Atlanta’s latest contest for mayor shows a city where racial divisions and changing demographics will tell the story of the southern metropolis’ future.

After a close race, a recount on Thursday resulted in Keisha Lance Bottoms maintaining her lead over fellow City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who also lost her previous bid for mayor in 2009 to Kasim Reed by fewer than 800 votes.

On Thursday, though, Norwood suggested she would legally challenge votes in a recently annexed neighborhood in southwest Atlanta, claiming residents there may have unknowingly cast illegal votes in the mayor's race.

If Bottoms' victory holds, it will continue a more than 40-year run of African-American mayors in the southern city, which includes political heavyweights like Maynard Jackson, the city’s first African-American mayor, and Andrew Young, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations prior to becoming mayor.

But a deeper look at the results shows a city whose political divide is still largely centered around race.

In both the 2009 election and the most recent runoff, black candidates won office by capturing votes from the city’s African-American majority. By contrast, the city’s white electorate overwhelmingly supported Norwood, a white woman, in both campaigns.

The electoral map from the Dec. 5 runoff traces almost perfectly over Atlanta’s residential segregation. The city's white population is largely concentrated on the north side, which went overwhelmingly for Norwood. The south side, where most of the city's African-American residents live, broke heavily for Bottoms. 

Bottoms ran as the establishment candidate, a successor to the incumbent and, by extension, to the long line of black mayors dating back to Jackson. Her ties to Mayor Reed, whose administration is embroiled in a federal investigation into city procurement practices, did hurt Bottoms some with white voters, according to data collected just before the election by Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.

“Whites were three times as likely to vote for Norwood, and blacks were three times as likely to vote for Bottoms,” says Gillespie. “It’s not that people voted solely on how they felt about Kasim Reed, it’s just that those feelings had a more pronounced impact on how whites voted.”

At the same time, Norwood's endorsement by former Mayor Shirley Franklin and current City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, both of whom are African-American, did little to sway black voters.


A Shifting City

Atlanta has been painted as a model of black political governance for decades. Even before the election of Maynard Jackson in 1973, Atlanta dubbed itself “the city too busy to hate,” a progressive island in the conservative south.

When black political power took hold, it followed a long-standing pro-business tradition in the city and coupled that with policies specifically aimed at lifting African-American residents out of poverty. Jackson, who served as mayor until 1982, and again for one term in the early 1990s, guaranteed one-third of city contracts to minority businesses and helped grow the black business class. Mayor Young, who served from 1982 to 1990, similarly worked closely with corporations and universities to create pathways to corporate employment for educated African-Americans.

“Atlanta’s position as the black mecca is based on three things: education, its black merchant class and black political power,” says Maurice Hobson, assistant professor of African-American studies at Georgia State.

But the successes of Atlanta’s middle- and upper-class African-American population -- and the efforts by City Hall to focus resources and time on helping the largely black south side -- fueled resentment among white residents.

“There are whites on the north side who express -- not what you would say as racial resentment but fiscal resentment -- that the city has spent more money on the south side, and the north side has been left out,” says Michael Leo Owens, an associate professor of urban politics at Emory University. “There have always been some folks that believe when black folks are doing well, it means white folks aren’t."

That divide is becoming more politically problematic as the city's racial demographics continue to shift.

The city in 2000 was 61 percent African-American, according to Census data. It's now 50 percent African-American, and its white population is approaching 40 percent. Mayoral elections may still track closely along racial lines, but black candidates can no longer take those votes for granted, says Owens.

“One can’t just say Atlanta is in play because white folks are arriving. It’s in play because white folks are arriving and black people are leaving,” he says. “Keisha Lance Bottoms didn’t just win because she won black votes. It wasn’t just black votes that put Kasim [Reed] over the top."

There's also a growing sense among voters, he adds, that African-American leadership alone hasn't achieved the promise of Atlanta as a black mecca.

“It’s clear that having a black mayor and black-run institutions have not been enough in bringing large numbers of black people out of poverty,” Owens says.

Atlanta ranks second to Miami in terms of income inequality. It's third in the nation in evictions, a fact that has sped up the displacement of its African-American population to suburbs.

“The challenges for the mayor going forward are affordability for a range of incomes,” Owens says.

The changing demographics of the city will also mean meeting the expectations of new classes of voters with different needs. The east side was traditionally inhabited by working-class African-Americans but is now home to the creative class and a growing LGBTQ community. The voters are progressive and aren't much influenced by the racial politics that have largely shaped Atlanta politics over the past two generations.

“There are going to be African-American candidates who will have to come down on the side of different shades of equality,” Owens says.

And that extends to the city’s African-American population. It will no longer be satisfied merely with the message of traditional black economic empowerment nor will it kowtow to the black political establishment, according to Hobson.

“What we are seeing now is the maturation of black voting power in the American South. Now that segregation is so far away, black people are now splintering,” Hobson says. “You see the splintering of the black community in Atlanta.”

Going forward, leading Atlanta will require revamping public transportation to make it more useful for working-class African-Americans with job opportunities that lie outside of the city limits. Mayors, including Bottoms, will have to focus on making the city more affordable for those at every income level. And that has not been and cannot be accomplished by solely relying on the African-American political power base.

“When you hold on to black power," says Owens, "it only benefits a certain strata of black people."