Shirley Franklin called Friday afternoon with a stark description of the memo you’ve heard about — the one that frets over the possibility that Atlanta might choose a white mayor to succeed her in November.
“I think it was bigoted,” Franklin said. It was not a slip of the tongue. The mayor used multiple variations of the word.
But what seemed to offend Franklin just as much was what she called the “lopsided history of Atlanta and Atlanta politics” contained in the document.
The mayor said more, but we need to back up a bit.
The lengthy analysis that careened through e-mail accounts last week was distributed by Aaron Turpeau, a long-time City Hall veteran whose political career was capped by service as chief of staff to Maynard Jackson.
In an interview, Turpeau said the analysis was written by two academics associated with Clark Atlanta University on behalf of an “ad hoc” group called the Black Leadership Forum.
The memo was an attempt to form an agenda for Atlanta’s black community, Turpeau said. “Everybody has an agenda,” he said. “The developers have an agenda, downtown business has an agenda, the gays have an agenda, the Hispanics have an agenda.”
What would be the substance of a black agenda? Economic equality, access to City Hall, and respect for those displaced by development, Turpeau said.
If the analysis had actually said those things and stopped, much underwear in Atlanta would have remained untwisted. But the memo used the phrase “black mayor at all cost” and spoke of a “black mayor first” approach.
According to the BLF memo, the election of tiny Mary Norwood, the white councilwoman, “would be just as significant in political terms as Maynard Jackson’s victory in 1973.”
The political aims of the analysis are none too subtle. The memo assumes that black voters won’t turn out in any runoff, and so — in order to knock out Norwood in the Nov. 3 general election — suggests an effort to rally African-Americans behind City Council President Lisa Borders.
Borders quickly disassociated herself from the memo and its strategy.
According to the get-behind-Borders approach, other black mayoral candidates, including state Sen. Kasim Reed, would simply be out of luck. The memo pointed to a recent InsiderAdvantage poll that showed Reed lagging well behind both Norwood and Borders.
That logic prompted the Reed campaign, over the weekend, to release fresh internal polling that concedes the top spot to Norwood, at 33 percent. (The Brilliant Corners Research poll surveyed 580 voters; margin of error was put at 4 percentage points.)
Norwood aside, Reed says his survey puts him in a statistical tie with Borders, 19 to 16 percent, and shows the two African-American candidates with near-equal shares of the black vote.
But there is more to this “black mayor first” memo than nervousness over a few polls, or worry over Atlanta’s shifting demographics.
Reed, the candidate placed most in peril by the memo, twice acted as campaign manager for Franklin. The two are close, but the current mayor has made no formal endorsement. Even so, the authors of the memo go out of their way to cast doubt on Franklin’s ability to put her imprint on the race.
“To ignore the alienation that exists among black voters towards the Franklin administration’s performance is naive at best and dishonest at worse,” the analysis says.
This brings us back to that Friday phone call from the mayor. Franklin wouldn’t talk about an endorsement in the ‘09 race. Nor would she discuss the portions of the memo directed at her.
What Franklin wanted to talk about was the effort by a group of African-Americans — size and membership remains ill-defined — to define Atlanta’s first black mayor, who has been dead these six years.
“The memo clearly characterizes the historic election of Maynard Jackson as if it was an election of blacks over whites,” Franklin said. Yes, the mayor said, Jackson understood the importance of his achievement.
But to treat him as a “black Messiah,” Franklin emphasized, is to ignore Jackson’s belief “that every segment of this community ought to participate in the development of public policy.” Jackson was about inclusion, not exclusion, she said.
“To reduce Maynard’s legacy to a political machine is to not know Maynard Jackson. That’s trite,” she said. And “crazy, bigoted literature” that rises up from such a flawed assumption will be flawed throughout, the mayor noted.
As for the Black Leadership Forum’s concern over the outcome of a runoff for mayor of Atlanta, and the fear of multiple African-American candidates in this year’s mayoral race: Runoffs have been more the rule than the exception in Atlanta politics, Franklin said.
That’s the path that Jackson and Andrew Young followed to City Hall. Bill Campbell, too, was forced into a runoff to secure a second term, by Council President Marvin Arrington, an African-American.
History is one of the world’s most powerful forces. And at the very bottom of so many political contests is the matter of who will control the biographies of those who have gone before us.
It has come to that in the Atlanta mayoral race: What Would Maynard Do?
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