My Facebook feed filled up over the weekend with memes attacking Mary Norwood, which shouldn’t be shocking given the stakes in Atlanta. A tape recorded conversation emerged about her appointment to the board of elections by the Republican Party. A meme screamed that she voted for Republicans all of 12 times, with no mention of course of how many times she had voted for Democrats.
Shaun King got into the act, posting multiple hit pieces, which I found surprising.
And the Democratic Party of Georgia is now spending money — six figures it seems — to attack Mary Norwood as a crypto-Republican running for mayor of Atlanta. We can’t have Republicans in Atlanta now, can we.
I understand the DPG’s position here – it exists to support Democrats, after all. But as a member of its state committee I have to question what I believe is a serious strategic mistake that will cost the party and the public in the long run.
A friend of mine on Facebook recently described Norwood as running an “establishment Republican campaign.” Norwood happens to be pro-choice, has a stellar progressive record on gay rights issues, and is opposed to the reflexive anti-immigrant hysteria transfixing the right. She voted for Clinton last year and Barack Obama twice. Internal DPG scoring rates her as 70 percent Democrat. But she’s voted for Republicans in the past, and might in the future and thus must be a stalking horse for Donald Trump.
Look. If this person can be described as an establishment Republican, then I’m a bloody Republican.
Alternatively, Norwood has been engaged in Palpatine-level deception about her politics for more than 15 years. The question isn’t whether Norwood is a Republican. It’s why she’s not a Democrat.
And – as a Democrat – the answer to that is fairly simple. Have you seen those guys?
For all the ills of Donald Trump – and they are many, and he is a manifest threat to the republic, and to humanity – the public hates both the Democratic and Republican partiesmore. After presenting a contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last year, why shouldn’t they? The parties have devolved into mechanisms for red-team vs. blue-team shouting matches defined more by who one hates than what one stands for, designed to deafen the public to meaningful questions about policy or character.
I submit the Roy Moore debacle as evidence. The defenders of Moore are left with little to say except that nothing Moore is accused of justifies electing a Democrat. It is an empty partisan argument that still manages to appeal to 30 or 40 percent of the Alabama electorate, which is why it’s made.
We look at these things and pine for candidates who care more about the general good and making sound policy decisions than the red-blue dynamic of politics. We cry out for someone to blow up the two party system, beholden to no one but the people.
And we get … Mary Norwood?
Norwood makes political progressives’ teeth itch with the Designing Women shtick and the too-slow answer when she’s asked whether cops harass black people for no reason, and the empty noise about voter fraud. She elicits peals of outrage from rightwing trolls when she has the temerity to post pictures from attending a Hillary Clinton book talk at the Fox and talking about gay and lesbian supporters like they’re actual people.
You want to know what the middle looks like? I think that’s it. Right there.
Democrats — specifically, the black political elite of the city — have more or less counted on the city’s demography to carry them across the finish line for a generation. If Norwood wins the mayor’s race this year, there will be acts of shirt-rending and wailing about how white voters don’t vote for black candidates (the counter-example of Barack Obama notwithstanding) and how the evils of gentrification can be blamed. Never mind that Shirley Franklin and Ceasar Mitchell have given Norwood their endorsements, nor Vincent Fort’s tirade at Bottoms after the November ballot.
The party fails to understand what Atlanta means to black people here, and everywhere in America, frankly. It is the one place where the American Dream is supposed to be achievable for black people because of the strength of black culture and black business here. Black people of modest means are abandoning other cities for Atlanta, sight unseen, without jobs in hand, hoping to break into the movies or music, or just to land a job in a place where a working-class gig can pay the rent.
Instead, we have a city that has the Gini coefficient of Caracas, nearly the widest gap in racial income in the country, and the lowest income mobility in America. In a recent symposium on racialized homelessness in Atlanta, a speaker noted that the average income of a black household in the city of Atlanta is under $30,000 a year. The average for a white household is over $80,000.
The capitol of Black America — the city of Atlanta, not the region — hasn’t matched widely held expectations. Black people of means fled the city, just like white people. They moved to DeKalb, and Sandy Springs, and Gwinnett, chasing schools for their kids, like everyone else. They were replaced by white households without school-age children.
Consider that Atlanta Public Schools has about 54,000 students on a declining enrollment, in a city with about 465,000 residents — 11.6 percent. In DeKalb, with its maligned school system, there are 101,000 students in a population of 713,000 residents — 14.1 percent. In Gwinnett, it’s 179,000 out of 907,000 residents — about 20 percent.
Now, it’s one thing to hear the Republican noise machine make its thinly-veiled racist attack on black leadership — crime, corruption, and what not — while completely ignoring how white households fled integrated cities after desegregation, leaving them with big infrastructure bills and blown-up tax bases. I’m not supporting any of that garbage.
But if you’re a black voter in one of those sub-$30,000 households … well, historically, you don’t give a damn about local politics most of the time anyway, but still … you’re looking at a choice between someone the black political elite is describing in hysterical terms as Trump in drag, and a machine politician from a majority-black city council that has largely accepted the path of gentrification and displacement and weak opportunity in the city for working-class black people. It’s exactly the sort of thing that drives people to sit at home on election day.
Whatever “threat” Mary Norwood poses to your life as a black voter is difficult to distinguish from the threat of the status quo. Thus, we are left with the empty argument that she might be a Republican.
Norwood is no threat to the social issues that make progressive white people vote for Democrats. Reasonable people will compare platforms. They’ll remember who knocked on their door. They’ll min-max. The campaign by the DPG is an appeal to unreasonable people.
I legitimately do not give one wet fart about the party identification of Norwood or Bottoms, and neither do 70 percent of voters. I want to know what they’re actually planning to do.
Norwood’s take on policing issues makes me cringe, because I believe in community policing and she still talks like broken windows policing works. But I think the institutional safeguards in the police department are solid enough … now … to prevent anything truly stupid emerging in police policy. More to the point: Bottoms is also running as a traditional law-and-order candidate trying to pick off white voters in midtown, so it’s a wash. As a functional question about policy, they aren’t distinguishable on issues of public safety.
Drill down into their affordable housing platforms and anti-gentrification plans – the thing this race is actually supposed to be about – and we find separation.
Bottoms says she plans to raise $500 million in private investment, matched by $500 million in public money, to create an anti-displacement trust fund. How does she plan to do this? From whom would she raise this money? How does it get spent? If she’s said how, I can’t find it. It’s fluff, complicated greatly by the corruption issues swirling through City Hall, because no one is just going to give Atlanta $500 million for nothing, and I have to worry about what’s on the table in that discussion.
Bottoms introduced legislation last November to create “displacement free zones” across Atlanta, to prevent the eviction of low-income property owners and small businesses because of gentrification. For homeowners, this is good legislation. But the majority of working class Atlantans rent their homes, and this legislation does nothing to address their displacement.
Norwood plans to require developers to set aside affordable units in new construction. It would be achievable legislation, because it’s entirely within the powers of the office and the city. Norwood also has a well-won reputation for a prickly relationship with developers. In the context of the corruption investigation, that’s probably a good thing.
The DPG campaign does not want people drilling down into the comparative proposals of the candidates. It wants surface impressions to hold. This attitude should be the enemy of our party, but here it is, engaging in exactly the kind of politics that has led to … <silently gestures at everything.>
I don’t want to hear a word about turnout or racial voting patterns from party leaders when this is done. Not. One. Word. I want to hear how Democrats are going to make our high-flying rhetoric about inclusiveness and fighting income inequality and opportunity for all not look like manure in the eyes of the typical working-class voter. How do we make this real? Because they’re not buying what we’re selling.