How less than six square miles could determine Atlanta’s next mayor

A seismic shift in the city’s racial makeup means two Atlanta annexation campaigns are being closely watched
Annexation
Illustration by Justin Renteria

Before Shirley Franklin had even begun packing up her City Hall suite in 2009, pundits and politicos were quietly debating whether she might be Atlanta’s last black mayor, thanks to shifting demographics. The speculation became so feverish that, a few weeks ahead of that fall’s elections, two Clark Atlanta University professors penned a secret memo—later released and widely denounced as borderline racist—that urged black voters to consolidate support around a single African American candidate in order to defeat Atlanta Councilwoman Mary Norwood, the high-polling white candidate.

In the end, Kasim Reed squeaked out a runoff victory by a mere 714 votes. Since then, conjecture over how the city’s changing racial composition could influence future elections has only intensified. According to U.S. Census data, Atlanta grew by a mere 3,500 residents between 2000 and 2010, to 420,000—a net population gain of less than 1 percent. That number obscures the seismic shift still occurring in the city’s racial makeup: Since Reed took office, more than 20,000 white transplants have moved inside the city limits. That influx, combined with the past decade’s foreclosure crisis that disproportionately affected black residents, means today the city’s black population is roughly 50 percent, compared with 67 percent in 1990.

To political strategists, these statistics indicate rapidly declining strength in the once-monolithic black voting bloc—and an opportunity for a white mayoral candidate. That’s why a pair of Atlanta annexation campaigns, located in areas about 20 miles apart on opposite sides of the city, are being watched so closely.

Since early 2013, Druid Hills residents have debated whether their community, nestled west and south of Emory University, should become part of Atlanta (about 500 homes in the neighborhood already lie within the city limits). A grassroots annexation campaign known as Together in Atlanta, led by resident Anne Wallace, grew as nearby cityhood proposals threatened to gobble up parts of the historic neighborhood. (A referendum to create the adjacent city of LaVista Hills narrowly failed in November.)

For Atlanta officials, the prospect of annexing Druid Hills would seem a no-brainer. The neighborhood is home to a well-educated, liberal-leaning, affluent populace. However, nearly three-quarters of the neighborhood’s residents are white.

“The city is so close to being majority nonblack that just adding Druid Hills could tip the balance,” says Chris Huttman, a political consultant who worked to boost minority turnout in Georgia for Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2008.

And, as most politicos will tell you, tipping the racial balance in an electorate can bring about a different election result.

“I don’t think anyone watching this process through a political lens needs a tutorial on the concept that more white voters helps a white candidate or vice versa,” says Democratic strategist Howard Franklin (no relation to Shirley).

That was certainly the thinking back in the 1940s, when then-mayor William B. Hartsfield realized that white flight to the suburbs would eventually give Atlanta a black majority—unless he could persuade white communities to join the city.

“This is not intended to stir race prejudice because all of us want to deal fairly with them,” Hartsfield wrote in a 1943 letter to residents of Buckhead, then part of unincorporated Fulton County, “but do you want to hand them political control of Atlanta?”

Hartsfield’s efforts finally paid off in 1952 with a mass annexation that tripled the city’s footprint to 118 square miles, boosted the population by 100,000, and ensured that a century-long string of white mayors would continue—at least until 1973, when Maynard Jackson became Atlanta’s first black mayor.

Annexation
A Sandtown annexation meeting in May

Photograph by Brittany Miller/CBS46

Enter Sandtown
A bucolic, largely black exurb outside I-285 near Camp Creek Parkway, the community of Sandtown and its neighbors voted in 2007 against forming their own municipality of South Fulton.

Then, last spring, state Representative Pat Gardner, an Atlanta Democrat, introduced twin annexation bills at the behest of the city: one covering Druid Hills and the surrounding area, home to nearly 39,000 people; the other aimed at Sandtown and adjacent land, part of an area that includes an estimated 17,500 residents. Neither bill moved far last year, but both could be taken up after the 2016 Georgia General Assembly convenes on January 11.

But even if the legislation stalls, a stealthier annexation effort is also underway—one that enjoys the support of Atlanta’s current mayor.

In early 2015, Sandtown resident Debra Davis, along with counterparts from two nearby communities, submitted petitions to bring chunks of the area into Atlanta. (Neither Davis nor the other petitioners responded to multiple requests for comment.) Under an obscure state law, an area can be annexed into a city if endorsed by 60 percent of its residents and landowners through a petition, thereby avoiding both the statehouse and the ballot box.

Both Reed and his close ally, Atlanta Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose district adjoins Sandtown, have attended numerous community meetings since late 2014. Armed with glossy brochures, they’ve given sales pitches touting the benefits of joining Atlanta. As enticement, the mayor offered homeowners a 10-year property tax freeze, undercutting one of the primary rationales for a city to annex land—to expand the tax base.

Reed has even gone so far as to sue the Atlanta Public Schools to strike down its policy that calls for the system to take over existing schools in newly annexed areas—a lawsuit undertaken to appease parents in South Fulton County who want their kids to remain in the county school system. The suit is pending.

Although the current petition effort by Davis and her associates would bring only about 2,400 new residents into Atlanta, it’s a move that can be repeated again and again, incrementally increasing the city’s footprint—and voter rolls. According to Wallace, her Druid Hills group is considering a similar approach if it’s denied the opportunity for a neighborhood-wide referendum. In fact, last October, about 100 households in nearby Edmund Park joined the city using the petition method.

Howard Franklin says any mass infusion of new voters could alter the outcome of the 2017 election: “Either annexation would have far-reaching impacts on Atlanta that would be hard to overstate.”

Huttman is among those who believe the mayor could be pulling from Hartsfield’s playbook to preserve the racial status quo at City Hall. Reed’s legacy could be tarnished among Atlanta’s black political elite, Huttman explains, if he does nothing to ensure he’s succeeded by another black mayor.

“Kasim’s people want to preserve the balance of the electorate,” Huttman says. “For every person they add from Druid Hills, they want to add one from Sandtown.”

Anne Torres, Reed’s communications director, says racial balance plays “absolutely no role” in the mayor’s stance on annexation. “Anyone asserting that annexation is being driven by a desire to keep Atlanta’s voter demographics the same is scraping the bottom of the barrel with allegations that have absolutely no basis in fact and seeks to use race as a tool to inflame opinions and divide a city.”

While retired Georgia State University public policy professor Harvey K. Newman concedes that voting patterns are not perfectly predictable, he says it’s natural to expect Druid Hills voters to turn out in force in city elections should they become Atlantans. It’s also natural, he says, to assume Mayor Reed would want to mitigate the potential impact of a shift in voter demographics. Ever since the city became majority-black in the early 1970s, racial demographics have been the most predictable factor in determining who becomes Atlanta’s next mayor.

Still, former mayor Franklin holds out hope that someday Atlanta voters can move beyond issues of race, asking, “Do you become so beholden to the paradigm of the past that you miss opportunities for the future?”

A tale of two unincorporated areas

Annexation

Druid Hills
and surrounding area
Estimated 39,000 residents would be annexed by Atlanta under House Bill 586

Sandtown
and surrounding area
Estimated 17,500 residents would be annexed by Atlanta under House Bill 587

This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue under the headline “A delicate balance.”

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