ATLANTA – Atlanta mayoral hopeful Mary Norwood had seen this movie before: A nail-biting runoff election where she came up short by just a few hundred votes.
Eight years ago, she was defeated by Atlanta’s current mayor, Kasim Reed, by only 714 votes.
In the sequel, also co-starring Norwood, Keisha Lance Bottoms – a protege of Reed – declared herself the city’s new leader early Wednesday and Norwood trailed by just 759, out of 92,169 votes cast.
But the race remained too close to call, leaving voters in suspense over whether the city will extend its run of black leaders or get its first white chief executive in more than 40 years.
The runoff between Bottoms, who is black, and Norwood, who is white, was seen as a test of the staying power of the city’s long-dominant black political leadership amid profound demographic and economic changes.
“The votes are pretty much a mirror of what happened in 2008,” said Williams Boone, a professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University.
“The votes for Ms. Bottoms have come primarily from the south side of the city, which is predominantly African-American, and the votes for Ms. Norwood came from the north end of the city which is predominantly white.”
Both women are Atlanta City Council members. Norwood calls herself an independent and Bottoms is Reed’s chosen successor.
A victory for Bottoms, 47, would continue a run of African-American mayors that began with Maynard Jackson in the mid-1970s.
A win for Norwood, 65, would give Atlanta its first-ever white female mayor, and end the Democratic Party’s hold on an office it has held without interruption since 1879.
Though the race has yet to be officially called, Bottoms spoke early Wednesday at an Atlanta hotel with Reed by her side, telling supporters, “I’m so honored to be your 60th mayor.”
She added: “For all the little girls out there who need somebody to believe that you are better than your circumstances, I want you all to remember that black girl magic is real.”
But at another rally a couple of miles away, Norwood said that absentee ballots from military members were yet to be counted, and she believes some other ballots have yet to be tabulated.
“We will be asking for a recount,” Norwood said.
Bottoms led Norwood by a margin of less than 1 percent, the threshold where the second-place finisher can request a recount under state law.
A half-century after white flight triggered sprawl that fueled legendary traffic jams, Atlanta is booming economically and growing at a breakneck pace, with townhouses and apartments going up all over town. Parts of the city are more diverse, younger and wealthier than they have been in years. But high poverty remains in some neighborhoods.
Atlanta is 53 percent black and 40 percent white, according to U.S. Census estimates.
Though votes tracked along racial lines in north-side and south-side neighborhoods, both candidates won votes in the political battleground of east Atlanta.
“In the eastern part of Atlanta you see a good deal of gentrification going on, and you see a mix of precincts – some for Norwood and some for Bottoms,” Boone said.
Still, many of the city’s most formidable challenges transcend race. Among them: Transportation, public safety and affordable housing.
“We’re behind the times in terms of having a modern transportation system compared to what you see in New York or Washington,” said Kendra A. King Momon, professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.
As voters cast ballots Tuesday, some downplayed the influence of race.
“Just listening to Keisha and comparing what she said to the words of Ms. Norwood, I felt like (Bottoms) shared my values more,” said Barbara McFarlin, a 50-year-old black woman in the southwest Atlanta district Bottoms has represented on the city council.
James Parson, a 49-year-old black man who also lives in Bottoms’ district, said he appreciates how Norwood has made herself available to constituents all over the city as an at-large council member.
“I love that Mary is connected to most of the communities in Atlanta, if not all of them,” he said.
Atlanta’s last white mayor, Sam Massell, left office in 1974 and was succeeded by five African-American mayors in the next four decades: Jackson, Andrew Young, Bill Campbell, Shirley Franklin and Reed. Regardless of who wins, Atlanta will have its second female mayor, following Franklin who left office in 2010.
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