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Of ‘thugs’ and ‘coded language’ Atlanta mayoral candidates clash in GPB debate

Atlanta mayoral contenders Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood clashed Tuesday in a debate that highlighted the racial politics that could polarize the race a week ahead of the runoff.

The two candidates, both councilwomen, have both embraced aggressive new ethics overhauls amid the federal corruption probe into City Hall. The two elaborated on their plans to reduce housing inequality. And both pledged to push for new pay and incentives for police officers.

But the sharper exchanges during the Georgia Public Broadcasting debate revolved more around tone and political strategy and less about policy.

Bottoms faced tough questions over the Democratic Party of Georgia’s ads depicting her opponent as a closet Republican. And Norwood was criticized by her rival for “coded language” in an address to Buckhead Young Republicans that was secretly recorded.

They were among the biggest clashes in the debate between Norwood, who would become Atlanta’s first white mayor since 1973, and Bottoms, who enjoys the support from incumbent Mayor Kasim Reed and much of the city’s African-American and Democratic establishment.

TV host Monica Kaufman, a panelist on the debate, opened the debate with a pointed question about ads from the Democratic Party of Georgia depicting Norwood as a member of the “Party of Trump.”

“Can you control the Democratic Party and their message which is becoming very racist?” Kaufman asked.

Bottoms responded by saying Norwood has essentially forced the party's hand. She said “racial conversations have become injected" into the campaign in part because of Norwood’s answers to questions at previous forums involving racial profiling and Donald Trump.

Norwood said she's suffered a string of "half truths, slanderous comments and falsehoods that are impacting not only me but this city.”

“Let’s be very clear. I am progressive in every sense of the word," she said. "And the fact that I’m being maligned with a label that itself is being maligned – I’ve stood firm against any bigotry, any hatred.”

The candidates also turned to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report on Norwood’s allegations that Reed’s campaign engaged in widespread voter fraud to win his 2009 race against her. Bottoms said Norwood littered her comments with “coded language,” including the use of the word “thugs" during that June address, which was recorded in secret by a crowdmember.

“The coded language was related to African-Americans who exercised their lawful right to vote,” said Bottoms. “And my opponent referred to it in a secret tape using coded language.”

When Norwood responded that a case involving 111 people who crossed over jurisdictional lines to vote using an address for a public housing that no longer existed, Bottoms cut in.

“Did you use the word thug? Did you call them thugs?”

Answered Norwood: “Thugs does not mean African Americans, Ms. Bottoms. Thugs mean unethical behavior.”

Kaufman, meanwhile, expressed frustration over the bitter infighting between the candidates. In the windup to a question during the televised debate, she said she once was excited that two women in a runoff could bring a different type of campaign.

Instead, she said, “you two are acting like typical Republican, Democratic and independent men.”

Both candidates, however, made clear they would stick to their labels: Bottoms a Democrat, Norwood an independent. Asked about the potential of an alliance with Gov. Nathan Deal and his successor, both were frank.

Said Norwood: “When we talk in these terms, in Rs and Ds and reds and blues and coding, it becomes so hard for our next mayor to work with the next governor – a Republican, possibly, and a Republican administration.”

In her answer, Bottoms suggested her rival has different messages for different audiences.

“Everyone has to understand where you stand,” said Bottoms. “I’m a Democrat. A lifelong Democrat. And when I walk into the state Capitol, they’ll know that.”

Watch the entire debate here:

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.