Rich’s executive Frank Pallotta had an idea: If the annual Great Tree wasn’t enough to coax holiday shoppers to Rich’s downtown department store in the mid-1950s, then surely a monorail would be. Dubbed the Snowland Express, the rickety three-and-a-half minute ride over the toy department—and later the roof—cost a quarter, making it a magnet for kids and a moment’s reprieve for parents to study their shopping lists. When a headlight fell off a few years later, the store added a pig snout, painted the ride bubble gum pink, and named it Priscilla. Joined in the 1960s by her friend Percival, the clackety monorail became a Yuletide tradition for thousands of children until the downtown store shut its doors in 1991. After a brief stint at the Egleston Children’s Hospital’s Festival of Trees, the pigs were put out to pasture at the Atlanta History Center—only to be reborn in 2003 under a pink-and-white tent at Lenox Square Mall.
The line of cars waiting for a valet at Park Tavern stretched out from Monroe Drive and into the parking lot. Inside a jam-packed ballroom looking out on the Midtown skyline, a crowd of 300-plus predominantly white Mary Norwood supporters sipped wine and munched on chips and dip as a DJ spun tunes that get the old folks dancing at weddings. When Norwood arrived at around 8:45 p.m., every person reached to grab a photo with or a hug from the woman whose sole ambition for more than 10 years has been to become the next mayor of Atlanta.
It wasn’t meant to be. Around midnight, election results showed that while the race would be tight—a strong dose of déjà vu for Norwood and her supporters, who watched the Buckhead businesswoman’s 2009 bid against Kasim Reed cut short by 714 votes—it would end in favor of Keisha Lance Bottoms, her city council colleague. And while Norwood is refusing to concede just yet, Bottoms, whose candidacy was propelled by the support and network of Mayor Reed, stood before a bank of flashing cameras and adoring voters in the Hyatt Regency, thanking God for helping her become the 60th Mayor of Atlanta.
“I stand here tonight as my daddy’s daughter, and I can say dreams do come true,” Bottoms said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “For those who did not support me, I look forward to working with you as well, because this is still a city for all of us.”
Tuesday night’s drama capped off a slog of an election marked by low energy, a nearby high-profile congressional race that competed for attention, and, frankly, too many candidates—at one point, 13 people were jockeying for voters’ attention. On November 7, Bottoms and Norwood emerged as the top two vote getters in the general election, and in their four-week sprint to the finish, the contest devolved into mudslinging about Bottoms’s ties to the Reed regime and Norwood being a Trump Trojan horse. Some voters whose favored candidate didn’t make the cut—even those who were civically engaged—debated staying home.
The final public poll found Norwood up by six points against Bottoms, stacked on top of an endorsement list of former mayors (Shirley Franklin and Sam Massell), former opponents (Peter Aman, Cathy Woolard, Ceasar Mitchell), and civic leaders. Bottoms, supported by a barrage of mailers and advertisements from the Democratic Party of Georgia, banked endorsements from Kwanza Hall, Jon Ossoff, Jason Carter, Killer Mike, and T.I. Going into Election Day, many political observers projected Norwood to mount a comeback and narrowly win the office. And on December 5, anecdotes of strong Norwood support in Buckhead—and less than ideal turnout at Bottoms strongholds—fueled the theory. Then came the results, painting the unfortunately familiar racial divide with Bottoms earning the most support in predominantly black south Atlanta and Norwood from predominantly white Buckhead and northeast Atlanta.
“I’ve done this before,” Norwood said to her supporters at Park Tavern shortly after midnight. “The next few days are going to be all-hands-on-deck, and all analysis will be done.”
After telling the crowd that she came up short by 756 votes—in the same ballpark of the 714 votes she needed eight years ago—Norwood said she would be demand a recount, as is allowed in Atlanta when the difference in votes is less than 1 percent of total ballots cast. In addition, she noted, absentee military ballots and provisional ballots have yet to be counted. In the case of the latter, it was unclear how many were handed out.
• Tuesday’s runoff was a reminder “every vote counts” isn’t just a lame plot to get you to the polls. It’s one thing for Norwood to lose her second bid for Atlanta mayor. But to find herself short by roughly the same amount of votes, although with a larger electorate, is almost unfathomable.
• The east side swung to Norwood—but not by enough. Norwood’s existing base and third-place finisher Cathy Woolard’s endorsement surely helped boost her support in key neighborhoods located in gentrifying Atlanta-in-DeKalb. But Bottoms, leaning on Kasim Reed’s campaign playbook, managed to eke out victories in other key precincts—especially in far East Atlanta, where a state House of Representatives race was also being decided.
• The Democratic Party of Georgia was happy this morning. Despite the fact that the Atlanta mayoral race is nonpartisan, the office holders in recent memory have all been Democrats. Frightened of losing the capital city of the Southeast, Georgia Democrats spent six figures on TV and radio ads alone accusing Norwood of being a Republican. Not only would watching the position go to someone who’s not an avowed Democrat hurt the party’s ego, it could pose difficulties when trying to elect a Democrat to the governor’s office next year. Whether voters who were turned off by the party’s tactics during the mayoral race will hold a grudge next year, when the party is facing off against an actual Republican, remains to be seen.
• Norwood has requested a recount, but it won’t actually happen until the votes are certified (which Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron says could take place either Saturday or Monday) and her campaign makes a formal ask. The days of eyeballing individual ballots and determining hanging chads are long gone; the process is now handled electronically and can take a few hours. In addition to votes cast at polling precincts, officials will recount the roughly 800 absentee-by-mail ballots, which were included in the vote total reported last night. Election officials are also currently researching 351 provisional ballots—ballots that poll workers give to voters if they, for example, show up at an unassigned precinct. Typically half of provisional ballots are determined to be eligible, Barron says. He also says he’s never seen the results of an electronic recount change the results of an election. Even if every single absentee-by-mail was discovered to actually be in Norwood’s favor, Barron explains, she would still have a deficit of roughly 400 votes.
• Should the election stand, we’re looking at an interesting power dynamic at City Hall with Felicia Moore as the newly elected Atlanta City Council president. During her five terms as a councilmember representing northwest Atlanta, Moore has earned a reputation as a details-oriented watchdog, a frequent thorn in the side of Reed, and a reliable “no” vote. If the past is any indicator, she will continue to act as a check on the mayor’s office.
Atlanta fire stations might officially be known by their government-given numbers, but for decades the men and women who sleep, eat, and wait for emergency calls inside those buildings have been adopting mottos inspired by their crews’ attitudes, personalities, and specialties. Many firefighters sport custom patches on their uniforms. Here’s a look at some of the city’s most interesting firehouse mottos.
Station No. 19 According to Dave Williams of the Metro Fire Association of Atlanta, Virginia-Highland’s beloved station celebrated the arrival of a new “Bulldog” engine by cracking a bottle of bubbly across its bumper.
Station No. 15 Located in the heart of Midtown, the station has recently taken on mottos that signify its large number of late-night calls.
Station No. 30 Two fire stations have called themselves “the Border Patrol.” This (albeit politically incorrect) image refers to the station’s location near the city’s southern edge.
Station No. 13 Before this East Atlanta outpost opened in 1921 no fire station had been given the unlucky number 13. The newer facility turned the superstition on its head, hanging a shamrock above its bay doors.
Station No. 6 Organized in 1879 as the African-American Blue Eagle Fire Company to protect Summerhill, the volunteer company battled blazes with white firefighters until it was disbanded when the city created a paid force in 1882. It was reorganized two years later in Old Fourth Ward.
Station No. 17 In the late 1980s this station located in Westview riffed on TBS Superstation Channel 17, which aired Atlanta Braves games.
Station No. 18 This Kirkwood station—once known as “Atlanta’s Last Outpost” because of its proximity to the city limits—used to run medical assistance calls, says Atlanta Fire and Rescue Sgt. Cortez Stafford.
Station No. 10 Drawing inspiration from Zoo Atlanta just down Boulevard, the Grant Park station features a rhino, giraffe, and lion on its patch.
Station No. 23 The Berkeley Park firehouse once used the slogan “Chasing the Devil from Buckhead to Bankhead.” More recently, the station adopted “Savoir Faire,” a French phrase roughly meaning “able to perform.” Bravo.
A temporary fire company created to protect the 1988 Democratic National Convention used the motto “We protected their asses.”
Every Thanksgiving weekend Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia clash on the gridiron to resolve yet another battle in the 124-year-old rivalry described by author Bill Cromartie as “clean, old-fashioned hate.” Weeks before the 1893 inaugural football game between “the Athens” and “the Techs” (neither side had adopted a mascot or nickname yet), the latter’s manager was already combating rumors that he was fielding ineligible players. Both schools’ chants hope their rival winds up in hell. According to the closest thing we have to an official tally—UGA refuses to acknowledge two losses during World War II, when most of its players were in combat—the Bulldogs lead the rivalry 65-41-5.
For Mary Norwood, it must have felt like déjà vu. Back in 2009 at her election night party at the Varsity—with a runoff against Kasim Reed looming and Fulton County results glacially slow to come in—she urged her supporters to save their energy and settle in for the long haul. Tuesday night wasn’t much different. This time, though, her opponent wasn’t Reed, but Reed’s heir apparent, Keisha Lance Bottoms. Around 11 p.m., Norwood took to the podium at 103 West, in her home turf of Buckhead, and gave the crowd—mostly over 50, mostly white—her blessing to call it a night. The writing was on the wall, after all.
“I know our ground game,” Norwood said on her way out. “I know we have thousands of yard signs. I know we have support in every corner of the city. I know I [have had] double-digit support across the entire city for the past year. I think that’s a great position of strength going into the runoff.
“We have a campaign that is totally inclusive, totally embracing of everyone in this town, whether it’s citizen, resident, business, visitor, regardless of nationality, ethnic background, or orientation. We are the all-encompassing campaign. That speaks to the Atlanta of the 21st century,” she said.
Just after midnight, seven miles to the south, Reed left his suite on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta and headed down to the Regency V ballroom to warm up the crowd for Bottoms. Security paced him, photographers surrounded him. On the stage, Reed introduced Bottoms as the “60th mayor of Atlanta,” and indeed, Bottoms’ subsequent remarks felt almost like a coronation. To listen to her, you’d have thought she had won outright. “I don’t take the responsibility of being the 60th mayor of this city lightly,” she told the enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred.
She made no mention of the runoff battle against Norwood—a battle that had, effectively, already begun. Indeed, Bottoms ticked off the names of each of her many opponents during the race—even the early, more obscure ones, like Rohit Amannamanchi—before adding, “I stand here a better person for having spent the last year with each of them, because each of us has a very unique style, but we all have a love for this city. I look forward to working with each of my new friends—my new best friends—over the next four years.”
The rest of her remarks were a reminder of why her personal narrative (helped along by Reed’s strident endorsement and fierce advocacy) resonated with voters.
“As I walk through the kitchen to get in here,” she said, “I looked at the bags of trash and paper and I thought about my grandfather. My grandfather used to go to hotels—he called it ‘uptown,’ we call it ‘downtown’—and he would go in the back door of hotels and haul out their paper. Their trash was his gold. He would take it to a paperhouse and he would sell it. And that’s the way he fed his children. I thought about my grandfather walking through that back door so I could stand here tonight.”
“I woke up this morning,” she said, “and there was a poem that was on my heart—it played over and over again. It was a line from ‘Still I Rise’ from Maya Angelou and it said, ‘I am the hope of the slave.’ I stand here with the blood of slaves and slaveowners running through my veins. And I look at each of you and I’m reminded of what is possible in this city.”
Reed’s endorsement is a double-edged sword for Bottoms in the days leading up to the December 5 runoff. Reed’s job approval ratings are in the mid-60s, according to his office, so it makes sense to ride his coattails. But she also needs to show that she’ll be no one’s puppet, along with distancing herself from the shadow of the ongoing federal investigation into corruption at City Hall. During her nine-minute remarks, she gave a glimpse of how she’ll thread that needle.
“I’ve mentioned my friend Kasim Reed, and I’ve mentioned what a great job he’s done on behalf of this city. And because this city has come so very far in eight years financially, we can now go back and pour into our communities the same resources and the same energy that we poured into getting this city on [solid] financial footing.”
By the time all the ballots were finally counted, Bottoms won 28 percent of the vote, with Norwood winning 21 percent. Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president, trailed four percentage points behind Norwood, with 17 percent.
Now comes a four-week sprint to the finish. For Norwood, it won’t be enough to simply bring her supporters out to the polls one more time. She’ll need to draw significant support from voters who’d supported the six other candidates on the ballot. As of today, none of them has endorsed Norwood or Bottoms, or even said they planned to. Perhaps most daunting for Norwood? Bottoms is wisely playing up her own Democrat bona fides, which stand in marked contrast to what’s seen as Norwood’s own political fluidity.
Some other takeaways:
Just a few months ago, this election seemed Ceasar Mitchell’s to lose. After all, the city council president had patiently waited his turn and even had the endorsement of Ambassador Andrew Young and C.T. Vivian. But on election night, Mitchell barely scraped into the double digits. You could say Mitchell’s message got lost in the crowded field, but all the candidates had that same challenge. What likely hurt Mitchell the most was Reed, who used his bully pulpit to publicly chastise and belittle Mitchell.
Cathy Woolard and Peter Aman weren’t carbon-copy candidates, but they shared many priorities, including transit and affordability. Many voters we talked to were on the fence between the two, and so we have to think the two candidates split votes that otherwise could have all gone to one if the other hadn’t run.
Identity politics are alive and well—especially in a race where all the candidates seemed to be saying the same things. Here are two facts: The largest voting bloc in the city are black women, and Bottoms was the only black female candidate. Likewise, this election seemed to identify a new voting bloc: the eastside. Though Bottoms carried southwest Atlanta and Norwood won over Buckhead, Woolard dominated the predominantly white and gentrifying neighborhoods east of Downtown. (You can see a map of how this played out in Fulton County here.) In Atlanta-in-DeKalb communities (which include East Atlanta, Kirkwood, and Edgewood), Woolard garnered more than 37 percent of the vote.
Though the runoff for the mayor’s race will dominate Reed’s attention, at least one of his allies still needs his help. Councilwoman Cleta Winslow has a tough runoff challenge for her seat representing West End against military veteran advocate Jason Dozier. And we imagine he’s not done with the Atlanta City Council president race, either. C.T. Martin, a strong ally on the council, lost his bid to oversee the legislative body, failing to make a runoff against council colleagues Alex Wan and Felicia Moore—the most loyal of Reed’s opposition.
All through this race, we’ve seen a series of polls that showed most of the candidates clustered in the low single digits, with as many as 20 percent of voters undecided. The fact that the majority of Atlantans stayed home on election night showed either that candidates were getting more favorable internal polling or, following the 2016 elections, they figured polling is worthless and that they’d take their shot. Woolard’s strong showing supports the flawed polling argument. The only question is, did polling actually influence people’s votes?
It’s worth arguing whether Atlanta was shortchanged by the sheer number of candidates in the race. It was nearly impossible to get much of a sense of how the candidates differed on policy by going to a forum because no one had much time to speak. Local media’s attention was more focused on the Jon Ossoff-Karen Handel race earlier this year and was unprepared to cover a contest with as many as ten candidates. Forget about city council and Atlanta Public Schools contests on top of that. Unless they attended a number of meet-and-greets, many Atlantans likely cast their vote on fairly superficial grounds.
So it’s come to Tuesday. All the mailers, forums, and last-minute dirty tricks all lead us to this important day in Atlanta history. Starting at 7 a.m., voters who did not cast early ballots will help decide the person who should succeed Kasim Reed as mayor of Atlanta. Turnout is expected to be low, which means a small number of votes could determine whether a candidate ekes out a spot in a December runoff—or in races with fewer challengers, perhaps an outright victory. Polls close at 8 p.m. Please go vote.
The mayoral candidate election night parties: Peter Aman: The former city chief operating officer, who public polls show hovering around third in the race for a runoff spot, will watch results at the Hotel Indigo downtown—not the Midtown location—beginning at 8 p.m.
Rohit Ammanamanchi: The Georgia Tech graduate and first-time political candidate says he’s most likely celebrating in a private setting.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: The councilwoman who went from low in the polls to a likely contender for a runoff spot will set up in the Hyatt Regency Atlanta downtown. Doors open at 6 p.m.
John Eaves: Head to Midtown’s the Establishment at Colony Square around 7 p.m. to meet up with the Fulton County chairman and his pack of supporters.
Vincent Fort: Fans of the state senator will find him starting at 8 p.m. “until all the votes are counted” at the CWA Hall on Logan Street in Grant Park.
Kwanza Hall: Expect to find Hall, who’s repped Old Fourth Ward and other vibrant eastside neighborhoods since 2004, in the heart of his council district at 444 Highland.
Ceasar Mitchell: Starting at 7 p.m., the Council president’s supporters will watch results—and a decent view of the city skyline—at Park Tavern in Midtown.
Mary Norwood: The Buckhead councilwoman, a likely contender for a spot in the expected runoff, will gather with supporters at 103 West. The fun should start around 7:30 p.m.
Cathy Woolard: A strong favorite to carry some southeast Atlanta neighborhoods, the former council president will hold court starting at 8:30 p.m. at Six Feet Under on Memorial Drive.
Glenn Wrightson: The Grant Park resident, a dark horse candidate who wants to ban plastic bags and leaf blowers, is keeping it close to home. In a text, Wrightson says he’s “looking at Kro Bar at Glenwood, keeping with frugality.”
On an overcast afternoon, Jack Barsky, former KGB agent, is sitting in the Mystic Grill in downtown Covington, cutting into some fried chicken. Six feet three and dressed in nondescript clothes, with salt-and-cinnamon hair parted to the side, Barsky both sticks out and blends in.
Barsky is relatively new to town. He, his wife, and their six-year-old daughter moved to Newton County last June, drawn from upstate New York to metro Atlanta by the low cost of living and proximity to a large airport. Occasionally he makes the drive to Your DeKalb Farmers Market, and every Sunday he attends church.
“I like this a lot,” Barsky says. “It just feels better. Just the way of being feels better.” His voice still betrays a hint of his native Germany. East Germany, specifically. Barsky was born Albrecht Dittrich in 1949, growing up in the shadow of Communist rule, where the Stasi spied on citizens and defectors trying to scale the wall separating the East from the West were shot. In college, where he was studying to become a chemistry professor, a man he believed to be a Stasi agent approached him one day with a proposition: Would he want to spy for the KGB? Confident, young, and adventurous, the student found the idea of serving Communism against Evil America and traveling the world enticing.
In 1978, after two years of intensive English and surveillance detection training in Moscow, he flew a zigzag route through five countries, ultimately landing in Chicago, passing through border control with a fake Canadian passport. He settled in New York City as Jack Barsky, a name taken from a tombstone in a Maryland cemetery. Thus began an almost comically complicated, multiyear mission: Establish contacts with influential think tanks to learn more about how the national security apparatus—including Zbigniew Brzezinski, an advisor to President Jimmy Carter—makes important decisions.
Anyone who’s watched an episode of The Americans, the FX series about Russian spies living undercover during the Cold War, has gotten a taste of the life Barsky lived for more than 10 years as what U.S. intelligence called an “illegal.” If you caught season five, you might have even spotted Barsky’s cameo as a man on the street reading a newspaper. The show’s characters kill, seduce, and wear disguises to gather intelligence for Mother Russia. Real life wasn’t so sexy. Barsky never wore a wig or dressed as a hippie to infiltrate a group of radical professors. “I was a gentleman spy,” Barsky says with a smile. Any violence was left to others; in fact he says he never even received weapons training.
To earn a living in New York, Barsky became a bike messenger, but a collision with an automobile dislocated his right shoulder. He never treated the injury out of fear he might blurt out German under anesthesia. He enrolled at Baruch College, majoring in computer systems. He maintained dossiers on fellow students he thought could be turned. He says he didn’t approach them himself but rather passed their names on to his superiors. In 1984 he graduated as valedictorian, taking a job at MetLife as a computer programmer. A personal ad in the Village Voice led him to another person hiding from the government: a Guyanese undocumented immigrant named Penelope. They would later marry to help her earn citizenship. Soon after she gave birth to their daughter, Chelsea.
What he didn’t tell his new spouse was that he already had a wife, Gerlinde, and children back in East Germany. Years before meeting Penelope, when he learned from a decrypted communication that his German wife had given birth to their son, Barsky had no one with whom he could celebrate. Every two years he would travel home for a “hello-and-goodbye,” visiting zoos, bringing jewelry, and delaying a promise to one day stay forever. His mother, who never learned of his secret life, thought he was a scientist working on a top-secret space project in Kazakhstan. When he returned to the U.S., he became Barsky once again. “I was highly compartmentalized,” he says. “The personalities were reasonably separate, but I tell people I had a manufactured dual personality.”
Every Thursday night Barsky spent hours decoding shortwave radio transmissions from “the Center,” instructing him to monitor defectors in California and Canada and relay reports home on Americans’ sentiments about world affairs and the Soviet Union. When the Soviet economy began faltering during the country’s war with Afghanistan, the KGB asked him to send industrial secrets and scout locations where other spies could leave information—drops that Barsky believes the KGB wanted to use for notorious spies Robert Hanssen or Aldrich Ames.
Not unlike his fictional counterparts in The Americans, Barsky found years of living in America gradually turned him into a Communism skeptic. He started resenting the demands intelligence work made on his professional and personal life. In early December 1988 Barsky spotted a fist-sized spot of red paint on the subway platform at 80th and Hudson streets. It was a signal from his handlers: His cover had been blown. Get out now.
He ignored the warning as well as an in-person visit from an agent threatening to kill him. Knowing that the KGB was scared of an AIDS epidemic spreading in the Soviet Union, Barsky told the agency he had acquired the disease. He promised he would not defect and took a gamble that the KGB would not pursue him. Roughly one year later the Berlin Wall fell; the Soviet Union collapsed shortly thereafter. During the next 10 years Barsky took jobs with UnitedHealthcare and Prudential, and he, Penelope, and their daughter settled into the east Pennsylvania suburbs.
Around the same time, FBI special agent Joe Reilly, acting on a trove of information turned over by a recently defected KGB archivist, started spying on Barsky: first as a birdwatcher on a nearby property and later using an FBI-purchased wiretap system set up in the house next door. “I was going through his trash for a year and a half,” Reilly says. When Barsky confessed his past life during an argument with Penelope, Reilly was listening. The next day, Reilly pulled him over. Barsky agreed to provide information, ultimately disclosing secrets about Morse code and training techniques—provided he and Penelope be given U.S. citizenship. “He didn’t want to give that up to go back to a system that was crumbling and falling apart,” says Reilly, who now considers Barsky a friend. “He had left children before . . . in Germany. I think it bothered him.”
Barsky divorced in 2008. He found God and remarried several years later, and in 2015 he was featured in the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel. A 60 Minutes segment followed. His past life was news to his employer—the New York Independent System Operator, which manages the Empire State’s electric grid—who summarily fired him. Watching his savings deplete, he and his family searched for affordable locales and settled on Newton County. Today he spends his days writing and talking about his faith and past life at religious and corporate events, and he has appeared as a talking head on CNN and MSNBC to discuss Russia. He thinks the country did try to create mischief during the national election and thinks partisan bickering between Democrats and Republicans over Putin could threaten national security. In March he published a tell-all book, Deep Undercover, that’s attracting large crowds at book festivals and being shopped around to film producers. There is life after espionage.
A mayoral race with this many candidates is a blessing and a curse. It’s good when intelligent citizens volunteer for public service, particularly a position as important as mayor. But it also makes differentiating between the political hopefuls a difficult task. Doubly difficult is when the candidates all sound like they’re promising the same approach to governing and are willing to tackle whatever problems are put before them. To try to help voters sort through the noise, we’ve created a cheat sheet to help steer you to the candidate that might best fit your interests.
Want someone who eats and breathes policy Cathy Woolard and Peter Aman When Ryan Gravel was pushing his vision for the Atlanta BeltLine in the early 2000s, Woolard, then the president of the Atlanta City Council, shepherded him through neighborhood association meetings to present his plan. She’s a policy-oriented politician who’s comfortable speaking about affordability and transit—one reason why she’s picked up support from a good number of the city’s urbanists, nonprofit pros, and environmentalists. A good number are also lining up behind Aman, who, as director of consulting firm Bain and Company’s Atlanta office in the early 2000s, offered pro bono services to then Mayor Shirley Franklin to reform City Hall with business best practices. He came on as chief operating officer when her successor Kasim Reed became mayor and stayed for two years, a job that taught him the ins and outs of City Hall. Plus, he enjoys talking about new policy and research into homelessness, affordability, and government. Both have made wonkery a key part of their pitch to voters—affordability and transit are literally part of Woolard’s campaign motto—and have promised to tackle the issues if elected.
Are an advocate for social justice Vincent Fort and John Eaves Vincent Fort, a state senator who’s represented a diverse swath of the city for years, doesn’t just have Bernie Sanders’ support (not to mention Killer Mike’s), but also apparently his populist life force. Fort has marched with protesters and hectored bankers, developers, and Mayor Kasim Reed for years over affordability, Medicaid expansion, and the unraveling of the social safety net. He’s advocating tuition-free two-year college for Atlanta Public Schools graduates. And as head of the county commission that’s primarily responsible for homelessness services (or to blame for the lack thereof), Eaves is knowledgeable about reducing one of the city’s most persistent problems.
Are a fan of the arts Kwanza Hall, Ceasar Mitchell, Cathy Woolard, and Peter Aman
A jam-packed mayoral forum in early October at the Woodruff Arts Center that focused on Atlanta’s arts scene was all but dominated by Woolard, who both understood the crowd of patrons and artists and grasped that a vibrant culture needs more than just canvases and stages but also affordable housing. Hall, whose district is a hotbed for arts organizations and murals, wants to increase funding and has a track record of supporting arts initiatives. Aman is putting extra focus on the importance of arts programs for youth, and Mitchell wants additional arts education programs at recreation and community centers. Nearly all the candidates are supportive of getting the state’s OK to ask Atlantans to pay a 1/10 sales tax to fund the arts. Some want arts funding as a line item in the city’s budget.
Are concerned about education and youth development Ceasar Mitchell, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Peter Aman Though City Hall and Atlanta Public Schools are two separate entities that have no direct oversight on the other, that hasn’t stopped many candidates from saying they’ll address what’s considered one of Atlanta’s biggest challenges—and an issue that influences income inequality, development, affordability, and the economy. Bottoms has promised to create a “Director of Education” position that would focus on the city’s relationship with the school system, and Mitchell would create an “Office of Youth Services” if elected. Aman says he’s willing to bet whether he would win a second term in office based on how his administration performs on youth development.
Are concerned about crime Everyone
Safe streets are a hallmark of any municipal election, and all the candidates in this cycle are singing from the same hymnbook. Rather than promising to lock up offenders and throw away the key, all the candidates are interested in examining ways to keep low-level criminals out of the city jail, be it through pre-arrest diversion or lowering fines for marijuana possession—or in some cases, convincing the state to decriminalize weed outright. All want to see Atlanta Police Department officers get better pay and use better equipment—along with upping the number of cops on the force. But the question remains how they’ll pay for those perks and new positions.
Think City Hall needs an ethics overhaul Same
The ongoing federal corruption probe—two contractors have plead guilty so far to charges of offering bribes for City Hall deals—served candidates with a silver platter of a campaign election issues. And they would be fools not to feast. All have pledged a squeaky clean administration, pointing to firing of city workers on their watch or their own spotless record as proof of being above reproach. A few have offered the same tweaks to ethics practices. Mitchell wants a whistleblower statute (with monetary rewards for reporting wrongdoing). Aman says he’ll personally train all city employees on Ethics 101, Lance Bottoms wants procurement officials to release their tax returns, and Woolard, along with others, is pledging to put city finances online. Whether the scandal is a few bad apples or there’s a culture of corruption in City Hall? Only the feds can say.
Root for the underdog John Eaves and Rohit Ammanamanchi Eaves, the last major candidate to enter the race, has found himself left out of debates because of his low standing in the few public surveys released thus far. He earns points for his passion on the campaign trail and is not bereft of policy ideas. The same should be said for Rohit Ammanamanchi, a first-time political candidate whose platform leans on transportation and infrastructure issues. The Georgia Tech graduate, who’s also been left off some forums because of low polling results, was inspired to launch his shoestring political campaign because he was fed up with the current divisive politics.
Want a Reed ally Keisha Lance Bottoms Yes, she’s her own person and has her own ideas, and she’s called claims that she will be beholden to the current Atlanta mayor unfair and even sexist. But if you’re looking for the candidate in whom Kasim Reed has invested the most political capital, it’s Lance Bottoms, a lawyer by trade who’s done the best job among the crowded pack of hopefuls at crafting a narrative.
Hate plastic bags Glenn Wrightson In the perennial candidate’s first 100 days in office, Wrightson wants to take steps to eliminate plastic bags. And leaf blowers.
Want City Hall more focused on neighborhood issues—or a radical overhaul of City Hall Kwanza Hall, Vincent Fort, and Mary Norwood Kwanza Hall, who’s represented Old Fourth Ward for more than 10 years, is painting himself as a neighborhood-focused candidate. But two of the most viable candidates strike fear into City Hall observers who don’t want to see the boat rocked too abruptly. Vincent Fort’s lack of ties to the business community and vocal concern for putting people living on low incomes first have become cornerstones of his campaign. Norwood, considered a likely contender for the inevitable runoff on December 5, has visited nearly every neighborhood in the city during her time as an at-large councilmember and during her long-running campaign. Norwood has promised to appoint “Neighborhood Ambassadors” to keep City Hall abreast of community needs. She wants to put the city’s finances online—a proposal that Mayor Kasim Reed fought when Norwood introduced it with Councilwoman Felicia Moore. And as the city’s first white mayor in more than 40 years, she would also break from the city’s traditional black power structure. How that would affect political alliances, focus, and business remains an open question.
Kim McFarland wore a silver dress she bought at a church sale to her first midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the Northlake Festival in the late 1980s. McFarland didn’t know the words to “Sweet Transvestite,” so she kept quiet as the audience around her squirted water pistols, threw toast, and hollered at the strangers on stage who would later become castmates—divorce lawyers, fellow college students, and “young adults with typical young adult jobs,” dressed (barely) in leather, lingerie, and gold lamé trunks with the movie projected behind them. McFarland ultimately appeared as Dr. Frank-N-Furter and other characters in more than 500 shows, including the performance above. Gay, straight, old, young, white, black, whatever—actors and audience members could be themselves or someone else entirely. The show still goes on every Friday at midnight at the Plaza Theatre, where Lips Down on Dixie, a nonprofit troupe, holds the city’s longest-running performance.
Adrianne Serrano Proeller has lived in the Capitol View Manor neighborhood of southwest Atlanta for six years. At least once during each of those six years, she’s seen Mary Norwood—city councilwoman and, once again, mayoral candidate—around her community. One year Proeller saw Norwood at a nearby Labor Day cookout; another time at a neighborhood association meeting. “Whether it’s an election year or not,” is how Proeller, who is supporting the 65-year-old Buckhead resident’s campaign, describes it.
As we approach the home stretch of the mayoral election with a passel of candidates jockeying to succeed the term-limited incumbent Kasim Reed, it is Norwood who remains the clear front-runner. In August a WSB-TV poll had 25 percent of likely voters in her corner, a full 13 points ahead of fellow councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms and Peter Aman, her closest opponents. Given the crowded field (there were, as of press time, nine competitive candidates), the race will doubtless go to a runoff between the two top vote-getters. Norwood is almost certain to be one of them.
Assuming that happens, it should be a familiar feeling for Norwood, who faced Reed in a runoff eight years ago. The 2009 campaign was grueling; the candidates slogged through dozens of debates and forums, and Norwood spent nearly $600,000 in the runoff alone, only to lose by a mere 714 votes. It was, she says now, “a heartbreaker.” Roughly four months later, though, she was back at it, announcing her campaign for Fulton County chairperson. But a missed deadline scuttled her plans. In 2013 she defeated Aaron Watson for an at-large City Council seat, a position elected by voters across Atlanta.
On this sultry summer evening Norwood is behind the wheel of her used 2012 Lexus sedan, running late for a campaign meet-and-greet at 640 West, a coffee shop in the heart of the West End. The I-20 on-ramp from the Downtown Connector is nothing but brake lights so Norwood, her hands at the wheel’s 10 and 2, hops a lane and presses the gas. She exits at Turner Field, turns right, and gives herself the benefit of the doubt under a yellow light. The day began at 5 a.m. and included a campaign meeting, a seniors’ organization luncheon, a committee meeting at City Hall, and a presentation at MARTA’s headquarters about adding bike lanes and transit. After introducing herself at the coffee shop alongside five other candidates, she leaves early for another appointment. Today’s schedule is nothing unusual.
Norwood’s huge lead in the polls is, by turns, both confounding and nose-on-your-face obvious. Obvious because she is a tireless campaigner, practicing the kind of retail politics that seem more practical in a city a tenth our size. Put simply, Norwood has spent the last 20 years fighting for constituent concerns about McMansions, bar hours, and quality-of-life. And she’s showed up: at NPU meetings, at transportation plan updates, at community festivals. She’s usually alone, caseworking every complaint and taking photos with complete strangers. At an event in Midtown a physician thanks her for being the only person at City Hall to return his call about a dangerous tree near his property. When the doctor adds that he’s having problems getting registered to vote, Norwood gives him the phone number for the chair of the Fulton County elections board.
“We’ve had a sewer mayor, a real estate mayor. I want to be the community mayor,” says Norwood, who wants to appoint “neighborhood ambassadors” to act as liaisons with her administration if elected.
But that aspiration—or vision, if you want to call it that—also gets at the surprising nature of her appeal. At forums, Norwood tends to rattle through past battles and new ideas about preserving neighborhoods, breaking up congestion, and making City Hall more transparent, leaving an onlooker feeling more bombarded than informed. Observers note she focuses more on the micro than the macro, failing to clearly articulate her priorities. Her housing affordability platform includes using public and private funds to incentivize employers to provide housing for their workers. Or the city could help residents purchase and renovate thousands of boarded-up homes across the city. But the latter requires cooperation from property owners, and the former overlooks the self-employed. Earlier in the campaign she proposed building a rail line from Lindbergh to the northwest, probably the one mass transit project in metro Atlanta that’s never been seriously studied.
The approach frustrates her opponents, who echo what critics said back in 2009: Norwood lacks the skill set to build coalitions among elected officials, manage an 8,000-employee bureaucracy, and establish a vision for the city. Peter Aman, a fellow candidate who’s touting the endorsement of Buckhead’s Clair Muller and Yolanda Adrean, two of Norwood’s former and current colleagues on Council, respectively, says just because Norwood’s been ever present doesn’t mean she’s been effective.
He and other critics question Norwood’s past budget proposals and how she would, if elected, offset a growing housing affordability problem while spending billions on new MARTA transit, the Atlanta BeltLine, and an overhaul of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. She didn’t chair a committee until her most recent term and has been a self-acknowledged “outsider” on the inside. Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University, says Norwood doesn’t strike urban political scholars as a strong candidate, saying she lacks a record of legislative accomplishments, often doesn’t grasp policy debates, and has shied away from discussing class and racial inequities.
Norwood has also largely focused on neighborhoods rather than Atlanta’s business community, a tactic that hasn’t hurt her—at least so far. “Do the math,” says Sam Massell, a former mayor and president of the Buckhead Coalition, which has not endorsed a candidate in the race. “The votes are in the neighborhoods. The money is in the business community.”
Norwood points to her record as an executive and longtime civic activist as proof she’s capable of leading. As for a lack of legislative accomplishments, Norwood’s supporters argue that the votes she has cast say more about her record than the legislation that she has not managed to pass—especially in a strong-mayor city run by a chief executive who narrowly defeated her in 2009.
Norwood’s indefatigability is matched only by her organizational skills. She keeps extensive records—she has a list of every person who’s received a yard sign dating back to the early 2000s—and is using them for this campaign. On a recent August night at the campaign’s headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, staffers handed out door-hangers and address labels to stick on mailers to dozens of black seniors. On the wall was a list of more than 20 neighborhoods deemed canvassing priorities.
An Augusta native, Norwood graduated from Emory in 1974 with a history degree. She took a job as a secretary at Rounsaville, a now-defunct radio network in Atlanta, and by 30 was running seven stations. In 1979, just 26 and divorced, she attended a seated Sunday luncheon of 150 people organized by an aunt (and the only other member of her Roman Catholic family to be divorced). The luncheon’s purpose: Find Mary a husband. It worked. Norwood has been married to Felton Norwood, a retired pediatrician, since 1983.
Norwood’s interest in politics began, almost literally, in her backyard. In 1990, as president of the Tuxedo Park Civic Association, she led an effort to protect the community as a historic district. After a “well-connected person” blocked the measure, her phone started ringing with calls from other residents from across the city looking for an ally to fight City Hall.
When the city announced plans in 2000 to build a sewer project near soccer fields in Buckhead, Norwood, by then the owner of a robocall firm, raised money to hire an engineer and fight the proposal. She parlayed her opposition into a run for City Council. After she first won her seat, she watched a $350,000 state program hiring underemployed and homeless people to clean up interstate ramps get canceled because city officials forgot to file paperwork. “That was the turning point when I said, ‘I will put myself through this,’” she said at a March event at the Center for Civic Innovation.
Owens says partly why Norwood performed well in 2009, nearly becoming the city’s first white mayor since 1974, was an electorate that had grown more white and less black, with lower black turnout. That trend has continued. Decades of knocking on doors from Buckhead to Bankhead, and her past battle with Reed, have given her an edge over other candidates. Whether that’s enough to prevent a repeat of the past, if Norwood is indeed one of the last two candidates standing, depends on who else is on the ballot come December. It’ll be a nail biter, to be sure.
Crowded field Who else might we see in the runoff?
Peter Aman The Buckhead resident helped open Bain and Co.’s Atlanta office and served as the city’s chief operating officer for two years under Mayor Kasim Reed. peteraman.com
Keisha Lance Bottoms Bottoms, a Reed ally, is an Atlanta City Councilwoman and oversaw the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority. keishalancebottoms.com
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.