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Monday, October 26, 2009 - 2:29pm

Party Politics In Atlanta's Mayoral Race

Mary Norwood can tell you how many votes she has received in her political races. She can tell you the organizations she has worked with since 1990, the endorsements she’s gotten, and improvements neighborhoods have made in her long career as a public servant.

What she couldn’t tell you after a GPB/Atlanta Press Club debate this past Sunday evening is who she voted for in the 1992, 1996 or 2000 Presidential elections.

“I don’t keep a ledger, and frankly, I can’t remember” the Atlanta City council woman told GPB after last night’s mayoral debate. Her voting record, not on the city council, but rather, as a citizen, became an issue in that debate. Mayoral candidate and former State Senator Kasim Reed alleged Norwood is being “misleading” because she has not disclosed her ties to the Republican Party because, based on voting records, Norwood has voted 70% of the time in Republican primaries.

“Just because I vote in a Republican primary doesn’t mean I’m a Republican,” Norwood says, stressing that she is an independent.

On Monday afternoon, GPB again checked in with the Norwood campaign to see if she could now remember who she voted for. The campaign’s communications manager, Zee Bradford, told GPB that Norwood now remembers who she voted for in the past five presidential elections. According to Bradford, Norwood voted for Ross Perot (I/Reform Party) in 1992, Bill Clinton (D) in 1996, Al Gore (D) in 2000, John Kerry (D) in 2004, and Barack Obama (D) in 2008.

Bradford says Norwood didn’t recall on Sunday because “She had just finished a debate. When she asked the question, she was trying to remember who the candidates were. Every vote she has ever cast has been for the person she thought was most qualified and most capable.”

Norwood is seeking the top post in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Many of her platform positions resemble Republican policy platforms. Norwood has campaigned on being tough on crime, opposed to tax increases, and private-public partnerships.

“What I’m campaigning on, just to be clear, is a fiscally conservative government, socially responsible government, and a personally accountable government,” Norwood says. “I look at this red [state] legislature, this blue national government, and I think my independent status could help this city.”

To highlight her independence, Norwood noted she supports marriage equality and has been endorsed by former Democratic State Representative Abel Mable Thomas.

The mayoral election is officially non-partisan. But for the past several weeks, some campaign watchers have speculated labeling Norwood a “closet Republican” could hurt her in a run-off. Emory Political Scientist Michael Owens says it is an effective strategy in heavily Democratic Atlanta. “If you are her opponent, it is beneficial to paint Norwood as a Republican,” Owens says.

Norwood has been consistently leading her main opponents, Reed, and City Council President Lisa Borders, in public opinion polls. The former state senator placed second in a recent poll, and Owens says he believes Reed is trying to lay down a foundation to challenge Norwood in a run-off.

“He wants a couple weeks to lay down these ideas,” Owens says. “Reed is trying to reach the black electorate, and generally, the black electorate does not believe the Republican Party can serve their interests.”

Reed denies he is trying to paint Norwood as a Republican now that he has hopes of making it to a run-off. “I’m not bold enough to assume there will be a run-off. My only strategy is to have a robust debate,” Reed told GPB. However, he adds, the debate has to include Norwood’s participation in Republican politics.

“Let’s just be transparent,” Reed says.

Norwood responded by saying she couldn’t recall who she voted for, and then adding, “I don’t think who I voted for at the presidential level matters.”

And while the issue has been raised, and the media (including GPB) has started examining it, Owens says party identification likely won’t play a large part in Tuesday’s election. There hasn’t been enough time to develop it as an effective enough attack to peel off Norwood’s supporters, Owens believes.

Anecdotally, that assessment appears sound. For example, Atlanta resident Tom Peterson, hasn’t decided which candidate to vote for, but he says is deciding between Reed and Norwood. Asked whether he cares what party the candidates belong to, or if he would care if Norwood is a Republican, Peterson says “No. It would not be a determining factor. I think she’s [Norwood] right for the city, and I think he [Reed] might be okay too.”

“What are they going to do for this city? How are they going to cut crime? This is what I care about,” Peterson added.

UPDATE: New poll numbers show Norwood close to fifty percent, which would allow her to avoid a run-off. View the poll here: