A neck-and-neck mayoral runoff pitting a black man against a white woman has spurred intense discussions about race and politics in Atlanta, but the gay vote may actually sway today's election.
ATLANTA — A neck-and-neck mayoral runoff pitting a black man against a white woman has spurred 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 today’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.
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“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 if elected would become 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 now features prominently on Norwood’s campaign Web site; 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, president 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 going forward.”
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 percent of the city population, according to a 2006 report by The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation at the University of California, Los Angeles, law school.
In the runoff, gay turnout is likely to get a boost from an openly gay candidate, Alex Wan, running for a council seat in a large and politically active district that includes Midtown. A lesbian, Simone Bell, is running for an Atlanta-based seat in the state House.
Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor, is widely credited with fostering Atlanta’s more tolerant attitude toward homosexuality, although when he proclaimed a “Gay Pride Day” celebration in 1976, conservatives called for his resignation and took out critical newspaper ads.
But as Atlanta’s gay community grew, it became more politically powerful and sophisticated, helping elect the first openly gay council member 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 North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms on a number of issues of interest to the gay community. Fowler was forced into a runoff that year, and eventually lost his seat, according to historians Steve Endean and Vicki Eaklor.
Today, Graham said, Atlanta’s LGBT community is deeply divided over the two choices before them for mayor. He said Norwood may have an edge, given her full support of marriage rights.
Even though an Atlanta mayor can have little effect on the state’s ban on gay marriage — passed by 76 percent of voters in a 2004 referendum — many gays say the mayor still enjoys a powerful bully pulpit.