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Can an African American Berniecrat Push Southern Democrats Left?

The candidacy of Vincent Fort, who is running to be the mayor of Atlanta, is being seen as a test of Democratic Socialism’s strength in the South.

Courtesy of Vincent Fort

Two years ago, not long after Hillary Clinton announced that she was running for president, her campaign had seven states colored in red on a billboard in her Brooklyn offices: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. This belt of southern states, her advisers promised, would practically ensure her victory over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, since Clinton was polling well among minority voters and had strong ties to African American political elites. And indeed, Clinton swept the South, besting Sanders by wide margins among African American voters. “Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South,” Sanders said in the spring of 2016. “No question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country. That’s the fact.”

Today, though, there’s reason to believe that the left is making inroads in the South. Vincent Fort, an African American state senator whose district covers portions of south Atlanta, has mounted a promising bid to become the city’s next mayor. He and Sanders are ideological companions: Fort has been arrested twice for his political activities, once for protesting Georgia’s opposition to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and again for protesting Wall Street greed with Occupy Atlanta. In 2000, he sponsored legislation to curb predatory lending by Georgia banks.

Fort has modeled his platform off that of the Vermont senator, advocating for free public university tuition and decriminalization of marijuana. He has clashed with the Democratic establishment in Georgia, accusing the state Democratic Party of punishing him for endorsing Sanders over Clinton. And Sanders, who many believe has become the most influential politician in the Democratic Party, has travelled to Atlanta to stump for Fort, who also boasts an endorsement from Atlanta’s branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.

In a messy field of ten candidates, Fort is pulling in the support of only about 8 percent of voters, according to recent polls. But, situated securely in the middle of the pack, he nonetheless has a solid shot at advancing to a runoff in December, since no candidate is expected to win a straight majority of the vote. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a Democratic-controlled city that usually hews to the center of the political spectrum. Leftist candidates in Atlanta have not made much headway in the four decades since Maynard Jackson was elected the first African American mayor of the city in 1974. That Fort is a serious contender in this race means that the calculus for Democratic politics in the South may be shifting.

Atlanta has long housed major corporations, including Delta, Home Depot, and Coca Cola. But under its current mayor, Kasim Reed, the city has grown even friendlier to national companies and large scale developments. The city’s GDP has increased by 35 percent since he took office in 2009, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Atlanta now has the second fastest rate of job growth of any of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation. Today, it’s vying for Amazon’s coveted HQ2, touting its international airport, sites for development across metro Atlanta, and a $1 billion package of potential infrastructure improvements.

At the same time, though, Atlanta is suffering from deep and widening inequalities. Gentrification has pushed African Americans into the suburbs to make way for young white professionals, transforming a city that was once known as the “Black Mecca.” Housing prices have risen, leading to a serious affordable housing crisis. The city is bursting at the seams; its public transportation system, MARTA, is plagued with delays, and this summer, a major highway overpass burst into flames and collapsed, disrupting the city’s traffic flow for months.

Ford has tailored his platform around these needs, committing to expanding public transportation into the poorest areas of Atlanta and fighting luxury real estate developers. He’s slammed the decision to remodel Phillip’s Arena, for example, home of the Atlanta Hawks, as a “sweetheart development deal” and a “taxpayer giveaway to millionaires.” “It’s either going to be a corporate Democrat that keeps gentrifying the city, or it’s going to be Vincent Fort who can try and put a stop to it,” says Jeb Boone, a member of the Atlanta DSA.

But his willingness to challenge corporate interests has put him at odds with the city’s political powers. Kasim Reed—a Democrat who’s term-limited—has a friendly relationship with Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution once called them “the dynamic duo.”) Reed was a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy—and an outspoken critic of Sanders. He has been critical of Fort’s candidacy too, telling reporters last April that Fort would be a “disaster” as mayor. Reed has endorsed Keisha Lance Bottoms, a City Council member who’s polling at 25 percent.

Reed’s misgivings about Fort reflect the city’s centrist politics. While the white population moving into the city does lean liberal, they tend to be left of center, and are content with what one political science professor calls the city’s “neoliberal governance.” “I don’t think that ideologically, the city of Atlanta is ready for anyone like Vincent Fort,” said Michael Leo Owens of Emory University.

At the moment, the polls tell a similar story. Mary Norwood, a City Council member and the most conservative candidate in this race, is widely expected to clinch one of the two spots to advance to the runoff in December. According to polls released Friday, she’s facing fierce competition from Lance Bottoms, who has jumped sharply in the polls in the last week. Both candidates are hovering around 25 percent. The race narrows from there, with a cluster of candidates, including Fort, polling between 12 and 3 percent.

Fort could still upset expectations. A roiling scandal in City Hall could hurt candidates seen as being part of the city’s establishment. And Fort, who has served as a state senator for over two decades, has name recognition in Atlanta. Even though he lacks strong ties to Atlanta’s powerful political elite, he has strong relationships with the city’s African American communities. Fort has focused his canvasing efforts in south Atlanta, a predominantly black neighborhood where he has also set up his campaign office. “He’s from the community and has worked in the community for many years,” Boone said. “He hasn’t just started outreach for his mayoral campaign; he’s built close relationships with the community through his activism, organizing and political work for over 20 years.”

Fort appears to be intent on charting a new course for politicians on the left in the South. “To be frank, Bernie Sanders had a lot of problems with reaching out to black voters throughout the campaign,” Boone said. “And he did decent things to fix that, but I don’t think he did enough.” If Fort makes a strong showing in the mayoral primary on Tuesday, it will be a sign that Democratic politics is changing in urban centers in the South. Even if he loses, he’ll still have charted a course that more progressive candidates can follow in the South in coming years, opening up the field to different kinds of Democrats in 2018 and beyond.