In the end, Atlanta declared for change. But the city turned its back on revolution.
Reaching beyond City Hall, voters on Tuesday picked 40-year-old former state senator Kasim Reed as the 59th mayor of Atlanta.
The caveats of a razor-thin margin apply. A recount of the runoff is in the offing.
Mary Norwood, the diminutive councilwoman who threatened to engineer the greatest shake-up City Hall had seen in three decades, refused to concede defeat.
But as midnight approached, boosted by a surprisingly strong turnout in a post-Thanksgiving runoff, Reed declared himself the fourth consecutive African-American to hold the city’s top office.
Race was never a point directly addressed by the candidate, except to deny its importance – but the fact was of great concern to more than a few black voters, not to mention many members of the media who had their eyes on Atlanta’s changing population.
The 11-year lawmaker and attorney was backed by a phalanx of civic leaders, civil rights heroes, the state Democratic party — and Mayor Shirley Franklin. Norwood declared Reed the candidate of Atlanta’s political establishment.
But consider this: Reed will join Andrew Young as the only mayor in at least half a century to serve without any previous experience in city government. That in itself argues change.
Reed walked a delicate line, claiming the support of an incumbent and still personally popular mayor – but promising to “clean up the mess at City Hall.” That he served as Franklin’s campaign manager – twice – made the task that more difficult.
“The policies and challenges at City Hall are not just a result of the mayor’s leadership,” Reed campaign manager Tharon Johnson explained. The former state senator promised to remake the Atlanta police force and solve a $100 million-plus pension crisis, all without sullying the name of his predecessor.
Despite a substantial record as a state lawmaker, Reed began the contest for mayor as a virtual unknown, surging to take second-place in the Nov. 3 general election, ahead of Council President Lisa Borders.
The numeric hows and whys of Reed’s victory on Tuesday will have to wait for detailed statistics from a computer-challenged Fulton County election office.
But the nine city precincts DeKalb County – largely dominated by white voters — provided evidence of Reed’s progress in forging the biracial coalition now essential to victory in citywide races.
On Nov. 3, Norwood carried topped Reed in those precincts by 638 votes. On Tuesday, she led by only 133 votes.
Among the keys to victory cited by Reed supporters was their candidate’s ability to raise money – besting Norwood by nearly 2-to-1 in the weeks following the general election. Together, both candidates raised more than $1.3 million for the second round.
Also essential was the entry of the state Democratic party into the contest.
“We were very honored and pleased with the party’s decision to involve itself,” Johnson said. “The first job of the Democratic party is to elect Democrats.” Norwood strategists conceded the damage done by Reed’s ability to turn an officially non-partisan contest into a test of who was the strongest Democrat.
But the greater revolution on Tuesday may have had nothing to do with party or race.
Four of the five Atlanta municipal races pitted significantly younger candidates against older ones. Reed is five years older than Maynard Jackson when he won his first election in 1973. Norwood is 57.
Ceasar Mitchell, winner of the race for council president, is 41. His defeated rival, fellow council member Clair Muller, is 64.
“In the midst of all the hoopla over gender and race and sexual orientation, the one distinction in every race was the generational issue,” Mitchell said before voting closed. “The question is whether the torch will be passed this time.”
In his race, and in the race for mayor, consider the torch passed.