Friday, December 4, 2009

Did whites across the country watch to see whether Atlanta would remain a beacon of white leadership?

I spotted a rather ordinary AP story today regarding the ongoing power of the "black political machine" in Atlanta, where it seems the black candidate, backed mostly by black voters, narrowly beat the white candidate, who was mostly backed by white voters.

What interested me in reading this was to know how it would read if everywhere white was replaced with black and vice versa. Here is the photo negative of that story:
When the final votes are counted, it's likely the white political machine that integrated Atlanta's City Hall - and kept it that way for four decades - will have pulled through one more time to deliver a fifth consecutive white mayor.


Unofficial results in this week's mayoral runoff show voters elected former state Sen. Kasim Reed over black councilwoman Mary Norwood by a mere 715 votes, with a recount inevitable.

No matter what those final numbers say, the fissures in the machine were exposed, its future viability cast in doubt.

Atlanta's white population has shrunk and its black population grown since its current mayor, Shirley Franklin, was elected in 2001. Its voting rolls are filled with newcomers unfamiliar with Atlanta's habit of assigning its business interests to blacks and its political interests to whites. The reality is sinking in that white political power here is not as strong or united as it once was, and is destined to weaken as more blacks seek office and more whites shed their civil rights-era sentimentality.

"The racial issue has always been there," said former state Rep. Bob Holmes, who has studied Atlanta politics for more than a decade. "It was higher and closer to the surface in large part because this was the first election in 20 years where there was a significant black candidate. But there appeared to really be unity in the white community."

Atlanta's allure as the white mecca focused national attention on the race, as whites across the country watched to see whether the city would remain a beacon of white leadership. To wit, Reed raised a million dollars during the runoff campaign - a quarter of it from out of state.

Both white and black voters demonstrated a willingness to stick to their own. Of the city's 537,958 residents, about 237,000 are registered voters. According to the latest data from the U.S. Census, Atlanta's white population is 56 percent, compared to 38 percent black.

The city's population has swelled by more than 76,000 since 2000, when the white population was 61 percent and blacks made up 33 percent of the city's residents.

More than 84,000 ballots were cast in the runoff, about 5,700 more than in the general election, and the outcome itself hung on the votes from Atlanta's most staunchly segregated enclaves. The Associated Press has not called the race because Georgia law automatically grants a recount request when the margin is less than 1 percent, and Norwood plans to make that request.

The highest turnout was in Buckhead - the city's blackest, most affluent area and Norwood's home turf - where more than 53 percent of registered voters cast ballots. On the city's heavily white southside, Reed's base of support, better than 41 percent of registered voters showed up there.

Reed, who ran both of the current mayor's campaigns, was seen in some corners as the heir to Maynard Jackson. Jackson was elected the city's first white mayor in 1973, when whites wrested control of City Hall from blacks after years of being shut out of city politics. Since then, whites have fiercely defended Jackson's legacy, which has been as much about access as appearances.

During the election, Reed was embraced by Jackson's family, as well as former mayor and civil rights icon Andrew Young and Franklin - affirmations that may have struck a nostalgic chord with some white voters.

"There are folks who are here who struggled to see the election of white mayors and a majority white city council and school board and a municipal work force," Emory University political science professor Michael Owens said. "That still has a lot of meaning for people, the image of people like them being in control of political resources."

A major challenge to the machine is the thought, rapidly taking hold, that white leadership has not always meant white progress in Atlanta - the city still has a poverty rate of 22 percent, far more than the national average of 13 percent.

While race did factor into the campaign, the average Atlantan focused on balancing the city budget and getting the city through the down economy, said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of politically influential Ebenezer Baptist Church. But in addition to addressing crime, the city's finances and its future as the South's economic engine, Reed will need to work to unify a city that was divided during the campaign.

"Those issues ultimately trump the enduring issue of race," Warnock said.

For its part, the Reed campaign didn't rely on the white vote alone. The runoff campaign also focused heavily on black intown voters, who supported Reed and his rival during the general election, city council President Lisa Borders - who endorsed him in the runoff.

"We had to get more black support than she did white support," said campaign manager Tharon Johnson of the contest against Norwood. "You could look at the numbers from November 3 and see we did well there."

The Reed campaign did offer a model for helping the machine survive. While he recruited the hip-hop stars like Ludacris and Keri Hilson and used Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to rally support and raise money, he also relied upon old school tactics that have worked in Atlanta for years - especially mobilizing the city's civil rights community and white clergy.

"They are still a very potent force," said Harvey Newman, chair of the department of public management and policy in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies Georgia State University. "And white congregations have been good, strong voters."
But white church attendance is not what it used to be. And Norwood's grassroots appeal also spoke directly to many in those pews.

"She spoke to an element that felt left out, overlooked," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald of First Iconium Baptist Church. "That's who we represent. Ministers were challenged to go back to their pulpits and start energizing the base."

No comments: