Atlanta Reaches Toward Post-Racial Politics

Friday, 19 Mar 2010 08:38 PM

By Jackie Gingrich Cushman

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As a recount takes place in the runoff election for Atlanta mayor, we should remember that the race has been about more than race.

Even though Tuesday runoff pitted a young black candidate running as an outsider against a white activist with decades of experience as a citizen activist. And even though African-American mayors have run Atlanta since 1974.

Former State Sen. Kasim Reed, who is black, declared victory, with 41,901 votes. City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who is white, garnered 41,143 — and demanded a recount instead of offering a concession.

In the November general election to replace Mayor Shirley Franklin, Norwood received 46 percent of the vote, and Reed took 36 percent.

Norwood chose downtown Atlanta's Varsity, the world's largest fast-food drive-in restaurant, as her election-night gathering place. Reed chose the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, a few blocks away.

Norwood, dressed in black slacks and a royal-blue jacket, appeared at the Varsity near 11 p.m. Her smile never dimmed while she thanked supporters and answered reporters' questions. Her crowd was diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, and political affiliations. Norwood ran as a grass-roots activist.

Reed, in a dark suit, white shirt, and shiny silver tie, appeared on stage at the hotel's ballroom. Signaling No. 1 with his hand, Reed claimed victory to a large, primarily African-American, crowd. Reed had run as an outsider.

Reed served twice as Franklin's campaign manager and co-chaired her mayoral transition team. Franklin, City Council President Lisa Borders, and former Gov. Roy Barnes endorsed him. Sounds very inside to this outsider.

The runoff night crowd at the Varsity showed that the dead heat had little to do with race: Atlanta is reaching toward a post-racial state defined not by skin color but by issues, integrity, and performance.

Katy Bryant, a civic activist who is a longtime friend of Norwood, said, "The Mary I know is the same today as 25 years ago. She is not owned by anyone . . . she has a passion for doing the right thing."

Bryant, who is white, helped drive voters to the polls. "I picked up a 93-year-old black woman and her friend. . . I asked, 'How do you know Mary?' She replied, 'She is the only City Council person that ever comes to see us. Mary has always been there for us." Her companion said, "I am going to vote for Ms. Mary."

A group of black men wearing orange "Dads on Duty" T-shirts were at the Varsity supporting Norwood. Fred Watson, who survived multiple gunshot wounds to his head when he was robbed in Washington, founded the 2-year-old grass-roots organization.

Phil Newman, a white Norwood poll-watcher, took time off work to watch two precincts in Atlanta's largely black south side. Newman noted that the poll managers there had handled most discrepancies in a "very calm, orderly and structured fashion."

A van adorned with Reed banners pulled within 150 feet of the polling station, in violation of the law, he said. When Newman asked the van to move, a Reed campaign poll-watcher threatened Newman, saying, "I'm going to get you — I'm going to kick your ass."

Newman "no longer felt safe at the poll," noting that one resident had told him that "the police won't come here." Newman said he thought a Norwood victory would change that. He stayed until the polls closed.

Why volunteer for Norwood? Newman said, "I believe in Mary — she has resolved issues. I can trust her."

First-term Georgia State Rep. Ralph Long III, a tall, slim, handsome African-American, was at the Varsity with his wife, Erica. Long, one of the few elected officials to endorse Norwood, said he did so because "we are not in a position to compromise our values."

Since endorsing Norwood, Long has received "a lot of negative and nasty stuff . . . but also a lot of respect and beautiful e-mails from across the city of Atlanta. You learn about people — we have a lot of work to do in Atlanta far as unifying Atlanta," he said.

Reed told WAGA-TV Wednesday morning that, if he wins the city's top job, he "would like to have Mrs. Norwood involved in an important way if she would like to continue to be involved in municipal government."

"I think that she has an important voice, and I think that it's vital that we work together to unify the city that we both love," Reed said.

However the recount turns out, it would be great, once again, for Atlanta to be the city too busy to hate, and ready to shine.

Jackie Cushman's new book, "5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours," focuses on the principles she follows in her daily life: Dream Big, Work Hard, Learn Every Day, Enjoy Life, and Be True to Yourself. She co-authored it with her father, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

© Creators Syndicate Inc.

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