Two same-day turning points in the race for mayor of Atlanta

The year has barely begun. Even so, Wednesday could produce a pair of turning points in the 2017 race for mayor of Atlanta.

Eight of the top candidates will make their first side-by-side debut at an invitation-only Buckhead Coalition lunch. The audience will be small – the room will hold only 180 or so. It will also be largely white, monied, and more than slightly Republican.

Gift bags for the candidates will include a copy of Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.” The paperback edition.

Elsewhere in the city, at about 4 p.m., a more somber note will be struck. That’s when E.R. Mitchell Jr., 63, owner of a prominent construction company, is scheduled to make an appearance before a federal judge.

Mitchell is expected to plead guilty to paying more than $1 million in bribes to secure city of Atlanta contracts. Sentencing is likely to be delayed, while Mitchell works with prosecutors to build cases against the recipient, or recipients, of his cash blandishments.

Don’t kid yourself. Should Mitchell name names, an already unpredictable mayoral race could be pitched into a blender and pureed.

Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell, 89, himself a former mayor of Atlanta, selected the members of Wednesday’s beauty pageant. In alphabetical order: Peter Aman, a former chief operating officer at City Hall; Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms; state Sen. Vincent Fort; Councilman Kwanza Hall; Council President Ceasar Mitchell; Councilwoman Mary Norwood; Michael Sterling, former head of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency; and former council president Cathy Woolard.

Each candidate will be asked two questions. The second may be most important: “What makes it more likely that you will be the one elected?” Massell expects each to name the blocks of support — white and black, Republican and Democrat, gay and straight — that will push him or her over the 50 percent mark.

Over lunch last week, Massell gave Mitchell, the current council president, the early lead — but with a strong caveat. “[Mayor Kasim Reed] is going to play a key role, in my opinion. And he’s got three people in the race. At least,” Massell said. Mitchell isn’t one of them.

The Buckhead Coalition president is a status quo man. He likes Reed’s eight-year track record. “Considering what a mayor can do, considering the state of affairs of the country, I’d say we’re in excellent shape,” he said. “Now, we’ve got pitfalls and problems and shortcomings, but ours are much less, much smaller — and are being addressed.”

Massell said he is most pleased with the pending annexation of Emory University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into the city — and the construction of a new MARTA rail line into the DeKalb County complexes. “To take Buckhead’s wealth and leadership and make it available to the scientific and academic leadership of the CDC and Emory — that’s just the best move you can possibly make,” he said.

Kasim Reed didn’t begin his mayoral tenure as Buckhead’s candidate. But they’ve grown on each other. Last year, Reed was the face of MARTA’s bid to raise the city sales tax by a half-penny — to fund its rail expansion. It made sense.

Polling conducted in September by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, the firm Reed has used throughout his two terms, showed that, despite the mayor’s rough relationship with the press, he had remained highly popular with voters – with a 70 percent approval rating. In Buckhead, that favorability rating rose to 80 percent.

Public perception of city services had flipped from 61 percent negative in 2009 to 68 percent positive in 2016. The city’s reputation for fighting crime had been rehabilitated, according to the poll.

And for the first time since 2009, more voters viewed the “ethics and integrity” of City Hall positively than negatively, the poll showed.

“Economically, we’re in good shape. Morally, we’re in good shape,” Massell said. I asked him whether he was speaking of corruption.

“Yes,” he replied. “Plus the cooperation between our white and black communities. It’s much better than in other cities. Diversification is handled very smoothly in Atlanta. And that’s not by accident.”

Our lunch was last Tuesday. Charges against E.R. Mitchell Jr. were announced the next day.

The mayor of Atlanta has emphasized that his office is cooperating with federal authorities. There’s been no hint that the scandal touches Reed personally.

But it’s easy to imagine how a corruption investigation unfolding in the midst of a mayoral campaign could change the traditional dynamics of an Atlanta contest.

Of the eight candidates to Sam Massell’s Buckhead bash, five are African-American and three are white. The normal routine would be to calculate which white candidate and which black one might meet in a runoff.

But a high-profile bribery probe adds a new dimension to the calculus. A status quo election that stays Reed’s course, as Massell and others might want, becomes more difficult to pull off.

Four candidates have current, direct connections to City Hall. Aman, as chief operating officer, was a top manager during two of the five years Mitchell’s illegal activity is alleged to have occurred.

The two candidates without direct City Hall connections, Fort and Woolard, had already begun casting themselves as outsiders critical of Reed’s administration. Two weeks ago, given the September poll we mentioned above, that strategy was questionable.

But that could change in the next little while.

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