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Atlanta’s Mayoral Race Should Be a Warning to Democrats.

As long as the party continues to push candidates who favor big business, conservatives will make inroads in Democratic strongholds like Atlanta.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a white woman might have a shot at becoming the next mayor of Atlanta. In 2001, the city elected Shirley Franklin, a black woman, to city hall by such a wide margin that the race never even advanced to a runoff (she won more than 50 percent of the vote even with the vote split between several other candidates). Since then, African American politicians have continued to win the city’s mayoral races, as they have for decades.

This year, however, Atlanta came startlingly close to getting its first white mayor in 44 years. On Tuesday, voters headed to the polls for a runoff between Keisha Lance Bottoms, a city councilor with deep ties to the black political establishment, and Mary Norwood, her white, more conservative opponent. Bottoms had emerged from the first round of voting in November as the frontrunner. Her particular brand of centrist liberalism meshes well with the politics of the city as a whole. And the current mayor, Kasim Reed, who is stepping down after two terms in office, had publicly endorsed her. But rather than sailing to victory on Tuesday night, Bottoms won by just 759 votes, and now, the ballots are being recounted.

That Norwood came within striking distance of Bottoms is remarkable, not just because of her race, but also because of her party affiliation. Norwood calls herself an independent, but her opponents often paint her as a Republican. Her campaign staff had ties to the Trump campaign—her campaign treasurer endorsed Trump—and she refused to endorse Jon Ossoff in his bid last year for Tom Price’s vacated House seat. She has said she voted for Hillary Clinton last year, but since then she has stopped short of criticizing the president, who has made a point of attacking prominent African Americans. Her near-victory in a city that has voted for Democrats since 1879 has underscored how deeply divided this liberal Southern city is politically. Demographic changes and a roiling corruption scandal have eaten away at the machine’s power to corral votes in the city. And without a new strategy, Democrats may continue to face uncomfortably tight results in races like this one, which ought to have been a easy win for Kasim Reed’s handpicked successor.

In November, before the first round of voting, Bottoms and Norwood faced a crowded field of candidates. As the only conservative in the race, Norwood was widely expected to sweep the conservative vote, clinching one of the top two slots and advancing to a runoff. The nine Democrats in the race were competing for a second seat in the runoff, with Bottoms facing several strong challenges from the left. Progressive candidates like former city councilor Cathy Woolard and state Senator Vincent Fort argued that the policies that Reed had enacted in a push to attract corporations and business development to the city had in fact harmed its low income population, pushing them out into the suburbs. Fort, who boasted endorsements from Bernie Sanders and the Atlanta branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, sparred with the Democratic establishment and was critical of Bottoms, even dramatically accusing her during a debate of failing to pay her federal income taxes.

After Bottoms and Norwood advanced to the runoff, the national Democratic Party quickly fell in line. Bottoms was able to rack up an impressive slew of endorsements from prominent national politicians, including former Atlanta mayor and civil rights icon Andrew Young, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and California Senator Kamala Harris. And the Democratic Party of Georgia spent more than $165,000 on an attack campaign against Norwood, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

But on a local level, there was a deep split over whether to back Bottoms. Fort, for example, pointedly refused to endorse her bid for mayor (his office did not return requests for comment this week). And many of his supporters shared his concerns. Tim Franzen, a Fort campaign aide and longtime progressive organizer, voted for Norwood, charging the Democratic establishment with becoming “out of touch on a national and local level.” A housing justice activist who works on municipal issues, he sees Bottoms as corrupt and too friendly with big developers. “I vote for candidates that I think present the least amount of threat,” he said.

Some politicians felt the same way. Shirley Franklin and the president of Atlanta’s city council Caesar Mitchell, along with three candidates who were defeated in the first round of the race, all endorsed Norwood over Bottoms. When asked to explain her endorsement, Woolard, a leftist candidate who finished third in the first round, said: “I feel like we need a clean break with this administration and a new start here with a fresh set of players.”

Bottoms has been tarnished in a roiling bribery scandal that has encompassed Atlanta’s City Hall in recent months. In September, the FBI raided the offices of an engineering firm that had been granted more than $100 million in city contracts since 2009, and Bottoms had to promise to return more than $25,000 in campaign donations she had received from the firm while she was a city councilor. Her involvement in the scandal may explain—at least in part—why some Democrats would rather have had a more conservative candidate like Norwood in office than a member of Atlanta’s blinkered, and now seemingly compromised, Democratic establishment.

Still, their refusals to support Bottoms speak to broader shift in Atlanta politics. The black establishment has lost some of its grasp on power in the city. Since the election of Atlanta’s first black mayor Maynard Jackson in 1973, Atlanta has been run like a machine, with the political elites doling out insider favors and cultivating a web of lucrative connections. The results of Tuesday’s runoff shows just how weak his machine is today. “The Maynard Machine is defunct,” Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie told The New Republic on Wednesday.

That may be because Atlanta now has more white voters than it once did. People are flocking to Atlanta to take advantage of the job opportunities there. The influx has pushed housing prices inside the city up—and poorer African Americans out into the suburbs. Indeed, according to U.S. Census data, the black population in Atlanta declined by nearly 12 percent between 2000 and 2010 while the white population rose by more than 16 percent during that time period. And while the white population moving into Atlanta does tend to lean liberal, they are still more likely, according to Gillespie, to vote for Norwood than Bottoms, as a result of the city’s racially polarized voting patterns.

Ultimately, the Democrats need to be able to develop a new strategy to overcome these demographic shifts in cities like Atlanta, finding new ways to energize activists now that power of the Democratic machine has begun to wane. This should start with embracing leftist politicians like Fort or Woolard, who can articulate a progressive platform that has appealed to voters who have been left behind as gentrification and corporatization changes cities like Atlanta across the South. Fort and Woolard were able to harness some real energy on the ground this past summer. Put together, their shares of the vote in the first round would have been enough for a progressive candidate to advance to the runoff as the frontrunner, a clear sign that progressive candidates could make a dent in a race like this one.

But as long as the Democratic Party continues to push candidates tarnished by scandal, and those who favor big businesses over social justice advocacy, it will only continue to alienate a key, growing, progressive constituency further, opening the door a little wider for candidates with more conservative politics to step in.