Crime at the center of Atlanta mayor's race as voting begins

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Atlanta democratic mayoral candidate Kasim Reed speaks during an interview on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

ATLANTA – Atlanta mayoral candidates are talking about affordable housing, hoping to stave off a secession movement in a wealthy neighborhood and trading increasingly pointed jabs. But as in so many places across the country, the election is really about crime.

News is dominated by reports of violence, and residents poor and rich demand solutions, even as many say they want to balance policing and social justice. Candidates seeking to mollify voters are competing in a wide-open race after Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms surprised many in May by announcing she didn't want a second term. Now, with 14 names on the Nov. 2 ballot, a runoff in the nonpartisan race seems almost certain.

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Early in-person voting began this week and recent polls show many voters still undecided. Kasim Reed, Bottoms' predecessor, is a top contender. City Council President Felicia Moore, long a Reed critic, is another leading candidate. Attorney Sharon Gay and council members Andre Dickens and Antonio Brown also have gained support.

Like cities across the country, homicides have increased in Atlanta. As of Oct. 9, murders were up 14% over the same period last year and 60% compared with 2019, Atlanta police data show. High-profile killings — a woman and her dog stabbed to death late at night in the city’s premier park, a bartender abducted and fatally shot as she returned home after a late shift — have frightened residents. Neighborhood social media sites teem with posts about crime, generating dozens of frustrated and fearful comments.

Reed, who served two four-year terms beginning in 2010, left office amid a federal investigation into corruption at City Hall. A half-dozen members of his administration have been indicted. Some pleaded guilty and others await trial.

Reed was never charged. His campaign released a statement from his lawyers saying federal prosecutors told them in August that "their inquiry regarding Kasim Reed was completed and that the inquiry regarding Mr. Reed is closed. There is no federal investigation of Kasim Reed.”

Asked to confirm that, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta declined to comment.

Reed said he wouldn't have challenged Bottoms, but once she announced her exit, he said he was motivated by the crime surge to seek a third term. He's uniquely qualified to confront it, he says, citing the low crime rate and hundreds of police officers hired when he was mayor.

“I think voters have a really simple question to ask themselves: Do they think that they’re better off today than they were four years ago when I was mayor? My sense is that we were definitely better off four years ago,” he said.

But Reed remains polarizing, with some residents convinced he’s the proven leader needed to fight crime, while others question his integrity and believe he’s driven primarily by self-interest.

Moore, who talks constantly about ethics, transparency and accountability, said crime pushed her to enter the race, even before Bottoms bowed out.

“I was just getting so much increasing contact with me about crime, people just being victims of crime, sometimes 1 or 2 in the morning, consoling people,” she said. “I needed to step up and attempt to take the wheel of the ship.”

Gay, recently managing partner of a law firm, says she brings a fresh approach as someone who hasn’t held elected office and isn't tied to past mistakes. To combat crime, she would focus on problem properties, restore police morale and get officers on the street, she says.

Dickens touts increasing the number of officers, arresting gang leaders and implementing community policing. He also aims to increase affordable housing, improve infrastructure and ensure current residents qualify for high-paying jobs coming to the city.

Brown says generational poverty, gentrification and insufficient affordable housing feed unemployment, homelessness and crime. He stresses a focus on those root causes and emphasizes community policing.

Brown is currently under federal indictment, accused of borrowing money and making credit card purchases and then claiming he was the victim of identity theft. The alleged crimes took place before his election to City Council, and Brown denies guilt.

Organizers who want the upscale Buckhead neighborhood to become its own city — taking about 20% of Atlanta's population and a disproportionately higher chunk of its tax base with it — cite crime as a key factor. The top mayoral candidates say they'll take Buckhead's concerns seriously, hoping to quash support for a referendum in the Georgia legislature or to convince voters to reject separation if it makes the ballot.

Atlanta's population grew 19% from 2010 to 2020, rising to nearly 500,000, last year's census found. That growth has been accompanied by corporate expansions in close-in neighborhoods. Property values have soared, and longtime residents say the crunch has reached traditionally more affordable neighborhoods.

While the Black population increased slightly, the white, Asian and Hispanic populations all rose faster over the past 10 years. People who identify as Black now make up less than a majority of Atlantans for the first time in decades.

Tammy Greer, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University, says longtime Black residents are expressing anxieties through concerns over affordable housing and jobs.

“You have this perceived black Mecca of the South that is dwindling in Black population and has not had the political, economic and social capital that comes with the name,” Greer said.

Although new people are arriving, Greer said “legacy” residents still control politics, and for them, times don’t seem as good. That has to do, in part, with the city’s steep income inequality. White households have a median income above $100,000, while Black households typically make about $35,000.

The race may ultimately hinge on which candidate has the most enthusiastic supporters — or is seen as less objectionable to supporters of candidates who don't make a runoff. The last two mayors won by tight margins, with just hundreds of votes sealing their victories.

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