Atlanta’s mayoral election has attracted a crowd of candidates this year, and leading in the polls is a familiar name for city residents. City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who lost her 2009 bid for the mayorship to current Mayor Kasim Reed, is taking another run at the office.
Norwood has attracted considerable local attention over the years due to her frequent appearances at civic events, and for her refusal to choose a party affiliation—Atlanta’s mayoral election is a nonpartisan race. Additionally, in order for a candidate to win outright, they must get more than half of the vote during the election in November. If no candidate wins outright, a runoff election between the top-two vote-getters takes place the following month.
Here’s what you need to know about Mary Norwood:
1. Norwood Ran for Mayor in 2009 & Lost to Kasim Reed in the Runoff Election by Just 714 Votes
This is not Norwood’s first bid for the position of mayor—in 2009, she lost to opponent (and current incumbent) Kasim Reed in the runoff election by a painful margin of just 714 votes after a campaign that cost $600,000 in the runoff alone.
It was “a heartbreaker,” she told Atlanta Magazine earlier this year of the slim margin, which prompted her to request a recount under Georgia law. The recount cost Reed only one vote.
Norwood had intended to make a bid for Fulton County chairperson just four months after her defeat, but missed a deadline and was not ultimately able to run for the seat. She did, however, win re-election to the City Council in 2013, where she currently represents Atlanta at-large.
Norwood’s first foray into politics came in 1990 when she led the Tuxedo Park Civic Association’s bid to win protection as a historic district. A decade later, Norwood rallied her neighbors in Buckhead against a new sewer project the city had slated to be built next to the neighborhood soccer fields. The crusade eventually turned into her first successful campaign for city council.
During an event at the Center for Civic Innovation in March of this year, Norwood talked about how, during her first term in office, a state-funded program that provided jobs to the homeless was canceled after city officials had failed to file the proper paperwork on time.
“That was the turning point when I said, ‘I will put myself through this,'” she said, and her career in public service was born.
2. She Has Battled Accusations That She Is a Republican, but Is Ranked “Leaning Democrat” by the Georgia Democratic Party’s Voter Tracking System
“I’m purple,” Norwood said of her party affiliation during 2009’s mayoral race, which, in Atlanta, is nonpartisan.
A few weeks before the 2009 primary election, The Democratic Party of Georgia sent mailers to black communities in Atlanta accusing Norwood of being a Republican. The city councilwoman had “an elephant in the room,” it said.
“Voted for Republicans 70% of the time – Her television ads try to hide the real facts, but since 1992 Norwood has voted for Republican candidates 70% of the time. She was even a delegate to the Republican convention. We can’t trust her as Mayor,” read the mailer, on which the Georgia Democratic Party reportedly spent $165,000.
Though Georgia is technically an open primary state, meaning voters do not need to be a registered member to vote in a party’s election, they can nonetheless only cast a ballot in one party’s primary each election cycle.
According to an in-depth investigation by Atlanta Progressive News in 2009, Norwood has voted in Democratic primary elections with regularity since 1998—she voted in the Democratic presidential primary in 2008 and 2004, and has publicly stated that in those years, her vote went to Barack Obama and John Kerry respectively.
In 2006, she also voted in the Democratic Party’s primary elections. But, in 2004, her primary ballot went to the Republicans. According to then-campaign manager Roman Levit, Norwood voted Republican that year because of a competitive primary race in her local legislative district where no Democrats were running for office.
She also voted in Republican primaries in 2000 and 1998, which Levit says was “to try to elect the most moderate candidate in that particular election.” He went on to add that Norwood primarily voted in Republican primaries during the 1990s.
The 2009 “elephant in the room” mailer, however, did not just speak of her voting record, but also her campaign finance record: “Norwood’s campaign is financed by the same Republican money men who funded John McCain’s hate-filled campaign against Barack Obama, and who have given to George Bush, the Republican National Committee, Sonny Perdue and the Georgia Republican Party,” read one side of the mailer.
“I’m sure it’s referring to people on the [Norwood campaign financial disclosure] report who’ve given money to Republicans too. Everyone’s got people on their disclosure who’ve given money to Republicans,” said Levit.
Atlanta Progressive News also discovered that the Georgia Democratic Party’s own voter database listed Norwood as “Leaning Democrat” as of the 2009 election. The ranking system is based on the Democratic National Committee’s proprietary algorithm.
Norwood did attend the Georgia Republican Convention as a delegate in 1999, but also went to the Florida Democratic Convention later that year. She claims she was there to market a robo-calling system for her new company, for which she still serves as president, and has been public about her distaste for the Republican event.
“There seemed to be two agendas. Evidentally [sic] in all these party politics, there’s stuff that goes on on the floor and there’s stuff that goes on in the back room,” said Norwood of the experience. “Just because you go on a date with someone doesn’t mean you’re gonna marry them,” she told APN.
Claims that Norwood has secret Republican sympathies have resurfaced with a vengeance during this election cycle: The Georgia Democratic Party recently launched “marytherepublican.com,” a website that details Norwood’s various connections to individuals associated with the Republican Party. The site slams her for refusing to endorse Democrat Jon Ossof’s unsuccessful U.S. House campaign earlier this year, and features a photograph of her with Ossof’s Republican opponent, Congresswoman Karen Handel.
Norwood’s campaign has retaliated by saying that the city council woman enjoys bipartisan support, and that’s a good thing, pointing out campaign staff and donors with deep ties to the Democratic Party.
“Democrats and Republicans both know her to be the only candidate they can trust to shepherd our city government into a new era of transparency, trust, and fiscal responsibility,” said a spokesperson for her campaign.
3. During Her Three Terms in City Council, She Has Been Viewed as a People’s Politician, but Critics Say She Lacks Political Savvy
“We’ve had a sewer mayor, a real estate mayor. I want to be the community mayor,” Norwood told Atlanta Magazine this year for an editorial piece on her campaign.
The editorial referred to her as a “tireless campaigner, practicing the kind of retail politics that seem more practical in a city a tenth our size,” pointing out such occasions where constituents have publicly thanked her for her willingness to involve herself in the minutia of day-to-day Atlanta life.
“At an event in Midtown a physician thanks her for being the only person at City Hall to return his call about a dangerous tree near his property. When the doctor adds that he’s having problems getting registered to vote, Norwood gives him the phone number for the chair of the Fulton County elections board,” the editorial continued.
For her part, Norwood self-styles as a political outsider, eschewing partisan affiliations and electing to campaign among neighborhoods instead of targeting Atlanta’s business community.
Her campaign website includes an impressive list of her legislative accomplishments, including increased pay for public safety workers, more fiscal transparency, and the establishment of several police task forces.
Critics have called her approach short-sighted, claiming that she lacks the ability to create allies in and garner support from her fellow elected officials.
Fellow City Council member Yolanda Adrean, who has endorsed Norwood’s opponent Peter Aman in this year’s mayoral race, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Mary’s done a great job being an advocate for neighborhoods. But [being mayor] is a broader job than that. It’s more significant to the region, even.”
But Norwood has fought back against the idea that her micro approach to her position would translate poorly into a leadership, and so have those who support her. When the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers announced its endorsement of Norwood, Ken Allen, its former president, wrote: “Mary Norwood’s ability to cross lines in each community is a tremendous asset. She genuinely understands that there are different needs in different communities. She’s perceptive. She notices and addresses the issues people care about that impact their daily lives.”
4. If Elected, She Would Be Atlanta’s First White Mayor Since 1974
Michael Leo Owens, a politics professor at Emory University, has said that Norwood’s success in 2009, and her current strong lead in the polls, perhaps reflect a growing white electorate in a city with a strong black culture that has elected a black mayor in every election for over four decades.
“It would be a major game change in this town if a Buckhead Betty became mayor,” former newspaper columnist Tom Houck told The New York Times. A “Buckhead Betty” is slang for white, upper-class women that hail from Atlanta’s wealthy Buckhead neighborhood. “Atlanta is a symbol for black Americans, more than Los Angeles, more than Chicago, more than Baltimore,” Houck added.
In the 2009 mayoral race, black voters were initially divided in support of several candidates, but in the last months of the campaign, the black community surged behind Kasim Reed after he promised to hire more police officers and reopen community recreation centers to combat the city’s growing crime rate.
His victory was, in large part, due to this racial divide: Reed won the voters in Atlanta’s poorer, predominantly black precincts on the Southside, while Norwood enjoyed an outpouring of support from the more prosperous white neighborhoods in the north.
Democrats have criticized Norwood for failing to take a strong position on racial issues, which she has often glossed over with calls for the city’s various neighborhoods to work together. “[She] ran as if we live in post-racial Atlanta,” said Owen back in 2009, adding that the results of that election proved that the racial divides were alive and powerful.
Owens told The New York Times that he estimated Norwood had carried about 20 percent of the black vote during the general election, but just 15 percent in the runoff with Reed.
Norwood recently came under fire for failing to take a strong stance against racial profiling during a candidate forum sponsored by Georgia STAND-UP. In a series of yes-or-no questions directed at all the candidates together, Norwood did not immediately raise her hand in agreement with the statement that racial profiling is a problem in Atlanta. She first tried to qualify her answer, but did eventually respond in the affirmative after being pressed by the forum moderator.
Her hesitance, she later said in a statement, was “born out of showing deference and support for our APD officers who, to my knowledge, have not had reportedly high incidents of profiling.” She then promised zero tolerance for racial profiling if elected mayor:
In no way was I suggesting that racial profiling isn’t prevalent throughout the country.
I certainly believe that Black lives matter, as I indicated without hesitation. I do not condone any forms of racial profiling or discrimination. …
While there are bad officers who have committed wrongful acts and consequently have eroded the public trust, there are many good officers who work very hard to uphold their oath and duty to protect our citizens and not harm them.
“Dr. King said we should be evaluated on who we are, not what we look like,” Norwood chided during a 2009 interview on the subject, a sentiment she has often revisited during her 2017 campaign.
5. A Roman Catholic, She Is Married to a Retired Pediatrician & Has Two Step Kids
Norwood was born into a Roman Catholic family in Augusta, Georgia, and studied history at Emory University, graduating in 1974. She started work as a secretary at a now-closed radio network in Atlanta called Rounsaville, and within a few years was in charge of seven radio stations.
She was married and divorced by age 26, and in 1979, an (also divorced) aunt threw a luncheon with the express purpose of finding her niece a new husband. It was there she met Felton Norwood, a retired pediatrician to whom she’s been married since 1983.
Felton Norwood is one of the “founding fathers” of Piedmont Pediatrics, a successful medical practice serving Atlanta’s wealthy Buckhead neighborhood. He already had two children when he and Mary met, and the couple did not have any children of their own.
Norwood’s stepdaughter, Dorsey, is also a pediatrician based in East Point, and her stepson, Palmer, lives in Chattanooga, TN, and has held a variety of positions in property management and sales.
In 2009, Dorsey spoke publicly on behalf of her stepmother’s campaign in an op-ed for Project Q Atlanta:
Mary has always supported me. In a recent Southern Voice article, where Mary is quoted as saying that her response to my coming out [as gay] was that it was “grand,” she wasn’t lying. I was so relieved that Mary was so accepting of me. She has continued that acceptance and love over the years. Recently, she has welcomed my partner Melody into our family.
Dorsey further championed her stepmother’s staunch defense of gay rights and commitment to bettering the city, calling Norwood “anything but status quo. She’s had the courage to butt heads with folks in the city her entire life while trying to make Atlanta work for everyone.”
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