Atlanta Mayoral Race Shows What Happens When Progressives Don’t Compromise

A conservative-leaning candidate might beat a Democrat in Atlanta's mayoral race. In the age of Trump, how did we get here?

In 1997, at the age of 17, I fled rural Kentucky like my life depended on it. When I arrived in Atlanta to attend Morehouse College, I never looked back. Atlanta embraced me. In two years, I was the youngest student government president elected at Morehouse since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a student. I got married in Atlanta. I bought my first home in Atlanta. Our kids were born there. And, for 15 years, my family called it home. It’s the only place in the world that I don’t have to use Google Maps to get around.

Even though I now live in Brooklyn (and love it), Atlanta made me. I still read the local news there every single day and am obsessed Atlanta politics as much as when I lived a few blocks from Georgia Tech. It was for all of these reasons that I took an interest in a man named Vincent Fort and his bid to become the 60th mayor of Atlanta. I’ve known Vincent since I was a teenager. He was regularly a guest instructor and speaker at Morehouse and has always been equal parts activist and legislator.

When I saw that he was running for mayor, I envisioned he could mount a Bernie-esque campaign and had an outsider’s chance at victory. Bernie Sanders himself backed Fort early. Bernie’s political organization, Our Revolution, got behind him — as did familiar faces like Our Revolution President Nina Turner and rapper Killer Mike. But Fort’s campaign never really took off. When the election came around on November 7, in spite of the serious support from Bernie and his apparatus, Fort came in a disappointing fifth place.

The race in Atlanta between a Democrat and conservative-leaning independent appears to be headed to a recount. How did we get here?

Because no candidate received over 50 percent in the first round of the nonpartisan race, a runoff was scheduled between the two candidates who got the most votes, Democrat Keisha Lance Bottoms and conservative-leaning independent Mary Norwood. That runoff was held Tuesday. The race was close — too close — and appears to be headed to a recount. We need to ask ourselves: In the age of Trump, how did we get here?

Now let me pause for a second. Before you get bored and click away: What I am about to say is deeply emblematic of a larger problem.

Bottoms was the establishment Democrat in the race from the beginning. She was supported by the Democratic Party. She was endorsed and supported strongly by the current mayor, Kasim Reed. She was supported by much of the black establishment in Atlanta. Bottoms, on policy matters, is not democratic socialist. She’s not a Berniecrat. She’s not an activist. To my knowledge, she’s never been arrested in a protest. She’s not a radical. She’s a mainstream Democrat.

For too many progressives, that makes her and anybody like her persona non grata. Now, in a political race in which candidates whose policies, positions, and history are more progressive than hers, by all means, support the most progressive candidate. Before the runoff, for many, that was Fort. He lost. It wasn’t even close. And between Bottoms and Norwood, the most progressive candidate was clearly Bottoms.

Anybody who knows Atlanta politics knows that Norwood is about as conservative as an Atlanta politician can get. She has sometimes voted for Republicans but has also voted for Democrats. She calls herself an independent but has moderate to conservative leanings. For instance, she proudly received the endorsements of the state and local police unions and bragged about this on the campaign trail. She seemed to outright refuse to denounce President Donald Trump on multiple occasions and struggled mightily to explain why multiple times. Her campaign treasurer, Republican Jamie Ensley, was an open Trump supporter. In a conversation in which she asked attendees to not record her, she was heard calling African-Americans felons and thugs. And like Trump, her voting base is nearly 80 percent white. She exists as a credible candidate in Atlanta because white voters back her so strongly.

Every single day, though, I saw self-proclaimed progressives attacking Bottoms. They wouldn’t always endorse Norwood, but they would actively and consistently tear down Bottoms.

Between the two available options, Bottoms clearly best represented the positions, policies, and people progressives should care about most. Yet at every single mention of her on Facebook or Twitter seems to get pushback from the left; some progressives will call her supporters a sellout, say they are supporting the Democratic establishment, and ask if they are being paid by the Democratic National Committee.

This is foolish. They speak as if the more progressive option was to support Norwood. It wasn’t — at all.

This is where progressives find themselves. When the preferred progressive candidate doesn’t win, either because they ran a bad campaign, struggled in the two-party system, or lacked the support they needed in other ways, progressives too often proceed to tear down the establishment candidate. I’m not speaking in code here about Hillary Clinton, either. I’ve seen this in races all over the country.

When my preferred candidate loses, I simply don’t feel like I have the right to set the whole election ablaze.

Progressives are terrible losers. And don’t get me wrong: I hate losing, too. I despise it. But when my preferred candidate loses, I simply don’t feel like I have the right to set the whole election ablaze. And that’s the rub for me. It’s far too easy for people who won’t be directly harmed by conservative policies and leadership to trash a Democratic candidate they didn’t prefer, at the risk of assisting their opponent. This isn’t me echoing the “If you aren’t for me, you are against me” style of politics. In primaries and large-field races, you should go hard for the candidate you love and support. But when you lose, a transition should take place.

Keisha Lance Bottoms is not perfect. Hell, if you thought Vincent Fort was perfect, you probably aren’t from Atlanta. But I have to be honest with you: Hating good candidates because they aren’t perfect is getting old. Critique their policies. Investigate their decision-making and financing. Do those things! But when a race comes down to a left-leaning Democrat and a right-leaning conservative, stop pretending like they are one in the same. Stop acting like the Democrat has cooties. Stop acting like you are so holy that you can’t lower yourself to vote or support a person endorsed by the establishment.

This type of thinking loses important elections and puts real people in harm’s way.

Top photo: Early returns are broadcast on a television at an Election Night party for Atlanta City Council Person and mayoral candidate Mary Norwood in Atlanta on Dec. 5, 2017.

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