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The path to victory for Atlanta’s next mayor is clear, even if the candidates don’t want to say it. It’s about race.

If Tuesday top vote-getter Mary Norwood, a white woman, can hold onto her strong support from white voters, and she draws away a respectable minority of black voters as she did Tuesday, she wins Dec. 1.

If Kasim Reed, a black man, can boost his black get-out-the-vote effort and bring in supporters of third-place candidate Lisa Borders, a black woman, he wins.

This week’s mayoral election showed that decades after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urged that people not be judged by the color of their skin, blacks and whites in his hometown are voting along racial lines. Race was a leading predictor in whom Atlantans chose for mayor last Tuesday, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of election data shows. While some voters crossed racial lines, the overwhelming majority did not.

Data show:

● Norwood won more than 58 percent of her vote from three predominantly white council districts — on the north and northeast sides of the city.

● Reed won 57 percent of his votes from five predominantly black council districts — on the east, west and south sides.

● Some voters crossed over racial lines. Norwood did better in predominantly black council districts than Reed did in white council districts. She won 23 percent of the votes cast in black council districts, beating Borders’ 15.5 percent there.

● Reed won 14.5 percent of the vote in predominantly white council districts, compared to Borders’ 12.3 percent.

● Turnout in white areas was about 10 points higher than in the black areas, but turnout everywhere was low (only about 30 percent).

● In mixed-race council districts, the two candidates battled more or less to a draw, with Norwood getting about 40 percent of the vote, compared with Reed’s 37.5 percent.

“We still live in a black-white world,” Jackie Stevens, a 55-year-old black woman, said Tuesday as she headed into a polling station at the West Side Community Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. She said she was voting for Reed.

This sharply defined racial voting presents the two candidates with a dilemma as they head into a run-off. In an election that will be largely decided by race, how do you win without openly appealing to your race?

But in the muted world of Atlanta politics — where what isn’t said is often as powerful as what is — neither candidate can drum up support by blatantly using race, for fear of fueling a backlash.

Sensitive subject

In coming weeks, the wrong statement, flier, commercial or speech could send undecided voters into the arms of an opponent or keep voters from coming out at all. Turnout is expected to be extremely low.

So far, Norwood and Reed have not said much publicly about the sticky subject. And for many voters, choosing a candidate wasn’t just a simplistic determination that Norwood is white and Reed is black.

But racial judgments influence voters’ views on a range of city policy issues, from criminal justice to education to taxes to city finances. And in the booth, most went with candidates of their own race.

Michael Owens, an Emory University political science professor who has been watching the Atlanta race, said blacks and whites have vastly different views of what qualifications are needed in a candidate.

“These racialized judgments shape how people vote,” he said. “And I don’t ever see how these two groups are going to come together.”

Stevens, the west side voter, said she backed Reed because she wants a strong black candidate to halt gentrification.

“The whites are trying to take over the city,” she said.

Miles to the north, outside a polling station on the forested grounds of Northwest Presbyterian Church, Lou McLennon, an 80-year-old white man, didn’t mention race as his reason for backing Norwood. He said the other candidates struck him as “big spenders.” He never voted for Mayor Shirley Franklin. He said he likes Norwood because “she isn’t stupid.”

These voters, and thousands like them, won’t be changing their minds in three weeks.

Some voters chose candidates not from their race.

Constance Barkley-Lewis, a white woman in Buckhead and a neighbor of Norwood, is a strong Reed supporter. She has known him for years and he helped her get a police report promptly when she was the victim of a crime. She introduced him to friends throughout Buckhead.

“When I get him in front of people or watch him in debates, he moves people,” she said. “They have confidence in him because Kasim is the genuine deal.”

The Rev. Harrison Anderson, 67, a black man from the west side, said he is campaigning for Norwood because she is the only one of the candidates who came to the west side regularly.

“That rich white woman has been the only one to come into our community to help poor blacks and poor whites,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

But these voters are in the minority.

Demographics change

Racial tensions have arisen this election in part because of Atlanta’s changing demographics. In 2000, the city was 61 percent black. By 2007, an influx of whites dropped Atlanta’s black population to 57 percent. With two well-financed black candidates in this election, Norwood was able to come out on top of a split black vote, but did not get enough votes to stop a runoff.

Owens, an expert on voting in urban areas who has been watching the Atlanta race closely (he gave money to Borders), said that if Norwood wins, she will be a white mayor of a black majority city who did not win the majority of black votes to get the job. If Reed wins, he could be the last black mayor of a city turning more white every year. And he would get into office without majority white support.

“They might just be transition mayors,” Owens said.

Todd Shaw, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina who has studied racial voting patterns across the country, said Atlanta could be the first of several cities with black mayors that see whites flexing voting muscle. He said Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., could follow.

“Will you see these same tensions, two black candidates split the vote and a liberal, moderate white candidate claims the plurality?” Shaw asked.

“This may be the beginning of such a trend.”