Atlanta mayoral candidates appeal to gay vote
A neck-and-neck mayoral runoff pitting a black man against a white woman has spurred some intense discussions about race and politics in the South’s most important city.
But in recent days, the two campaigns have also turned their attention to a demographic beyond race that may ultimately sway Tuesday’s election: the gay vote.
The support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community has been a coveted political prize for some time in Atlanta, a bastion of live-and-let-live progressivism in the heart of the more censorious Bible Belt.
But the wooing of LGBT voters here has become particularly intense since the Nov. 3 general election, when Councilwoman Mary Norwood and former state Sen. Kasim Reed earned spots in the mayoral runoff.
“I cannot recall a mayor’s race when there’s been so much attention placed on the gay and lesbian vote,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest gay rights group.
“All of a sudden, overnight, it’s like an unbelievable push [to prove] who’s gayer,” added Glen Paul Freedman, chief of staff for City Council President Lisa Borders.
Eleven days after the November vote, Norwood -- who would be the first white mayor of Atlanta since the 1970s -- was outside the state Capitol for a rally protesting Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay-marriage measure. She told the crowd she had sent a donation to the forces fighting Prop. 8, and called herself “the only mayoral candidate who supports full marriage equality.”
A rainbow flag icon is now featured prominently on Norwood’s campaign website; it links to a page reminding viewers that “each person in a couple” can contribute $1,200 to a candidate in the runoff.
Her rival, Reed -- a favorite of Atlanta’s civil rights establishment who favors gay civil unions, not marriage -- has touted his pro-gay-rights record in the Legislature, where he sponsored a hate crimes bill that extended protections to gays.
Reed, in a recent televised debate, attacked Norwood for missing a City Council vote on a measure to extend pension benefits to domestic partners of city employees.
“I think it’s great that they’re paying attention to our issues,” said Philip Rafshoon, founder and general manager of Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse, in the heart of the heavily gay Midtown neighborhood. “And I think this community will hold their feet to the fire on those issues.”
The attention being lavished on gay voters has something to do with sheer numbers: It’s estimated that Atlanta has the third-largest percentage of gay, lesbian and bisexual residents among large U.S. cities; they make up about 12.8% of the city population, according to a 2006 report by the UCLA law school’s Williams Institute, which researches sexual-orientation issues.
In the runoff, gay turnout will probably get a boost from an openly gay candidate, Alex Wan, who is running for a council seat in a large, politically active district that includes Midtown.
A lesbian, Simone Bell, is also running for an Atlanta-based seat in the state House of Representatives.
Political consultant Angelo Fuster noted that gay Atlantans, who are seen as motivated voters, will be particularly valuable this time around, given an anticipated low overall turnout in the runoff.
“They’ll go back and vote no matter what,” Fuster said.
To longtime observers of the scene here, watching Reed and Norwood openly seek out gay voters is a reminder that it was not always so. In the 1970s, Rafshoon recalled, the only candidates who went to gay bars to campaign “were the ones that were really in trouble, the ones who were really stretching to get votes.”
Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor, is widely credited with fostering Atlanta’s more tolerant attitude toward homosexuality, although his path was sometimes a rocky one: After Jackson proclaimed a “Gay Pride Day” celebration in 1976, conservatives took out critical newspaper ads and called for his resignation.
The next year, Jackson played it safer, issuing a proclamation for a “Human Rights Week.”
But as Atlanta’s gay community grew, it grew more politically powerful and sophisticated, helping elect the first openly gay member of the council in 1997.
Gays were also credited with helping sink the statewide campaigns of politicians with whom they disagreed: In 1992, Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler lost significant gay support after siding with conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) on a number of issues of interest to the gay community, eventually losing his seat, according to historians Steve Endean and Vicki Eaklor.
Today, Graham said, Atlanta’s LGBT community is divided over the two choices for mayor.
He said Norwood may have an edge, given her full support of marriage rights. Even though Atlanta’s mayor can have little effect on the state’s ban on gay marriage -- passed by 76% of voters in a 2004 referendum -- many gays say that the mayor nonetheless has a powerful bully pulpit.
The mayor will have real effects on gay life here, including the selection of a new police chief (Chief Richard Pennington has announced he’ll retire). That decision has gained importance to gays in the wake of the controversial raid of a gay nightclub, the Atlanta Eagle, in September.
But Freedman, a Reed supporter, said that the two candidates have made such strong promises to the gay community that it is difficult to tell their platforms apart.
A number of gay voters said they were making their choices based on issues that go beyond the gay community, such as the city’s troubled finances, transportation, taxes and crime.
“Public safety -- I want public safety for everybody,” said voter Ruben Brown, 28. “Gay, lesbian, I don’t care. Nobody should be afraid to come out of their own house.”