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In Atlanta, politics never as simple as it seems

August 31, 2009 — A member of the group which made headlines last week with the release of a memo encouraging blacks to rally around a single African-American candidate in the Atlanta mayor’s race said Sunday she supports City Council member Mary Norwood, the front-running white candidate who is the target of the memo.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Kasim Reed’s campaign is releasing today an internal poll which has Reed in a statistical dead heat with City Council President Lisa Borders. That would be a significant improvement over the recent InsiderAdvantage poll, which had Norwood and Borders running neck-and-neck, with Reed a distant third.

Joyce Dorsey, head of the non-profit Fulton Atlanta Community Action Authority, said she agreed with many of the ideas in the memo, which first surfaced last week on the Newsmakers Journal website published by James H. Welcome. She said it was understandable that black Atlantans would want to continue to have “representation that reflects the group,” and would prefer an African-American candidate, comparing this to the energetic support of Latinos for the confirmation of US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

However, Dorsey said, “I just don’t find a Mary Norwood in the other candidates.”

Dorsey said both the city and Fulton County governments have become “quite unresponsive” to the interests of the low-income residents for whom she is an advocate, and that she believes Norwood is the candidate “who is really going to look after my people.”

She said the Black Leadership Forum, the group identified with the memo, has not formally endorsed any candidate, and hinted other members of the group also support candidates other than Borders, described in the memo which circulated last week as “the best black candidate in the race who has a chance to win the election because she can attract downtown white support.”

“The minds of Atlantans are growing more and more diverse,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey’s support for Norwood underscores the fact that city politics in Atlanta is usually more complicated than first meets the eye.

Although he has denied authorship, the memo has been widely attributed to businessman and former Maynard Jackson protege Aaron Turpeau, who organized forums with the candidates for the Black Leadership Forum last month at Cascade United Methodist Church and is an acknowledged supporter of Lisa Borders. (Since its publication, Turpeau has attributed authorship to two Clark Atlanta professors.) According to several of those who attended, including two of the candidates, the forum interviewed Borders and Reed separately, and the following week met with Norwood, Jesse Spikes and Glenn Thomas in a group setting.

Dorsey praised Turpeau as “a mighty warrior” for African-American interests in the city, but said he “might have been premature” in representing the group as having reached a consensus around any candidate.

Dorsey and others familiar with the Black Leadership Forum characterized it as much less of a formal group than it has been depicted in press accounts. It consists of about 60 black leaders, most of whom were associated with the Maynard Jackson machine in its heyday.

One of those who attended the first forum characterized the group as “a group of folks who were fairly prominent in their day,” and called the Borders endorsement “really a fight for relevance more than anything else.”

Thomas, interviewed after Saturday’s Atlanta Urban League Young Professional’s forum at Grady High School, described the group as “the southwest side power brokers.”
“But Atlanta’s changed, so the power brokers don’t have the clout they once had,” Thomas said.

Nevertheless, by overtly introducing race into the discussion about the upcoming election, the memo had a dramatic impact on media coverage of the race. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which heretofore has treated the mayor’s race as a down-page story, led the paper twice in recent days with stories about the memo and its impact, and the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times have published stories about it.

The memo argues that black voters should consolidate in support of Borders in order to avoid a runoff with Norwood, noting that “the most recent polling data suggests that the other black candidates are falling further behind...” That’s a reference to the Aug. 17 InsiderAdvantage poll, which showed Norwood with 30 percent, followed closely by Borders at 28 percent with Reed trailing at 8 percent.

Reed’s campaign is set to release today a poll of 580 Atlanta voters which also has Reed running third, but much closer to Borders. It was conducted by Cornell Belcher, head of the Washington firm Brilliant Corners Research and Strategy, who was one of the pollsters for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

The Reed campaign poll has Norwood with 33 percent, followed by Borders with 19 percent, and with Reed in a statistical tie with Borders at 16 percent. The poll has an error factor of plus-or-minus four percent.

Tharon Johnson, Reed’s campaign manager, said the internal poll, conducted last week, shows that Reed’s name ID is “increasing significantly.” Reed now holds a slight lead over Borders among African-American voters, with Norwood holding a solid lead among white voters, with Borders second and Reed third. Reed has doubled his numbers among both white and black voters over an internal poll taken a month ago, Johnson said.

“He’s moving up in the numbers and has got a lot of momentum,” Johnson said.

   
   

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