Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a white woman might have a shot at becoming the next mayor of Atlanta. In 2001, the city elected Shirley Franklin, a black woman, to city hall by such a wide margin that the race never even advanced to a runoff (she won more than 50 percent of the vote even with the vote split between several other candidates). Since then, African American politicians have continued to win the city’s mayoral races, as they have for decades.
This year, however, Atlanta came startlingly close to getting its first white mayor in 44 years. On Tuesday, voters headed to the polls for a runoff between Keisha Lance Bottoms, a city councilor with deep ties to the black political establishment, and Mary Norwood, her white, more conservative opponent. Bottoms had emerged from the first round of voting in November as the frontrunner. Her particular brand of centrist liberalism meshes well with the politics of the city as a whole. And the current mayor, Kasim Reed, who is stepping down after two terms in office, had publicly endorsed her. But rather than sailing to victory on Tuesday night, Bottoms won by just 759 votes, and now, the ballots are being recounted.
That Norwood came within striking distance of Bottoms is remarkable, not just because of her race, but also because of her party affiliation. Norwood calls herself an independent, but her opponents often paint her as a Republican. Her campaign staff had ties to the Trump campaign—her campaign treasurer endorsed Trump—and she refused to endorse Jon Ossoff in his bid last year for Tom Price’s vacated House seat. She has said she voted for Hillary Clinton last year, but since then she has stopped short of criticizing the president, who has made a point of attacking prominent African Americans. Her near-victory in a city that has voted for Democrats since 1879 has underscored how deeply divided this liberal Southern city is politically. Demographic changes and a roiling corruption scandal have eaten away at the machine’s power to corral votes in the city. And without a new strategy, Democrats may continue to face uncomfortably tight results in races like this one, which ought to have been a easy win for Kasim Reed’s handpicked successor.
In November, before the first round of voting, Bottoms and Norwood faced a crowded field of candidates. As the only conservative in the race, Norwood was widely expected to sweep the conservative vote, clinching one of the top two slots and advancing to a runoff. The nine Democrats in the race were competing for a second seat in the runoff, with Bottoms facing several strong challenges from the left. Progressive candidates like former city councilor Cathy Woolard and state Senator Vincent Fort argued that the policies that Reed had enacted in a push to attract corporations and business development to the city had in fact harmed its low income population, pushing them out into the suburbs. Fort, who boasted endorsements from Bernie Sanders and the Atlanta branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, sparred with the Democratic establishment and was critical of Bottoms, even dramatically accusing her during a debate of failing to pay her federal income taxes.