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Tight Mayoral Vote In Atlanta Leaves Both Candidates Uncertain


Two women - one white, one black - are vying to be the next mayor of Atlanta. And one of them, Keisha Lance Bottoms, declared victory this morning.


KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS: For all of us in, Atlanta, I'm so honored to be your 60th mayor. Thank you.


KELLY: But her opponent, Mary Norwood, says don't count her out yet. Norwood is trailing by fewer than 800 votes. She's calling for a recount. Andra Gillespie joins us now from Atlanta, where she's a political scientist at Emory University. Welcome.


KELLY: Let me start by asking you. Who are these two women? What is the choice that voters in Atlanta were facing?

GILLESPIE: Atlanta voters had the choice between two qualified city councilwomen. Keisha Lance Bottoms is a city councilwoman. She's served since 2010. She's a lawyer by training. She has worked as a judge.

Mary Norwood is a local business woman. She's been on city council at various points over the last quarter-century. She's also run for mayor before, so she came within 714 votes of being Atlanta's mayor in 2009. So today she finds herself in the same position.

KELLY: So she lost that last time to the current mayor of Atlanta.

GILLESPIE: To the current mayor, Kasim Reed, yeah.

KELLY: So this is a "Groundhog Day" she's living through again with a difference in votes of something like 700 or 800 votes.


KELLY: What about the vision they would each bring to the city? What was the campaign about?

GILLESPIE: Well, the campaign focused on partisanship even though these elections are nonpartisan. And so there weren't party primaries. Corruption was an issue. Mayor Reed endorsed Keisha Lance Bottoms. It helped her to make it into the runoff. His administration is under investigation. There are allegations of bribery, and there have been some indictments and some plea deals.

Many of the endorsements that Mary Norwood got were ostensibly because her surrogates perceived that she wasn't tainted by this particular corruption scandal, and they were making the case that Keisha Lance Bottoms might not be best positioned to be able to rid city hall of any potential corruption.

KELLY: What about the issue of race? Keisha Lance Bottoms is black. Mary Norwood is white. One way of looking at this race was - served as a test of a long-dominant black political machine in Atlanta. And if a recount happens, if this race were to tip into Norwood's favor, she would be the first white mayor of Atlanta for four decades.

GILLESPIE: Yes. So Atlanta's elected African-American mayors since 1973. It would definitely be a change of optics to have a white mayor in the city, and there might be some voters who were making their choices about who to vote for based on their preference for maintaining that optic or for thinking that that's no longer necessary to have to have a black mayor in order to prove that you're a city that's diverse and welcoming.

KELLY: Last quick question for you - to what degree were national politics a factor here? Norwood - she's an independent, but there were questions as to whether she was really a stealth Republican, a Republican in disguise.

GILLESPIE: So it's important to note that that rumor about Mary Norwood has existed long before Donald Trump hit the national political scene. But in a debate at a predominately African-American radio station earlier this year, all of the candidates were asked whether or not they would denounce the Trump administration. Every other candidate was very quick to denounce Trump, and she kind of equivocated.

KELLY: Right.

GILLESPIE: And so the Bottoms campaign was able to deploy that against her to call into question whether or not she would stand up to a president who is not particularly popular in this city.

KELLY: Lots to watch as this election result continues to come in in Atlanta. Andra Gillespie - she's professor of political science at Emory University, and she joined us from the WABE studios in Atlanta. Thanks so much for taking the time.

GILLESPIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.