Atlanta voters, by a margin of 759 votes, chose Keisha Lance Bottoms, a lawyer, and former judge, as the 60th mayor of the city. She succeeds Kasim Reed, a flashpoint in the waning days of the runoff.
Keisha joins Latoya Cantrell — who was just elected the first African American female mayor of New Orleans — and Vi Lyles — who was just elected the first African American female mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. All three women were Democratic candidates with large African American women a part of their electorates.
But how did she do it? How did Keshia Lance Bottoms win?
In the November general election, Attorney Keisha Bottoms finished first in a field of 10 candidates with 25,347 votes, 26 percent of the 96,770 ballots cast. Mary Norwood finished second with 20,144.
The other also-ran candidates received 53 percent of the remaining votes. Bottoms and Norwood, as first and second place finishers, competed in the Dec. 5th runoff election.
Mayoral candidates Cathy Woolard, Peter Aman, Ceasar Mitchell and John Eaves all supported second-place finisher Mary Norwood, a 68-year-old councilwoman who lost to Kasim Reed in 2009 by 714 votes. The also-rans amassed over 38,000 votes. Their totals, with Norwood’s, would have combined for a first-place finish for Norwood in the runoff.
Commentators believe the support by the four also-ran mayoral candidates was the tipping point for a Norwood successful runoff election.
The four mayoral candidates received added weight when former Mayor Shirley Franklin spoke at City Hall and endorsed Mary Norwood as the best candidate to lead Atlanta out of the cloud of corruption surrounding the city.
One week before the Dec. 5 runoff, Shirley Franklin – flanked by once candidates Mitchell and Aman warmly — energetically pledged support for Mary Norwood.
Days later, Cathy Woolard, after a forum with Bottoms and Norwood, echoed Franklin’s response to the election. Woolard placed her support with Mary Norwood and proclaimed that their values were aligned.
On Dec. 1, a WSB opinion poll found that candidate Norwood was leading in the mayor’s race with 51 percent to Bottoms’ 44 percent of likely voters with an approximate 3 percent of undecideds.
If endorsements were the “sin qua non” for deciding which candidate should win, then Mary Norwood had endorsements from city police, fire and employee unions, a former mayor, three former City Council presidents and four mayoral candidates.
Norwood’s local city endorsements had no equals. Bottoms had only one mayoral candidate supporting her runoff election. Kwanza Hall, a city councilman from the Old Fourth Ward, finished seventh with more than 4,000 votes, endorsed Bottoms.
The Norwood campaign miscalculated the final outcome.
The Norwood campaign advertised and attacked Bottoms on her taxes, her city water payments and her appointment to the Recreation Authority as questionable and unethical. The backroom whisper was also that she was corrupt because it was proffered that Kasim Reed was corrupt.
Norwood’s negative campaign was relentless.
But, Bottoms was not silent. Nor was the Democratic Party of Georgia, which also countered against Norwood. The party branded Norwood a Trump Republican who unethically paid herself with City Council funds to a corporation she owned. The Democrats argued the payments violated City Council rules. Those events set the stage for the Dec. 5 runoff election but they do not explain what happened.
Politics is a triad and an explanation of that triad gives context to the election: POLITICS IS LOCAL. POLITICS IS PERSONAL. POLITICS IS TRIBAL
Politics is local is a self-evident maxim. What most interests the voters is framed around what the voter reads and talks about. In Atlanta, the corruption of city contracts was most talked about. Any ‘pay to play’ stench was a negative vote for the associated candidate. Norwood said City Hall is corrupt and Kasim Reed runs City Hall and Keisha Bottoms is supported by Kasim Reed. Ergo! Keisha Bottoms is corrupt.
Keisha Bottoms responded. “I am a lawyer, a former judge. I have no bar complaints and I am not corrupt.”
The sister to corruption is unethical. Bottoms challenged Norwood’s billing for City Council services by a corporation she owned and challenged Norwood’s unpaid taxes on property in Augusta and argued she wasn’t playing fair. Norwood countered, “I didn’t make any money and it’s not my property.”
In the POLITICS IS LOCAL triad, Keisha Bottoms, with the help of the Democratic Party, raised issues that have affinity for urban Americans and cities that vote Democratic. Bottoms said Norwood is a Republican and in the debate two days before the runoff, challenged Norwood to deny she called “urban, Black Americans felons and thugs.”
The Democratic Party ran ads that showed Norwood saying “We have a president.[Trump]” Bottom criticized Norwood for her failure to agree that racial profiling was an issue with African American males.
Voters who were debate watchers scored the debate in Bottoms’ favor. Bottoms appeared smart, energetic, knowledgeable, sincere and articulate. Bottoms bested Norwood.
When politics is local and we watch debates, Norwood appeared rehearsed, clumsy and non-responsive to questions that deserved an answer.
Norwood was once asked, “Have you ever faced opposition on an issue that would show how you would handle conflict?”
Norwood answered she’d never had such an issue. All candidates have opposition issues. Norwood’s response was non-responsive and disingenuous.
In scoring the POLITICS IS LOCAL section, corruption slightly touched Bottoms. Unethical dealing slightly touched Norwood. Norwood appeared to be a Republican who fared poorly in debates.
The second tenet of the triad: POLITICS IS PERSONAL.
Voters choose their neighbors for political office if they like them. When the candidate looks the voter in the eye, shakes their hand and makes a personal appeal for the person’s vote, the contract is complete.
Voters accept candidates who show a personal interest in an engaging resume. Voters are personally moved and flattered when the candidate recognizes and knows their name.
Mary Norwood has shaken more hands, visited more NPUs and knew more Atlanta voters than Keisha Bottoms. No candidate in the last 50 years had crisscrossed the city more than Norwood. Norwood’s toothy grin and non-threatening manner gave her lasting credibility with voters she touched.
Did familiarity with Norwood breed contempt? I don’t think so. A white woman engaging African American men and women fortified her likability and made Norwood the candidate to beat. If all things are equal, then Mary Norwood had more personal contact than any modern Atlanta candidate for mayor.
If scoring stopped with the personal, then Mary Norwood wins. But lastly, the final part of the triad, POLITICS IS TRIBAL changes the score. When something is tribal, there is an affinity for the person because. Because of gender. Because of race. Because of political party. Because of fraternity or sorority. Because of club or neighborhood. Because of shared interests. When the voter identifies with a tribe, then the voter predictability votes the tribal interest.
The General Election and the Runoff expressed the Atlanta tribal divisions. For most voters, Black voters voted Black and white voters voted white. Race, not politics, nor gender nor political party determined the outcome of the election. What made the election unpredictable was that racial voting was not monolithic.
Leaders of the tribes broke with their bases. Former mayor Shirley Franklin, former city councilman Caesar Mitchell, and former Fulton County chairman John Eaves are all African American. All three supported Mary Norwood, a white female. It is not a tribal custom to break with your base. In Alabama, the Republican governor supports the accused pedophile Republican Senate candidate because he’s a Republican. The Republican governor says she believes the women accusers but the Republican tribe’s claim to her vote is stronger. Values did not trump the vote for the tribal candidate.
Tribalism can explain the votes but tribalism does not answer the question: “Who will be the best mayor?” A better question is: “Who can best govern and lead the city?”
To govern, a mayor must manage city services and the city’s money. The mayor appoints the chief of police. The mayor appoints the chief financial officer.
The mayor negotiates with Amazon and Arthur Blank. The mayor interfaces with the state legislature and the Republican governor’s office. The mayor makes decisions that are in the best interest of the city.
To lead, a mayor inspires, motivates and appeals to the better angels in managing the city. Governing a city is management. Governing is nuts and bolts and making a city run well. Leadership is inspiration.
Charles Weltner was a leader among Democratic congressmen when he stood up and said he could not take the oath to the Democratic Party to support Lester Maddox for governor because of his segregationist views. Weltner showed leadership and courage in the face of a go-along promise that all other congressmen took.
In 2017, U.S. Senator Corey Booker of New Jersey violated the senate’s unspoken rule: “Do not openly and publicly oppose a member of the Senate offered for a cabinet position.” Senator Booker criticized Alabama Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions when he was offered as attorney general by Donald Trump.
Former Georgia Governor Slaton pardoned Leo Frank, a Jewish Atlantan, sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. Governor Slaton’s pardon doomed any future chance to be reelected.
Weltner, Booker, and Slaton showed courage and leadership in the face of rules that did not appeal to their better angels.
The next mayor must have the resistance of a Fannie Lou Hamer and the courage of a Bob Moses. The next mayor stands on the shoulders of Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young.
Keisha Bottoms’ background, education, training, and poise under a gruesome campaign supremely qualifies her to be our next mayor. May she govern with wisdom and justice.