Even with a recount, Atlanta’s next mayor is almost certainly Keisha Lance Bottoms

As of the current count, Mary Norwood lost by nearly the same margin of votes lost to Kasim Reed in 2009
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Keisha Lance Bottoms Atlanta Mayor
Keisha Lance Bottoms declares victory at the Hyatt Regency on December 5.

Photograph by Steve Fennessy

Mary Norwood
Mary Norwood arrives at her election night party at Park Tavern on December 5.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

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.

Keisha Lance Bottoms Atlanta Mayor
Keisha Lance Bottoms declares victory at the Hyatt Regency on December 5.

Photograph by Steve Fennessy

“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.

Mary Norwood
Mary Norwood talks to reporters at Park Tavern.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

“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.

Keisha Lance Bottoms Atlanta Mayor
Keisha Lance Bottoms celebrates at Park Tavern on December 5.

Photograph by Steve Fennessy

Some takeaways:

• 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.

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