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In Atlanta, white mayoral candidate draws broad support

If front-runner Mary Norwood prevails in today's vote, she would be the city's first white mayor in 36 years. Her promise to fix City Hall's bookkeeping has wide appeal in the majority-black city.

November 03, 2009|Richard Fausset

ATLANTA — Roofer Anthony Clark lives in Atlanta's historically black West End, in a little bungalow with a yard sign out front touting Kasim Reed, the city's leading black mayoral candidate.

But Clark, 41, said Monday that he wasn't sure he would be voting for Reed in today's election. He was thinking about supporting Mary Norwood, the front-runner, who is leading Reed by 20 percentage points in recent polls and, if elected, would become Atlanta's first white mayor in 36 years.

Norwood, a veteran City Council member, hails from the tony and largely white neighborhood of Buckhead. But Clark, who is black, said that her race didn't matter -- even in this majority-black city.

He said Norwood, an at-large councilwoman for the last eight years, had paid attention to black neighborhoods too. Even more importantly, he liked Norwood's clarion promise to fix the notoriously shoddy bookkeeping at City Hall. Maybe then, Clark said, there would be money for more police, more city services -- maybe even money to open the closed-up recreation center a block away.

"I figure she'll do the right thing and get the books straightened out," he said.

No one in this complex Southern metropolis is foolish enough to call its politics post-racial. But Norwood's success among black voters has become the most important dynamic in the closing days of the contest to succeed second-term Mayor Shirley Franklin.

In a poll Thursday of registered Atlanta voters conducted by local firm InsiderAdvantage, Norwood received 45% support overall. (A SurveyUSA poll showed her with 46%.) Among the African Americans polled, Norwood received 34% support in the InsiderAdvantage poll -- a narrow plurality.

The black support has helped place Norwood far ahead of three other serious contenders, all of them African Americans with impressive resumes. Her closest competitor is Reed, a former state senator, who had 25% overall support in the InsiderAdvantage poll.

"Citizens are looking at who they believe can lead the city forward, rather than their skin tone," said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, president of the Georgia Assn. of Black Elected Officials, who has not endorsed a candidate.

"It reminds me of what we saw with Barack Obama's campaign last year. People were telling me, 'We're not going to look at him on the color of his skin. We're going to look at his vision.' "

Norwood, a former radio executive and founder of a telephone marketing company, has never chaired a committee during her time in City Hall -- a point her opponents have noted.

But as a campaigner, that has given her an outsider's freedom to fiercely criticize financial and organizational problems particular to Atlanta that have compounded the kinds of troubles many municipalities are facing at a time of shrinking tax revenue.

Among the problems documented by consultants, auditors and media: overestimated surpluses, payments listed as reserves, and a finance department that fails to produce basic accounting reports.

Norwood has promised an independent audit of all city finances. As she wrote on her website: "We do not know how much the city really has or how much money the city really owes."

Franklin, who is facing term limits, has declined to endorse a candidate -- not even Reed, her former campaign manager. But she has strenuously criticized Norwood, particularly Norwood's refusal to support a tax increase in June that ended furloughs for police and firefighters.

"I support candidates with vision, integrity and intelligence," Franklin wrote on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's political blog. "Mary Norwood has none of these."

Reed won endorsements from Atlanta's civil rights old guard, including former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and Brooke Jackson-Edmond, daughter of the city's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson.

Norwood's commanding lead in the polls has raised the possibility that she may win more than 50% of the vote, obviating the need for a runoff. Her success has also prompted a new line of attack from foes, including Reed, who have accused her of being a closet Republican in a Democratic-leaning city.

Norwood responded with a TV ad saying she had voted for Obama, Sen. John F. Kerry, Al Gore, President Clinton and independent Ross Perot.

Clark, the roofer, said he was worried that Norwood might indeed be a Republican. That, he said, was the only reason he remained undecided.

--

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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