Norwood's vision for Atlanta 

The City Council's accountability champion hopes for a 'post-racial' mayoral campaign

Here's some news I betcha haven't heard. The 2009 Atlanta municipal election, according to one candidate, will be "post-racial," an event precipitated by Barack Obama's stunning redefinition of American politics. And who will be Atlanta's incarnation of Obama? One of the three likely black candidates – state Sen. Kasim Reed, City Council President Lisa Borders or Councilman Caesar Mitchell?

Um, no.

Mary Norwood, who is of the white persuasion, looked me in the eye last month and declared, "I am the Obama in this race." OK, OK, I know many of you are slapping your foreheads in astonishment, but Norwood has a point. On the other hand, she doesn't have a point.

Let's first examine why she doesn't have a point. However "minority" the white population of Atlanta may have been in recent decades, it can hardly claim to have suffered centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination and systematic impoverishment. Buckhead isn't exactly Bowen Homes.

But in other ways, Norwood makes a lot of sense. Can Atlanta get beyond race politics? The answer depends on who you are. All those youthful digerati moving into lofts and condos aren't interested in who is the "blackest candidate," the theme that dominated much of the messaging during the 2001 election, the last truly contested vote for mayor.

And the lifeblood of the city's latest resurgence – the professionals, the creative class, the entrepreneurs, the educated – was appalled by the last vitriolic outbreak of race politics whether black, white, brown, gay, straight, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, atheist or whatever else. I'm speaking of the 2006 radio spot for Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, in which Mayor Shirley Franklin, former Mayor Andy Young and Congressman John Lewis told blacks, "Your very life may depend" on not voting for a better-qualified, moderate white candidate. That's Republican-class fear mongering coming from the mouths of Democrats, and also decidedly racist.

While the nascent Buckhead secessionist movement is also arguably racist – the rich, white folks wanting to toss the rest of the city under the bus – it's also a legitimate if badly aimed response to undeniable incompetence in the city administration. That incompetence is inextricably linked to the "Maynard Machine," which has been fueled for almost four decades by the award of lucrative city business to cronies. Franklin, for example, has doggedly fought to keep the favored few firmly attached to the city's teats – and in at least one case, taxpayers are being forced to spend bundles defending bad business practices in a lawsuit.

"I have no family with city contracts," the always-feisty Norwood says, a not-so-subtle reference to Franklin's children and ex-husband, David, who have enjoyed the benefits of city deals. "I'm lucky enough to be married to a retired doctor and we have a comfortable life. I have no corporate interests with the city. I'm completely independent."

Mary Norwood is a compact, animated avatar of the neighborhood activist. She leveraged her activism into a City Council seat after she and her neighbors failed in the 1990s to get a historic-district designation for their Tuxedo Park enclave. "My parents were preservationists," Norwood says. "I'm a preservationist, and when I realized that when even we [the affluent denizens of Buckhead] couldn't get the city to be responsive, well what could all of the other citizens expect?"

Norwood lives in a two-story house, tiny for Buckhead at about 2,000 square feet. Its most distinctive decoration is a life-size oil painting of her. "Oh, that thing, it's 30 years old," she blushes. Another decoration is her battle map of the city, with tiny red dots from every corner of Atlanta representing her key supporters. "I represent a citywide district, all of the people of Atlanta," she says with a sharp nod at the map.

The most appealing part of the home is a terraced back yard -- a veritable nature preserve. One of Norwood's most popular campaigns has been to defend such areas by stopping the spread of infill McMansions.

The question for Norwood is how to be an Obama-styled reformist – which means targeting the fiscal train wreck caused by the Franklin administration – without falling into the crevice of racial politics. For that, Norwood plays her strong suit, demanding accountability of officials. She hopes that cleaning up the mess will transcend the race fault line.

There's no dispute she has led the council in demanding answers from the administration. "We were all shocked to learn of the budget shortfall and the budget-busting expenses of the operating departments over the past year," she recently wrote in the AJC. "We had passed a balanced budget. We had no prior knowledge of impending disaster. The revelations that took our citizens by surprise took us by surprise as well."

Perhaps Norwood's finest hour has been to demand that Franklin allow independent experts to keep an eye on the massive water and sewer project. There's reason for concern – aside from the fact that this is, after all, Atlanta. The $3 billion sewer project has grown to a $4 billion project in just a few years. That's a worrisome "oops."

Norwood pushed a resolution in 2004 that would have had the American Society of Civil Engineers audit the water and sewer work. The measure passed, but resolutions don't have the force of law, so the Franklin administration ignored it.

As the $140 million fiscal disaster became apparent this year, part of the administration's response has been to push for four huge annual hikes in water and sewer rates. Norwood proposed a law requiring an audit, which the council passed unanimously. Future rate hikes are linked to the council receiving the audits. The mayor came after Norwood like a low-flying missile, angrily vetoing the legislation. The council, equally angered at being blindsided by the mayor in the financial cataclysm, unanimously overrode the veto.

"I told the mayor we were overpaying, and she said we weren't," Norwood says. "No one really knows whether we are or not until we have someone independent look at the work. I cannot comprehend why the mayor would be so firmly opposed to something so sensible. When I'm mayor, you can bet that we'll have the best people involved in examining our work."

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