For decades as white residents fled to the suburbs, Atlanta’s black political establishment, led by a string of strong mayors, revived the moribund economy and so revamped the city’s image that it earned a national reputation as “Hotlanta.”
Ironically, that success–including a winning bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympics and a slew of Fortune 500 companies relocating to the city–has brought white voters flocking back to the city and, for the first time in 36 years, could put a white candidate back in the mayor’s office when voters go to the polls Tuesday.
In a race testing racial harmony in Georgia’s largest city, some veteran black power brokers say their hold on power is being undercut by their past successes running the city.
“We haven’t always gotten the credit for that, no,” said former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who oversaw the early days of the city’s rebirth during the 1980s. “I brought in 1,100 companies from around the world–$70 billion in private investment–and generated more than a million new jobs.
Black mayors have occupied City Hall since 1973, but this year, a white City Council member is leading in the polls, even though two black civic leaders urged black voters to unite against her.
Mary Norwood, who has served on the Atlanta City Council for eight years and lives in the upscale, mostly white neighborhood of Buckhead, has been expanding her lead over the past six weeks. In a poll released last weekend by Survey USA, 46 percent of respondents said they would vote for Mrs. Norwood over several black candidates. State Sen. Kasim Reed followed with 26 percent and City Council President Lisa Borders came in third with 17 percent.
While some in the majority-black city insist race is playing no role in the election, others say the issue is just under the surface.
The Survey USA poll found Mrs. Norwood leading by a 6-to-1 margin among whites, Republicans and independents. Mr. Reed, who has been endorsed by Mr. Young, leads among blacks, who made up 59 percent of the electorate in Survey USA’s turnout model.
And in a major break with past elections, a separate Insider Advantage poll on Oct. 16 reported that Mrs. Norwood was even leading among the city’s black voters, with nearly one-third supporting her.
With six candidates on the Nov. 3 ballot and two write-in candidates, many do not expect any candidate to win a majority of the votes on Election Day, which means the top two finishers would compete in a runoff on Dec. 1.
But with only a few campaigning days left, Mrs. Norwood is nearing 50 percent in the polls and could win an outright victory on Tuesday.
But between 2000 and 2006, Atlanta’s white population grew faster than that of any other U.S. city, according to the Brookings Institution. In 2000, Atlanta was 33 percent white and 61 percent black. In 2007, the numbers were 38 percent white and 57 percent black, according to U.S. Census data.
“Black voters have been moving further and further out of Atlanta, and whites who wanted to be closer to work have been moving in,” Mr. Bullock said, noting that the city has grown by 100,000 residents since 2000.
But this year’s race has not split neatly along racial lines, as some prominent black politicians have stepped out to support Mrs. Norwood.
State Rep. Ralph Long last month endorsed Mrs. Norwood, who hails from the center of his heavily black southwest Atlanta district. He was the first black leader to back the white candidate.
“Quite honestly, the race issue has died here in Atlanta because there are more pressing issues,” said Oglethorpe University politics professor Kendra King, who has extensively analyzed the city’s politics.