The final days of a suddenly compelling race for mayor of Atlanta have been dominated by the two actors with the most cash on hand.
One is Mary Norwood, the councilwoman from Buckhead who — according to a last round of polling — could become the first white mayor of Atlanta since 1974. The other is the Democratic Party of Georgia.
Norwood’s presence isn’t hard to fathom. Her campaign is tightly knit, and she’s been on citywide ballots twice before. Perhaps most important, Norwood saved up her nickels and dimes for an October blitz of TV ads that her rivals haven’t been able to match.
But the unusual decision by the Democratic Party to enter the nonpartisan contest on behalf of former state Sen. Kasim Reed and Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders is more complicated.
Even those who support the decision by the state party’s chairwoman, Jane Kidd, concede that it could risk the longtime — and mutually beneficial — relationship between the party and the city of Atlanta.
Kidd’s explanation is simple. Norwood, she said, is a closet Republican — and as such shouldn’t be the mayor of a Democratic town.
“As far as we’re concerned, Mary Norwood’s a Republican. She’s been trying to dodge the issue of her partisan allegiance,” Kidd said. “We’re concerned that she’s not being truthful about her party affiliation. We think that she should be called out on that.”
On Thursday and Friday, the Democratic Party mailed two well-crafted fliers to thousands of Atlanta voters. One featured Norwood and an elephant in the room. The other piece of mail lumped the mayoral candidate with the Republican bugaboos Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and George W. Bush.
Both Democratic fliers urged recipients: “Vote for Kasim Reed. Vote for Lisa Borders.”
Norwood responded with a television ad that belittles her own attendance at a 1999 state GOP convention as a delegate and declares accusations of Republicanism as “not true.” Norwood also cannily invokes Barack Obama’s name and appropriates his call for “change and accountability.”
“It’s long overdue,” she says in the ad.
Norwood’s best alibi may be state Republican Chairwoman Sue Everhart. “She’s not an activist. I’ve got no indication that she’s a Republican,” the chairwoman said of Norwood last week. “But we’d be happy to have her.”
For most of this year, both Borders and Reed have operated on the assumption that one of them would face Norwood in a four-week runoff campaign.
The Democratic Party’s entry into the contest coincided with new polling that indicated the possibility of an outright victory by Norwood on Tuesday.
So, while Kidd and other Democratic officials say that their participation in the city contest was based on principle alone, it is fair to assume that the purpose of the party’s entry into the race was to keep Norwood under 50 percent on election night — and give one of two African-American candidates in the race a chance to regroup.
This is where the gamble is, say ranking members of the Democratic Party.
The argument in favor: To African-Americans, the mayor’s office remains a highly prized symbol. Maynard Jackson’s legacy is closely tied to that of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
Set aside, at least for a moment, the bare-knuckled issue of race. The loss of the mayor’s office to someone considered a less-than-authentic Democrat is certain to discourage the all-important African-American vote in 2010.
The argument against: Even if Norwood doesn’t capture a majority of votes on Tuesday, odds are that she’ll win the runoff, which will be held five lonely days after Thanksgiving. The finish will be a smaller replay of the Saxby Chambliss-Jim Martin runoff in the U.S. Senate race last year.
Democratic interference isn’t likely to change the outcome. And rather than having a mayor-elect who might have been wooed into Democratic ranks, you’ll have one who’ll be plenty steamed.
In addition, you may have lost a chance — which will also be important in 2010 — to extend a hand to independent voters weary of Republican rule in Georgia.
What has Democratic strategists queasy is the fact that they’re flying blind. They don’t know whether their attacks on Norwood will rally the troops — or offend them.
The demographics of the city have shifted so radically over the past decade that the city’s voting population has become as inscrutable as the oracle of Delphi.
“What’s the political landscape in Atlanta?” one Democrat asked last week. “We’ll find out Tuesday.”
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