his challenge, he is the person best suited to bring all parties to the table, and set a course for Atlanta to work with the surrounding region and not against it.
Republicans have spent too much time waiting for others to fail. We must remind ourselves from our seats in the suburbs that we need Atlanta to succeed. From my vantage point, Atlanta’s best chance for success is Kasim Reed.