Why you should care
Because cities have been the crucibles of Black political leadership.
Welcome to The Wilderness, an OZY original series charting how Democrats are trying to climb out of their historic hole. Read more.
Ceasar Mitchell can’t remember an Atlanta without a Black mayor. He was only 5 years old in 1974 when Maynard Jackson was sworn in as the city’s first in a string of Black chief executives. Mitchell has vivid memories of encounters with the larger-than-life Jackson as a child growing up working class in southwest Atlanta and then as an aspiring politician. There was power in “seeing leadership that looked like me,” says the city council president, who is running for mayor this year.
But that streak could well end at 44 years. The clear leader in the polls heading into November’s first round of voting is Mary Norwood, a compact white woman from the posh neighborhood of Buckhead in her second run for the job.
It would be a striking moment for the cultural capital of Black America, but also in line with a recent string of white mayors replacing Black ones in America’s biggest cities. Philadelphia, Detroit, Charlotte, Jacksonville and New Orleans all flipped from Black to white mayors in the past five years. Among the top 15 biggest cities in the country, only one has a Black mayor: Houston’s Sylvester Turner. “It is a growing trend, and if you’re interested in substantive representation, it’s one I think we should be concerned about to a certain extent,” says Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University.
Having Black mayors [is] … about coalition building. You have to bridge the divides.
Stephanie Mash Sykes, executive director, African American Mayors Association
New York, Chicago and Los Angeles elected one — and only one — African-American to their highest posts in the late 20th century. But African-American leadership was solid in many second-tier U.S. cities — until lately. It’s tough to pinpoint the exact reasons for the shift as each city has its own unique politics, but gentrification is unquestionably a factor. As white millennials return to urban cores — which in turn raises housing costs for lower-income African-Americans who are nudged out to the suburbs — they’re becoming more of a political factor. Rising Latino and Asian-American populations complicate the racial mix.
Stephanie Mash Sykes, executive director of the African American Mayors Association, disputes that a handful of losses is much of a trend. She points to the 32 Black mayors of cities with more than 100,000 people, a number she says has been fairly stable since her group formed in 2014.
A more meaningful recent development, she says, has been the emergence of African-American women such as Washington, D.C.’s Muriel Bowser; Baltimore’s Catherine Pugh (who succeeded another Black female); New Haven, Connecticut’s Toni Harp; and Compton, California’s Aja Brown. But Sykes agrees with the importance of pioneering big-city mayors like Chicago’s Harold Washington. “Having Black mayors, particularly of large cities, really laid the foundation for President Obama,” Sykes says. “It was about coalition building. You have to bridge the divides, and you can’t just be a mayor of the African-American population. You have to be the mayor of the whole city.”
Greer notes that Black mayors make a practical impact on their cities by appointing African-Americans to top administration posts — building a public policy talent pipeline — and by bringing a minority perspective to managing a police force. They tend to their communities but also want to be seen as builders who make their cities thrive. (Think San Francisco’s Willie Brown, who launched the Mission Bay redevelopment and restored City Hall with a gold dome.) But they have been known to push legal boundaries on the way there. “You do see Black mayors in an uneasy alliance with developers, which in some ways helps the city and in many ways adversely affects the city,” Greer says.
Atlanta has witnessed the pitfalls — former mayor Bill Campbell went to prison for tax evasion, and term-limited incumbent Kasim Reed’s administration is under FBI investigation for “pay to play” with contractors. White challenger Norwood is back after losing to Reed by about 700 votes in a bitter 2009 runoff election, and the FBI fallout could boost a candidate with a more oppositional stance toward developers.
With 13 candidates qualifying for the first round of votes in November, it’s highly unlikely anyone will earn 50 percent, meaning the race will be decided in another runoff. The anticipated one-on-one matchup between Norwood and a Black candidate would test whether longtime political coalitions can hold up under population shifts. Black voters still hold a registration edge, but more whites than Blacks voted for the president in Atlanta last year, according to an analysis of voter data.
Yet Atlanta is a liberal city, and ideology could loom larger than race. For example, state Sen. Vincent Fort, one of the African-American mayoral candidates, heavily touts an endorsement from Bernie Sanders. In 2009 the state Democratic Party attacked Norwood for being a closet Republican, and such attacks are sure to rise again for the self-identified independent. “I am the only independent candidate in this very crowded field,” she says through a spokeswoman. “As a candidate not bound by party politics, I am free to work across party lines to act in the best interest of all Atlanta residents.” She wouldn’t be the white mayor in contrast to Black mayors, she says, so much as the “community mayor” in contrast to the current “real estate mayor,” as she pushes for the city’s prosperity to touch all neighborhoods.
While Mitchell is proud of Atlanta’s African-American mayoral streak — and its even longer history of Black-white power sharing, which sets it apart in the South — he’s not running on race either. Mitchell says his résumé and plans to tackle traffic and gentrification will count more than any skin-color appeal, because “Black people are way harder than that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that there is only one Black mayor among America’s 20 largest cities. Denver, now the 19th most populous, has an African-American mayor.