Mary Norwood is back.
Nearly a year after her razor-thin loss to Keisha Lance Bottoms in the bruising mayoral election, the longtime Buckhead neighborhood activist and former at-large City Council member has returned to the public stage – calling for a new subway line and accepting a behind-the-scenes nomination to chair Fulton County’s Board of Registration & Elections.
“I felt the best thing I could do for the city is allow the new mayor to take charge of the city and I would not be a distraction,” Norwood said in a recent interview.
In recent weeks, Norwood re-emerged in the role that put her on the political radar, as a community activist, helping Tuxedo Park fight a controversial townhome project that, she says, is part of a development wave that threatens Atlanta’s “sacrosanct” neighborhoods.
In November, she appeared at a small community meeting about an intersection project with a big idea – a subway between Cobb County and Lindbergh Center, and other commuter-traffic solutions that she said “may be my raison d’être in 2019. You never can tell.”
The next day, Norwood was the subject of a bungled attempt by Fulton County’s state legislative delegation to nominate her as the elections board chair. Norwood said the nomination – which still could return to the delegation’s agenda next session — came “out of the blue,” but that she would be “delighted to serve if selected.”
“I think it’s critically important we restore the public confidence in the voting process in the largest county in Georgia,” she said. But, she added, her interest in the elections board chair position was not about investigating her own 2017 mayoral election loss, where she pointed to complaints of voting irregularities and called for a recount.
“If we could have contested that election, we would have, but I could not get enough information from the election director, the election department…,” Norwood said. “What do you even do after the fact? I don’t know.”
Norwood talks about all of her recent agenda items with the framing that was a popular, and also controversial, theme of her mayoral campaign: that Buckhead is an economic anchor of Atlanta but gets relatively fewer improvements, and that she provides an independent voice, since she has no political party affiliation.
In her last notable public appearance, back in January, Norwood repeated those themes in especially strong terms, warning the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods to make sure the neighborhood gets its fair share of improvements. The Bottoms administration later blasted those remarks as divisive.
In raising the themes now, Norwood spoke cautiously and with a softer approach, sometimes stopping mid-sentence to choose words carefully and emphasizing she didn’t want to “dredge up” the past, and calling previous problems “water under the dam.”
In her most local effort, battling the townhome proposal on Tuxedo Park’s Blackland Road, Norwood talked in terms of a local-and-citywide political synergy.
“If you don’t defend your borders, you will lose your neighborhood, period,” she said of the local fight. But she also quickly supplied examples of her fights, as a city councilmember, against similar projects in locations around the city.
“I have run citywide since 2001,” said Norwood, who held the at-large council seat twice and lost another squeaker of a mayoral election to Kasim Reed in 2009. “I have never been just a Buckhead representative.”
As for other political or activism roles that might catch her interest, Norwood would only say, “I haven’t made any long-term decisions.”
Commuter traffic and subways
“I think in 2019, I will see—maybe I will spend 2019 trying to solve traffic,” said Norwood. That especially means commuter traffic and ties into her concerns about Buckhead being left out of recent city road and transit improvement programs.
Speaking to the Reporter about transit at the recent intersection improvement meeting, held at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Norwood quickly gathered a sizable group of residents around a church pew to hear a mini speech about the impacts of Cobb commuter traffic and the need for a new MARTA rail line.
“We need a subway coming from the northwest into Lindbergh,” Norwood said. “Build it. Build it quick… Will it cost a lot of money? Yes. But we have money.”
With the new regional transit authority known as The ATL gearing up, the possibility of such a line, once politically unthinkable, could be on the table, she said.
She spoke broadly of Buckhead as a center of civic and corporate engagement. “You actually look at the town from that lens, it’s a very valuable resource,” she said of Buckhead. “There’s a way for that resource to coexist with the business district at its edge… What we need to lobby for is a way to get commuter traffic off our streets.”
But, Norwood said, Buckhead has been largely overlooked in recent transportation improvement programs. Those include MARTA’s new sales-tax-funded expansion – a criticism also made by the North Buckhead Civic Association – as well as the Renew Atlanta infrastructure bond and projects funded by a new transportation special local option sales tax. While Atlanta BeltLine transit rose on the MARTA priority list after a recent controversy, Norwood said that “85 percent of neighborhoods do not touch the BeltLine,” including some in Buckhead.
She said there needs to be “adjustment” in all of those programs because Buckhead “needs and deserves some real and thoughtful improvements.”
Norwood briefly served on the Fulton elections board in 2013 before making a second run for City Council. Her possible return as the board chair revives some of the hottest mayoral campaign arguments against her and Bottoms – that Norwood is essentially a closet Republican, and that Bottoms won the seat in a suspect election, with Norwood supporters still often referring to “dead people voting” and other alleged but unproven fraud.
The board chair position is currently held by Mary Carole Cooney, who is serving despite her term having expired. The process of filling the position involves an appointment by the county’s state legislative delegation, which is then approved by the county Board of Commissioners. Norwood’s nomination came in a delegation meeting hurriedly called by state Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell) during a special session of the General Assembly called by Gov. Nathan Deal mainly to vote on south Georgia hurricane relief funding. While Fulton’s state senators voted to appoint Norwood, the state representatives did not amid process concerns from Democratic members, whose party will control the delegation next session.
Norwood said she did not seek the position or expect to be nominated. She declined to say who directly asked her to agree to the nomination. “That’s not really important… It just doesn’t make any difference,” she said, implying the person was not an official. According to Albers, Norwood’s nomination in the Senate delegation meeting was made by state Sen. David Shafer (R-Duluth), former executive director of the state Republican Party and recently an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor.
Norwood said her previous stint on the board was exploited by opponents as evidence that she is not actually independent. To win the appointment in 2012, she had to solicit support from the Republican-controlled delegation, and also from the all-Democratic county commission.
“I was accused of being a Republican. I was never a Republican. I was never a member of a party,” Norwood said, calling it a “ploy” used “to depress the vote” in both of her mayoral races. She quickly added, “That’s water under the dam.”
While Norwood noted her campaign submitted 2017 election complaints to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, she said her interest in chairing the board is about being an “independent voice” on future elections. “When we don’t believe in the validity of our process and the sanctity of our vote, it falls apart,” she said.
The county needs to do a better job of communicating about election issues, she said. As one example, she cited the Nov. 6 election, where Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb had high turnout but many voting machines out of commission. Norwood said Fulton needed to better explain that those machines were locked down by a court order due to a tampering lawsuit, not due to county incompetence.
It remains to be seen whether Norwood’s nomination will return to the delegation’s agenda. State Rep. Deborah Silcox, a Republican who represents parts of Buckhead and Sandy Springs, said the attempted appointment “came out of nowhere” and “was above my pay grade”; she only heard of Norwood’s nomination as a rumor, she said.
Silcox said she thinks Norwood is a “capable” and “viable” candidate, but that she would want to review any other nominees as well. “She, certainly with her experience having lost the mayor race twice in Atlanta, I think she certainly has an interest in making sure our elections are fair,” Silcox said.