A block away from the tattoo parlors, dive bars and record shops of Little Five Points sits the unlikeliest of campaign headquarters.
Bean bags instead of couches crowd the living room. Original works by folk-trash collagist Grant Henry and pop-retro illustrator Arge hang on the walls. A disco ball dangles from the ceiling of the den, and the main hallway looks as if a tagger was told to go to town.
Cross-legged at a computer answering emails, updating his Facebook page, and inquiring about debates and candidate forums is Kyle Keyser, the 36-year-old openly gay community activist, filmmaker and agent provocateur who surprised political observers with his Sept. 2 announcement that he's running to become the next mayor of Atlanta.
Most pundits and political scientists are quick to point out that the odds of overcoming front-runners Lisa Borders, Mary Norwood and Kasim Reed (and, to a lesser extent, Jesse Spikes) — candidates with more experience, cash and support — are slim. But maybe that's besides the point. The true test of Keyser's success could very well be his ability to change the dialogue of the race and its political dynamics from now until the Nov. 3 election.
The backbone of Keyser's campaign — perhaps the one issue on which he has any authority — is crime. After the January murder of Grant Park bartender John Henderson, fed-up residents demanded that City Hall pay attention to Atlanta's growing crime problem. Keyser — himself a victim of multiple home break-ins and a mugging at gunpoint — later co-founded Atlantans Together Against Crime, or ATAC, a grassroots organization that’s held monthly rallies throughout the city to raise public-safety awareness and push for an end to police officer furloughs. The group, which surged to nearly 7,000 Facebook members in less than nine months, sounded a clarion call for City Hall and Atlanta Police officials and made Keyser the poster child for grassroots community engagement.
Over the next seven weeks, Keyser will try to build on that message in an ambitious — and nearly impossible — effort to catch up to his competitors. It's more likely, however, that he'll be able to energize a younger voting base and get the candidates to more deeply address the issues that matter to them. Keyser plans to reach out to college students at Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University, two campuses recently rocked by the killing at nearby Spelman College of sophomore Jasmine Lynn. He'll also soon hold voter registration drives at Georgia Tech, where muggings and assaults have surged in recent months.
It was Keyser’s ability to get people involved in the political process — in addition to a general frustration with the front-runners’ messages — that spurred Kyle Bailey, former political director of LGBT advocacy group Georgia Equality, to help him with his campaign. Bailey concedes that one of the front-runners ultimately will be elected mayor, but says that Keyser, whom he considers “the next generation of progressive leadership in Atlanta,” can play a vital role in shaping the discussion.
"I think he can add a depth and quality to that debate that'll push the other candidates to take stronger positions. Or step outside the political lingo and start talking about these issues in ways that resonate with people,” Bailey says.
Andra Gillespie, an associate political science professor at Emory University, says the bulk of Keyser's supporters are likely to be "urban pioneers" — young, highly educated people who've recently moved into gentrifying neighborhoods that have experienced high-profile crimes. (That demographic is among the voting blocs being courted by at-large Councilwoman Mary Norwood.)
But to reach them, Gillespie says, Keyser will have to expand his platform, win the support of the city’s community leaders, and raise a substantial amount of cash.
“That's difficult to do with seven weeks in the election,” Gillespie says. “He'll change the dialogue and discussion, but he's not going to change the outcome of the election.”
But Matt Towery, CEO of polling and news service InsiderAdvantage, says the front-runners shouldn’t underestimate the Keyser campaign’s potential to woo ballot casters, particularly young and gay voters.
Towery also says that Keyser's candidacy could be a factor in an almost-guaranteed runoff, particularly if he nibbles from the voting base that might otherwise go for Norwood, who's leading in the polls but is well shy of the 50 percent needed to win the race outright. The community activist might lack cash and political experience, Towery says, but he has a strong grassroots and online network. (Keyser says he'll distance himself from ATAC — and possibly ask organizers not to conduct rallies — so as not to create any appearance of impropriety.)
"If he can convert even 50 percent — and that would be a pretty strong number — of the people he has online into votes, then that would be enough to move several percentage points away from someone else," Towery says. "Every point someone picks up, they're pulling it away from someone. And that makes them a player in this race."
Keyser is also likely to win votes from the city’s LGBT community, a group of voters that might otherwise gravitate toward City Council President Borders and state Sen. Reed, one of whom will likely face Norwood in a runoff. While the four leading candidates were busy fielding questions at a Sept. 13 public safety debate sponsored by the Atlanta Police Foundation and WSB-TV, Keyser — who wasn’t invited to the event — was at a rally protesting last week's controvesial police raid on the intown gay bar Atlanta Eagle.
Keyser acknowledges the campaign will be an uphill battle. In contrast to his opponents, nearly all of whom boast long political resumes and experience with complicated municipal issues, he is a novice when it comes to the day-to-day operations of local government. Instead, he’ll have to focus on an issue that his opponents have already called one of the top two dilemmas facing Atlanta: improving public safety. (The other is the budget.) His platform also focuses on fostering a more transparent government.
"For the public, it's sort of rolling the dice no matter how you look at it," Keyser says. "On the one side, you have the experienced establishment. Arguably, they're capable of changing things. But will they? And then you have the outsider candidate, who obviously has the vision and leadership qualities to do it. But can he?"
And if voters aren’t convinced, he says, he at least wants his community members to see that an outsider can get involved in their city and bring about actual change.
“I want this to be the moment in Atlanta's history where people look back and say, ‘Wow, it really changed. City government started working for people, and there was enough will and leadership to finally do all the things we've been talking about.'"
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