When the issue of race poked its inevitable nose into the Atlanta mayoral contest, Lisa Borders — without fanfare or elaboration — declared herself a woman in the middle.
“I have never had the luxury of being black or white. I have always been part of the entire city,” she said in late August.
It was a remarkable admission, little remarked upon, for the woman once presumed to be the natural successor to Shirley Franklin — the perfect fit for a city whose demographics have begun to resemble the chocolate-and-vanilla swirl of Jello pudding.
But elections are often a celebration of polarities. People in the middle are the people left out. And as Tuesday’s returns ground to a finish, Borders became one of the first certainties of the evening.
The Rev. Joe Lowery, the Civil Rights octogenarian, had wondered a few weeks ago whether eight years of Franklin had feminized the office of mayor beyond the claim of any male.
Border’s third-place finish, behind Councilwoman Mary Norwood and former state senator Kasim Reed, has left the theory in need of four weeks’ more proving.
Border’s loss also continued the string of losses for Atlanta city council presidents trying to reach higher. Robb Pitts was defeated by Franklin. Marvin Arrington by Bill Campbell.
But Borders’ middleness made her something different. She was a woman of Civil Rights heritage — her grandfather had forced the integration of Atlanta’s police department – who had excellent connections with the city’s business community.
She was a Democrat with high-flown Republican friends. Former Cousins Properties CEO Tom Bell, her ex-employer and her prime financial backer, dabbles on the presidential level.
Borders was even divided at a level any voter could grasp: Though a woman of high ambition, 14 months ago she was forced to call a halt to her budding mayoral campaign. She couldn’t handle the strain of work plus caring for two aging parents – one a double amputee with diabetes, the other with Alzheimer’s.
Before she called it quits, she’d raised $232,000. By the time she rejoined the race seven months later — her parents’ demands were handled, she said — Norwood and Reed each had more than $275,000 in their campaign treasuries.
Throughout the summer, Borders rode No. 2 in the polls, frustrating Reed. She won the endorsement of the city’s police union. Georgia Equality, the gay rights group, also backed her. But her middleness again did her in.
Borders became the alleged beneficiary of the “black mayor first” memo — a document written by pair of Clark Atlanta University professors who suggested that because of her No. 2 standing in the polls, African-American voters should rally behind her.
Borders recoiled. ”The color of skin of our next mayor is not the issue,” she said. (Reed said much the same thing.)
The memo did have its effect. From that point onward, the Atlanta mayoral race moved toward its traditional dynamics of black and white. Slightly modified for the post-Obama era, the same pattern can be traced back to Sam Massell vs. Maynard Jackson, or Sidney Marcus vs. Andrew Young.
The good news is that, because the runoff scenario is familiar, we know we’ll be able to survive the next four weeks. But there won’t be a place for middleness.
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