As the Atlanta mayoral election draws closer, political experts and former mayors believe Buckhead’s status as a business community and boldness in making demands means the community will play an important role as city voters choose a successor to Mayor Kasim Reed.
But, despite changing demographics and candidates with strong roots in Buckhead, the community is still anybody’s for the taking if they are willing to work for it, said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor.
During Shirley Franklin’s tenure as mayor from 2002 to 2010, she learned Buckhead residents are demanding about improvements they want to see in their community.
Those improvements are often similar to what the rest of the city wants, she said, using the “Buckhead to Bankhead” comparison, a phrase that is meant to compare two very different communities in racial demographics and wealth. Buckhead is wealthier and has a larger white population than most of the city, according to U.S. Census data and the Atlanta Regional Commission, which plays into its role in elections.
Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, now the president of the Buckhead Coalition, said Buckhead is vital to the success of Atlanta and candidates would be wrong not to vie for its support.
“Obviously, we play a very key role in development of the city,” Massell said.
Buckhead represents about 20 percent of Atlanta’s population, but contributes about 45 percent of the city’s tax revenue, Massell said. That makes the community vital to the city’s success, he said.
The business community is the heart of Buckhead and it feels an “important responsibility to seek out the best people to lead the city,” said Massell, who heads a business coalition in Buckhead.
The business community in Buckhead will be looking to protect itself, Massell said, and, in doing so, protect the whole city. “We’ve got a great thing going in Buckhead and that makes all of Atlanta great,” Massell said.
Massell, whose coalition has formed a political action committee to vet mayoral candidates and will ultimately endorse one, said he is looking for a candidate to address Buckhead’s main problems with specific proposed solutions.
“The main three concerns of Buckhead are taxes, traffic and crime, not in that order,” Massell said. “Candidates need to provide more than generics on how they’ll address those. They need specific policy recommendations and to really give them thought,” he said.
Franklin said that when she was mayor, Buckhead residents’ input was one way she learned what issues she needed to tackle. Massell and Charlie Loudermilk, the influential Aaron’s, Inc. founder and philanthropist, also would call with advice and as Buckhead advocates.
Most Buckhead issues she ended up addressing might not have been on her “Top Five List” of topics when she began running for the mayor’s office, she said, but she took advantage of Buckhead’s input when crafting policy. Buckhead issues she dealt with included crime, sewer leaks, public parks and nightclubs that stayed open late into the night and brought crime.
Franklin recalled a neighborhood meeting in Buckhead held shortly after she was elected. Someone shouted out on the issue of transportation, “If you do what the community wants, next election we might for vote you.”
“Here I am, first-time mayor and he’s threatening me for the [next] election,” Franklin said, as she laughed at the memory. “That’s my welcome. Buckhead taught me not to take myself so seriously.”
Franklin said not every community was that bold in demanding what they want, but they all feel the same way, and they often have common interests.
While all candidates have their neighborhood roots, Franklin said, it would have been unethical to direct resources to her area, southwest Atlanta, with favoritism. She believes citizens would agree, she said.
“I just don’t think that’s the kind of leadership Atlanta has ever looked for,” Franklin said.
Massell agrees that Buckhead will not look for special treatment, but instead for a mayor with “integrity, the temperament to be a mayor and who is passionate about the responsibility of the mayor’s office.”
Gillespie said because some candidates call Buckhead home — including Peter Aman and Mary Norwood — others will be working hard to also be seen as competitive there. In the runoff for the 2009 mayoral election, Norwood beat Reed at every Buckhead precinct, but she lost the election citywide by around 700 votes, according to the Fulton County Board of Elections.
The mayoral race has attracted a crowded field of at least 18 candidates. Massell said he fully expects a run-off election between the two candidates who get the most votes during the Nov. 7 election.
“I don’t remember any period where we’ve had so many credible candidates,” Massell said.
As one of the more Republican areas in Atlanta, as shown in 2016 presidential election voting, Buckhead voters could coalesce around candidates who they feel share their viewpoints, Gillespie said.
Gillespie also said it is early in the race and many still are determining who they want to see as mayor.
Franklin said she feels the same way. “It says to me that it’s anybody’s race,” Franklin said of the number of candidates with significant fundraising or other support.
Norwood leads in recent polls, but other candidates appear to be organizing strongly and have records of winning important elections, Franklin said.
They include Ceasar Mitchell, the current Atlanta City Council president, and John Eaves, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners chairman, she said.
Because some candidates who are white have polled well, some take it as a sign Atlantans may choose the city’s first white mayor since Massell’s election in 1970. But Gillespie said that early polls are not that significant. “I wouldn’t look at the current poll standings as evidence Atlanta’s next mayor will be white,” she said.
Buckhead is also becoming more diverse. Since 2000, the African American population in Buckhead has increased from 6 to 12 percent, according to 2010 census data. The white population decreased from 83 to 76 percent over the same time.
But there are some factors that could lead to electing a white mayor, Gillespie said. The view that a black mayor will heal or soften racial divides may be waning, said Gillespie, who specializes in African American politics.
“People may be less invested in believing the optics of having a black mayor are important,” she said.
Massell said he was partly elected to heal racial divides in 1970, but feels race is not as much of an issue today as it has been in the past. “I don’t it’s very important to single out as an issue,” Massell said.
When Massell was first elected, racial divides were seen as the main issue that needed to be addressed, he said.
“It was not a question of being able to promise mass transit, but to address frictions racial divides created,” he said.
–Evelyn Andrews and John Ruch