A little over a year into her leadership of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, Mary Norwood is expressing interest in taking the helm at another influential civic organization, the Buckhead Coalition.

“I would be honored to be considered,” said Norwood of the position that former Mayor Sam Massell is leaving after 32 years.

Mary Norwood, chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, speaks at a Feb. 13 Buckhead Business Association breakfast at Maggiano’s Little Italy. (John Ruch)

For Norwood, a former City Council member and unsuccessful 2017 mayoral candidate, it could be another step in a political comeback. Those attempts began in late 2018 with an unsuccessful nomination to chair the Fulton County Board of Registration & Elections, then a successful election as chair of the BCN, a coalition of civic associations.

At a Feb. 13 Buckhead Business Association breakfast, Norwood recapped her year of advocacy with the BCN, noting she had restructured it with issue-oriented subcommittees that function like a mayoral cabinet. Among the topics she sought the BBA’s assistance on was her call to keep the city jail open – a direct challenge to a major policy agenda item of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Similar remarks from Norwood last year drew a scathing rebuke from Bottoms’ press secretary as “all about locking THEM up” and “beneath this city.”

“Buckhead needs to continue to be the premiere place that one will want to live, work, play, raise a family and generally get into mischief,” Norwood told the BBA about her work with the BCN.

The Coalition is a different animal, an elite, invitation-only group of business and civic leaders who each pay $9,000 a year in dues. Under Massell, its founding president, the group has a neighborhood boosterism mission and is perhaps best known for an annual luncheon with a prominent, news-making speaker.

At this year’s luncheon in January, Massell surprised the crowd by announcing his retirement at age 92, with no specific end date. He later said a “succession committee” of Coalition board members has formed and is working on replacing him.

“I feel like I should keep out of it,” Massell said of the selection, though he joked about his son Steve, a real estate broker, taking over. “He’s going to make more money in real estate,” Massell said.

Norwood attended the luncheon, chatting with elected officials. “Mayor Massell is irreplaceable,” she said. “Nobody will ever understand it better than he has because of his longevity and all of the different things that he’s done.”

But she would like to replace him nonetheless. She noted she is a 40-year Buckhead resident who has served on Neighborhood Planning Units A and B and held membership in the BBA since the 1990s.

“I know my background is 40 years of living in Buckhead, always working in Buckhead,” she said. “I’ve got years of experience in working with our governmental entities. I have been both a business owner and a resident of Buckhead. And I have been a member of organizations in Buckhead for years… So that’s a skill set.”

If she did gain the Coalition leadership position, would she also retain her role as BCN chair? “I have no idea. I think that would be something that both organizations would have to decide,” she said.

Likewise, she said it would up to the Coalition whether she might take it in a different direction as she has done with the BCN, where part of the mandate was taking more advocacy positions on city policy.

Recapping some of that work at the BBA, she asked the organization for its support on such issues as stumping for more express transit buses in Buckhead. There was no immediate word on whether the organization would offer such support.

Crime, especially burglaries and robberies, remain a concern in the neighborhood. Norwood repeated her challenge to Bottoms’ closure of the Atlanta Detention Center, saying it should be used by Fulton County to “get repeat offenders off the street.” Bottoms proposes making the former jail a social-service “Center for Equity” in a plan driver by formerly incarcerated women.

“Nobody understands that environment more than I do,” said Norwood, because in 1979 she was a volunteer for women who were in a work-release program. Claiming that local crime is driven by repeat offenders who are out on bond – a partly disputed claim in the complex causes and effects – she said some judges are “quietly” telling her that jail overcrowding is a factor and the city facility should be used for it. A women’s center, Norwood said, could instead go into a building that now houses the Department of Public Works.

She also called for young offenders to be placed into a “community work program” rather than jail or prison. “Kids like to hang out. They don’t like to work,” she said. “…We need to redirect those young people quickly before their lives are gone.”

Crime is on the agenda of the next BCN meeting, where Chris Brasher, the chief judge of Fulton County Superior Court, is among the scheduled speakers. Also expected to speak are Josh Rowan, commissioner of the city’s new Department of Transportation, and Chet Tisdale, a member of the city’s Tree Conservation Commission. The meeting is scheduled for March 12, 6:45 p.m. at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Room 2202, 3434 Roswell Road.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.