Who will be Atlanta’s next mayor? It’s starting to become more clear.

Telephone polls and campaign funds give some indicators, but so does Kasim Reed’s influence
Several of the mayoral candidates speak at a September 5 forum.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

With just eight weeks until Atlantans head to the polls on November 7 to vote for their next mayor, a race that has for months been amorphous and without form finally looks to have come into focus—giving us a good idea of who could face off in the inevitable December 5 runoff.

In an August 27 poll by WSB-TV, Councilwoman Mary Norwood continues to lead the oversized pack (12 hopefuls qualified to run in late August) with a solid 25 percent, but for the first time her opponents appear to have arranged themselves into discernible tiers of contenders.

Where before the non-Norwood candidates were all lumped in the single digits, most separated from each other by less than the margin of error, there are now three—Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, former Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman, and Council President Ceasar Mitchell—who appear to be polling just north of 10 percent.

For Aman, who helped manage city operations during Mayor Kasim Reed’s first two years in office, this represents a huge turnaround—and proof that big money can make a big difference. In a March poll by Landmark Communications, the same local outfit responsible for the latest one, Aman was polling dead last, at less than 2 percent. But a pricey series of TV spots, phone calls, and direct-mail pieces designed to introduce him to voters appear to have done the trick, boosting him to 12 percent, neck-and-neck with Lance Bottoms. Conversely, Mitchell, once considered a likely candidate for second place, is now running in fourth.

But as we saw in last year’s presidential race, telephone polls have become an increasingly poor way to predict elections. Even so, there’s ample reason to worry for Councilman Kwanza Hall, former Council President Cathy Woolard, and former state Sen. Vincent Fort, all of whom are still stuck in the mid-single digits, according to the WSB poll. And former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves hasn’t managed to crack 4 percent in any poll since joining the race in late February. (The last of the nine well-known candidates, Michael Sterling, the former head of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, is so far behind he wasn’t included in the WSB poll. Laban King, Rohit Ammanamanchi, Carl Jackson, and Glenn Wrightson are also on the ballot.)

Eight of the nine front-runner mayoral candidates, shown here at a forum in January. L-R: Michael Sterling, Peter Aman, Cathy Woolard, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mary Norwood, Vincent Fort, Kwanza Hall, and Ceasar Mitchell. Not pictured: John Eaves, who hadn’t yet entered the race at the time of the photo.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

Campaign donations are another major indicator of a candidate’s headway. Generally speaking, a healthy war chest bespeaks broad support from voters—assuming that money comes from local donors. According to the most recent campaign disclosures, filed at the end of June (the next one doesn’t arrive until the end of this month), Mitchell has raised more than any other candidate, but a good chunk of that came from outside Atlanta. As of June, his $1.7 million in donations was more than three-and-a-half that raised by Lance Bottoms, and he outspent her 4-to-1—which suggests he’s not getting the desired bang for his buck.

But campaign funds also can be somewhat misleading. Aman, the retired head of the Atlanta office of Bain & Co., has been cited in the media as a top fund-raiser—and he is—but it should be noted that half of his reported $1.6 million in contributions came out of his own pocket. Lance Bottoms is the only other candidate to lend herself money, about $180,800 at last count. Norwood, who’d raised $1 million by the end of June, has had to spend relatively little of her cash since she came into the race with sky-high name recognition.

So, we’ve seen the polling and the fundraising, but are still left with a number of questions. Why, for instance, is Lance Bottoms, a freshman council member who’d never before served in public office, pulling ahead of Mitchell, a 16-year veteran who’s won four city-wide races? It’s worth noting that Lance Bottoms is the lone African American woman in the race—one who attended a historically black college, Florida A&M—and has proven adept at candidate forums. Her district includes the southwest Atlanta neighborhoods that remain the city’s epicenter of black political influence.

Lance Bottoms is also the hand-picked candidate of Reed, who has given her significant support, both behind the scenes and in more visible ways. A few weeks back, for instance, he spent considerable energy ripping into Mitchell’s call for a moratorium on new city contracts, calling the proposal a “stunt” and reminding his Twitter followers that the council president “has more ethics violations than any candidate running for Mayor of Atlanta”—even urging them to “support one of the other candidates that can win.” Ouch.

And, while Mitchell has experience, name recognition, and strong likability going for him, he’s also spent the last eight years as council president, an impressively titled position that doesn’t always deliver the political boost you’d expect. An even-keeled, noncontroversial politician who’s long been seen as the best bet to make the runoff against Norwood, he’s now in danger of being eclipsed by newcomers Lance Bottoms and Aman, despite having banked the golden-ticket endorsements of civil rights icons Andrew Young and the Rev. Joseph Lowery.

Aman, in particular, has an uphill climb as a white candidate (it’s been more than four decades since Atlanta last elected a white mayor) with no established political constituency who began the race with ads telling voters how to pronounce his name. In a race where most pundits anticipate a runoff between Norwood and a black candidate to be named later, Aman is betting—with his own money—that he can make history by forcing an all-white showdown in the black capital of the South. In the meantime, he’s been the most vocal in attacking Norwood’s council record and pointing out when she skips a candidate forum.

Norwood’s campaign said she has missed only three forums since January—due to scheduling conflicts or illness—but it would hardly be surprising if she chose to spend her time elsewhere. Between now and November, more than two dozen events have been scheduled across the city by groups ranging from the League of Women Voters to business consortiums to individual neighborhood associations. And with so many candidates in the mix, there’s often little time for detailed policy discussions.

Besides, the ever-chipper Norwood’s real strength as a candidate lies in one-on-one situations at small meet-and-greets, where she can look voters in the eye and promise to protect their neighborhood from undesirable development. (She has at least 15 such gatherings scheduled through October.)

A lot can happen in two months, especially in a race in which the gloves have yet to come off, but the runoff spot already could be out of the reach of several candidates.

Woolard, a savvy political operative who’s worked as a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood and Georgia Equality, has been out of office since 2004 but has maintained a public profile as a leading advocate for the Atlanta Beltline. Her campaign, which has focused on transportation infrastructure and social equality, however, has had difficulty getting out of first gear. In a city where identity politics traditionally have played a large role in elections, it’s tough to imagine a white, openly gay bureaucrat like Woolard picking up many votes in black neighborhoods—especially against the energetic Norwood, who has spent years cultivating support on Atlanta’s southside.

Hall, who has built a large following through his constant presence on social media and his embrace of bicycle commuting, boasts an enviably cosmopolitan and multi-racial base of support. But the polls suggest that the pool of urban sophisticates who favor Hall won’t be large enough to vault him into the runoff. Hall has tried to make news with recent legislation such as his resolution urging police not to report illegal immigrants to federal authorities, but his best hope could be that the polls may have underestimated his support among Millennials.

Fort, whose scrappy campaign—and lefty-progressive message—is squarely in the mode of Bernie Sanders, also appears unable to achieve liftoff. But his attacks on Reed’s City Hall as a cesspool of corruption could gain some traction depending on any revelations coming out of the ongoing FBI investigation. Conversely, some current council office-holders could stand to lose ground in the race if their names became associated with the probe. The idea that federal prosecutors would dare wade into announcing indictments so close to an election seems unlikely, but it’s not out of the question.

Eaves, one of the last candidates to enter the race, lags behind in polling and fundraising among top candidates. Prior to leaving office, Eaves argued for an emergency freeze on tax assessments after notices about increases jolted homeowners. Plus, he authored a resolution allowing the county to negotiate with the Hawks on upgrades to Philips Arena—which he followed with a press release that took a swipe at Reed and the council, implying he would prevent a replay of the Braves’ move to Cobb County. Within hours, the Hawks released their own statement that accused Eaves of falsely trying to claim a role in the Philips deal—a backhand that some have suspected had the mayor’s fingerprints all over it.

Sterling, who’s pointing to his past efforts overhauling the city’s jobs-training agency and time as a federal prosecutor as reasons why he’s ready for the office, leads Eaves in cash on hand. But he was not included in the most recent poll, and registered with less than 1 percent of supporters in an earlier survey.

Which leads us to the remaining wild card in the race: Kasim Reed, who’s keenly interested in who becomes the city’s next mayor and isn’t shy about attempting to influence the outcome. He likely doesn’t need to worry about blood enemies Eaves and Fort, but Reed clearly wouldn’t sit idly by if he thought there was good chance that Mitchell would make the runoff. And Hizzoner has already aimed his fire at Norwood, recycling an allegation from their own 2009 electoral showdown that the Buckhead councilwoman is a closet Republican. (While city elections are officially non-partisan, most candidates identify as Democrats—except for Norwood, whose campaign touts her as “the ONLY independent candidate in the race.”)

Whether the mayor’s interference will end up hurting or helping Norwood’s campaign will have to be the subject of a future poll.