Mayoral candidates in 2009 will face a changed city demographic

It's quite likely that, for most Atlanta residents, the name of Sidney Marcus rings a bell only as a cut-through street linking Piedmont Road and Ga. 400.

But like most people with public thoroughfares named after them, Marcus had a claim to local fame – two, actually. In addition to having been a well-regarded veteran of the state Legislature, Marcus was the last Great White Hope of Atlanta mayoral politics. In 1981, he battled then-Mayor Andrew Young to a runoff, which the former lieutenant of Martin Luther King Jr. won with 60 percent of the vote.

In the seven contests for mayor since then, there hasn't been another credible white candidate for the city's top post.

That's almost certain to change for the 2009 city elections. For starters, we're in the midst of a building boom, with young, mostly white, newcomers flooding into the city. As new condo towers rise in Buckhead, Midtown and downtown, Atlanta is undergoing its most extreme demographic change in a generation. In 2000, the city was 61 percent black; by the end of the decade, it may have a white majority.

Already, three potentially formidable candidates have dropped hints of plans they hope to be the first white mayor since Sam Massell took office in 1969 – and the smart money says at least one of them will run.

The big question is, when it comes to electing Atlanta's next mayor, does race really matter that much anymore?

"The next mayor's race will be about competence, not color," says City Council President Lisa Borders, so far the only announced candidate, who recently stepped down as VP at Cousins Properties.

She may be right. After nearly a decade of suffering through Bill Campbell's cronyism and racial divisiveness, Atlanta has gotten to see what it's like to have a mayor – in Shirley Franklin – who's amply capable, businesslike and politically inclusive. It's doubtful that the city would backslide into electing another mayor – black or white – who appeals only to one racial constituency.

And yet ...

Choosing his words carefully, Councilman Howard Shook of Buckhead has an interesting, and persuasive, theory about the next mayor's race. You could call it the "reverse-Obama phenomenon."

"The moment a viable white candidate appears, it'll stir an enthusiasm in some areas of the city," he says. "I think it's benign, but there's a latent demand out there that's laid dormant for many years. A segment of the population feels like it's been shut out of the running for the mayor's office."

Shook isn't advocating for a white mayor; he's merely describing the political opportunity that awaits a high-profile candidate of a certain skin tone.

This could be where a certain consumer advocate and radio talk-show host comes in.

Since CL first broke the news in May that Clark Howard was pondering a run for mayor, he says he's been overwhelmed by the encouragement he's received. "I'm just stunned by how excited people get," he says. "It's like being at your own funeral and getting to overhear people say wonderful things about you."

He hasn't seen the same kind of support, he says, from political insiders: "They tell me I'm an idiot for thinking I could get into office and make a difference, or they think I'm a lightweight."

One possible sign of Howard's political naiveté is his plan to run as an independent. Even though city posts are nonpartisan, it may be difficult for him to make it through a debate, much less a campaign, without committing himself to a party affiliation – especially when his opponents would hold up his contributions to Johnny Isakson and appearances with fellow broadcasters Neal Boortz and Sean Hannity as proof of Republican leanings.

Certainly Howard would face some very stiff, and battle-hardened, competition. Apart from Borders, who's been working hard to solidify her support in the business community, Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts, another ex-council prez and rumored candidate, is also a veteran campaigner. And there are two other potentially formidable white candidates: Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who's been busy laying the groundwork for a mayoral campaign for more than a year, and former council President Cathy Woolard, who already has an established base in Atlanta's large gay and lesbian community.

Councilman Ceasar Mitchell confirms that he, too, is likely to run. That makes at least five potential candidates with proven ability to win citywide elections, experience that shouldn't be taken lightly. No candidate will get very far who cannot skillfully bridge the gap between north and south Atlanta.

Then there's state Sen. Kasim Reed. Although hardly a household name in his hometown, the 37-year-old Reed is one of Georgia's top Democratic strategists and a well-connected attorney. As Franklin's campaign manager, he was the primary architect behind her victory over Pitts in the 2001 election.

Looking back at that race, it's tough to ignore the parallels between those two opponents and a Borders/Reed matchup. Like Pitts, Borders has better name recognition, council experience and – as an ex-exec at Cousins, the city's best-connected development firm – solid backing from the business community. The lesser-known Reed, on the other hand, inherits The Machine – or what remains of it, anyway.

As Franklin's heir apparent, he'll benefit from access to the grassroots network of get-out-the-vote activists that has helped win the mayor's office for an unbroken succession of black leaders handpicked by the late Maynard Jackson. Reed also will likely have Franklin's public backing, which boasted a perfect 7-0 record in the 2005 council races – not counting her own landslide re-election.

While Reed hasn't yet declared his candidacy, he, along with Borders and Norwood, has been highly visible at the kind of neighborhood gatherings and town hall meetings that serve to cement a political following. "I intend to announce my plans regarding the 2009 mayor's race very shortly," he says.

Because of the crowded field, there's little chance Atlanta's next mayor can win without a runoff, as Franklin did. And because black voters historically don't turn out well for runoffs, the conventional wisdom holds that a white candidate would gain a small advantage in the homestretch. Again, that could bode well for someone like Howard.

But first, he has to make up his mind.

"If you think politicos are being driven crazy by my indecisiveness, imagine how the folks at WSB and Channel 2 feel," he jokes. "I have to decide whether this is worth sacrificing everything I've achieved in my career. But being in broadcasting has given me a thick skin."