An upcoming municipal election may reveal some clues about the drift of American politics, and about the nature of politics itself.
Political machines thrive, only to die one day. Witness what's happening in Atlanta. Based on both our own InsiderAdvantage surveys, and on a poll by the highly regarded SurveyUSA, it appears that one of America's most powerful municipal political machines is sputtering to a halt -- that of the nearly 40-year reign of African-American mayors in this town.
Atlanta was one of the first major cities in the nation to elect a black mayor, in 1973. It was certainly the first big city in the South to do so. Back then, "white flight" to the suburbs spawned a downtown electorate that was more and more African-American. Beyond that, the city seemed ready to embrace the concept of change that came with the election of a minority to office. The late Maynard Jackson was charismatic, charming and brilliant. He had served as vice mayor before besting the incumbent white mayor in a runoff.
His ascendance started the emerging Atlanta tradition of passing the mayoral torch from one black leader to the next. All this in a town where comparatively tight city limits came to hold roughly half-a-million citizens within a greater metro area of some 5.5 million.
As little as three years ago, you would have been dubbed a political naif had you suggested that a race for mayor here could be leaning towards a fiery, petite white woman with no ties to anything like a downtown machine. Yet the polling in this race points to a spot of apathy among some black voters, even just a year after a record number of blacks turned out for Barack Obama.
Race is always a factor in elections like this. Atlanta has large blocs of both white and black voters, plus a burgeoning tide of other minorities. But race doesn't look to be the determining factor this time. In my judgment, the Nov. 3 vote for Atlanta mayor may well be determined with neither of the two major African-American candidates even making it into a runoff, which would be held three weeks after the initial vote.
Ironically, the bigger theme of the mayoral race that may come to be known as the "upset in Atlanta" is the same one that put Obama in the White House: change.