Mary Norwood, the former Atlanta City Council member who narrowly lost the 2017 mayoral election to Keisha Lance Bottoms, is not ruling out another run for a city office in 2021.

“I am not planning right now to run for any office,” Norwood, who now chairs the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, said in a Nov. 5 phone interview. Asked if she might change her mind, she added, “I think that in the middle of a presidential election that hasn’t been decided, where everybody’s focused on that, that it is premature to even discuss what may happen next year.”

Mary Norwood, chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods.

Earlier that day, Norwood spoke to the Buckhead Business Association, where she noted the importance of those 2021 elections, when the Mayor’s Office and City Council seats will be on the ballot. She also touted her organization’s recent work on street racing and other public safety issues, and gave her take on “inequity” in the city.

Politics and current election

Norwood, a Buckhead resident, has twice come within roughly 700 votes of winning the Mayor’s Office, losing razor-close runoffs elections to Kasim Reed in 2009 and Bottoms in 2017.

After the latest bruising loss, she began a political comeback early last year by winning the position of chair of the BCN, an umbrella group of neighborhood associations. She runs the organization much like a city council, producing policy “resolutions” on such issues as transportation and crime.

With yet another extremely close election –this time for the White House — occupying public attention, Norwood had some thoughts about Fulton County’s ballot-counting. She served several years ago on the county’s Board of Registration and Elections, and last year was unsuccessfully nominated by some state legislators to chair that board.

Norwood said she is “very concerned” about some aspects of Fulton’s vote-counting, including the process for “curing” ballots, meaning to fix technical errors on a rejected absentee ballot so that it can be counted. She also repeated Georgia Republican Party chair David Shafer’s Nov. 4 claim that at one point, Fulton elections workers announced an end to vote-counting, but then continued for some time without observers, which the county has disputed and denied in media reports. Norwood said the supposed unobserved counting is “not right” and that county elections director Richard Barron needs to explain it.

Norwood, who describes herself as a political independent, declined to say who she voted for in the presidential election.

Crime and public safety

At the BBA meeting, Norwood touted her organization’s involvement in the City Council’s recent passage of an ordinance that requires the temporary jailing of defendants accused of street racing and gave more details about a group that is considering enhanced private policing in the neighborhood.

Overall crime is down in Buckhead like it is citywide. But a string of gun crimes and other issues like street racing have been on the rise. This year, many Buckhead residents and organizations have complained about young water-sellers on the street, which led to a crackdown over alleged assaults and other crimes. And the neighborhood was shaken by widespread looting on one night in May that spun out of the early stages of protests about racism and police brutality after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

At the BBA meeting, member Lynda Martin said her out-of-town friends are afraid to visit Buckhead because of “the water boys and the riots and the mobs… What do I tell them?”

“We are all terribly distressed, every one of us,” Norwood replied. “We have a long way to go.” But, she said, since August the neighborhood is “light years ahead of getting this [crime] under control.”

Norwood pointed to the passage of the new street-racing law — which has yet to go to into effect and could be vetoed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — as an “incredible event” and “something the country could emulate.” She said it originated in a BCN “street safety task force” and noted it had heavy support from Buckhead residents in public comments.

In an era of police reform movements and Bottoms’ own criminal justice reforms, the ordinance also has been controversial and drew roughly seven hours of public comment at the council meeting where it passed. Current law allows people accused of street racing, reckless driving or use of all-terrain vehicles on public streets to be released on their own recognizance, while the new ordinance would keep them in custody until an arraignment before a judge. To enable that, the ordinance had to declare street racing and reckless driving as more serious forms of crime and specifically describes them as a type of “violence.”

Norwood dismissed most of the opposing comments at the council meeting as “rhetoric that was inappropriate, that was offensive” and in some cases “disinformation.”

“We’ve had people killed. We’ve had people terrified,” she said in defense of the “violence” terminology, though there have been no recent cases of anyone dying in a local street race crash. Shootings have happened at some street racing events around the city, but those would be separate crimes.

Norwood is involved in a multi-organization effort to coordinate Buckhead’s various residential and commercial private security patrols using off-duty officers. Those discussions began in September with talk of a major new private police force already dubbed “Buckhead Blue,” but the result may be a more modest program. The discussions also have been entirely private, so details have been scant.

The effort has been led by the Buckhead Coalition and the Buckhead Community Improvement District — whose staffs are both led by Jim Durrett — and the Atlanta Police Foundation. Norwood described the effort as a “task force” that also includes the BCN, Livable Buckhead, the BBA, the Atlanta Police Department and the chairs of Buckhead’s Neighborhood Planning Units.

“We are working on a comprehensive safety plan,” she said. About 90% of Buckhead’s sub-neighborhoods already private security patrols and camera systems, she said, so the effort is largely about coordinating them with commercial patrols and making them more visible. She added that Durrett is leading the effort and reviewed her description before the BBA presentation.

The effort will be discussed at the Nov. 12 BCN meeting. Norwood said the various organizations intended to have a plan of some sort finished soon, but she did not know if it would be ready for the BNC meeting.

Inequity and city services

Asked by a BBA member about a perennial concern that Buckhead does not receive city services commensurate with its status as a major tax base, Norwood made lengthy comments about “inequity” in the city. In doing so, she tread on political ground that was controversial during the 2017 mayoral campaign — and even afterward.

There is no question that Buckhead, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Southeast, is a major residential and commercial tax base for Atlanta. Longstanding complaints about city services have now landed on Durrett at the Buckhead Coalition and Buckhead CID, who recently spoke about working collaboratively with the Bottoms administration on improvements.

Complaints of Buckhead essentially subsidizing services in other neighborhoods for an overall lower service level overlap with such concerns as significant citywide income equality, the type of issue that led Bottoms to declare “equity” a core policy principle of her administration. In remarks shortly after the 2017 election, Norwood referred to inequity but said much of the city was still affordable and not paying enough in taxes while Buckhead was not given enough attention. The Bottoms administration criticized those comments as divisive and Norwood has spoken more cautiously on the topic since then.

At the BBA meeting, Norwood said that, having served as a councilmember elected citywide, she is well aware of inequities like “whole sections of town that do not have a sit-down restaurant.” She suggested inequity was rooted in zoning decisions that allowed rampant development, and resultant high real estate values, in places like Buckhead.

“So we have a city — people talk all about the inequity. The inequity is actually much more of a geographic inequity,” Norwood said. “Yes, there are truly salary inequities and all that. I get that.” Norwood continued that “what we did was allow everyone to build everything they wanted to build, forever and ever, amen, out here.” The rate of return on investment makes continued development in Buckhead more attractive than in some other parts of the city, she said.

“So the city services have always been challenging,” she said. “We pay a lot in taxes, both residential and commercial, and we have many needs in the city.”

As for those city services improvements in Buckhead, Norwood said that ultimately the city needs a better accounting system for the way funds are spent.

John Ruch

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