Atlanta Blacks Lose in Special Election
By Boyd Lewis
Vol. 2, No. 3, 1979, pp. 9-10
It’s the hottest political secret of Atlanta, the city “too busy to hate”, that the unhorsed barons of the old White power structure are now busily stringing together a collection of “great White hopes” to recapture the city’s top political position from Black office-holders.
There has been some anxiety as to just when the offensive will be launched. But with meticulous precision, the Ivan Allen Jr. Memorial Political Resurrection Machine is being assembled to pull the Atlanta mayorality, city council, county comission and the city’s legislative delegation back into the right-thinking, White-thinking, commercially sensitive camp.
But despite rumors to the contrary, the loss suffered by two Black candidates to the Whites in the City’s October special election and run-off did not signal the opening of the crusade to recapture the Political Grail from the Black Mecca.
Instead, the losses of Clint Deveaux in a county-wide legislative race and ma Evans in the election for a vacated post on the Atlanta City Council reflect dynamics all their own – dynamics both peculiar to Atlanta and applicable in all multiracial cities.
Deveaux lost to Bettye Lowe, wife of county commissioner Tom Lowe, who swamped him with 62 percent of the vote. InaEvans, whose previous political aspirations have floundered on heart-breakingly thin margins, teetered on the edge of victory all through the night of the October 23 run-off but lost to a former city neighborhood planner, Elaine Wiggins Lester.
In the general election of October 2 and the runoff three weeks later the turnout of registered voters was uniformly dismal. Seventy-five percent stayed home for the first vote, 88 percent didn’t vote in the runoff.
The general apathy was bad enough but Black voter apathy was so extreme that political observers had to go back to the days of the White Primary, the poll tax and nightriders to match the dismal figures. At Precinct 9 R in the heart of the Black district (Perry Homes) 4 percent of those registered voted. Precinct 9 K (Archer High School) had a 7 percent turnout. Many other predominantly Black precincts had less than 10 percent of their voters go to the polls.
The once-omnipotent political machine assembled in 1972 by former Congressman (and later UN Ambassador) Andy Young which mobilized the Black and progressive White neighborhood movements has since collapsed and
there is no longer any effective voter education /voter registration effort ongoing in the city.
Those who felt that the defeat of the local option sales tax measure October 2, piggybacked onto the special elections, was due to a revived coalition of Blacks and politically progressive Whites in the manner of the old Young Coalition were winking at the truth. The tax was supported by some of the builders of the Young machinery, Mayor Maynard Jackson, Julian Bond, and “Daddy” King as well as the downtown Chamber of Commerce and the daily newspapers.
The poor voted against the sales tax because they would be hit with another penny at the checkout counter and would benefit not at all by an alleged $29 million property tax rollback.
The city’s neighborhood movement, mostly lead by young White professionals at this point, opposed the sales tax because they didn’t want to dump more millions into a city council which has become a braying legislative jackass, oblivious to the overall needs of the city and grandly arrogant (as in the case of the refusal to let Atlantans vote on a replacement for city council president Carl Ware who resigned during the summer).
And the third leg on the stool of the “no” vote on the sales tax came from the White enclaves to the north of the city. This was the White flight getting in a joyful kick at Maynard Jackson, the coloreds, White hooligans of the liberal stripe and Atlanta in general.
A tin whistle is the prize to anyone who can link that vote into a coalition. Even Maynard Jackson’s troops defected in droves, with people who campaigned for him in 1973 and for reelection in 1977 being just as efficient in spending the sales tax hike/property tax cut scheme into the dustbin for years to come.
The White victors Lowe and Lester are hardly to be considered soul sisters. Bettye Lowe is a conservative, suburban oriented Republican and former lobbyist for the family, environment and something called the Committee for Moral and Social Decency. Elaine Lester lives in the integrated East Lake community, has excellent personal and professional contacts in the Black community and is as city-oriented as Lowe is county.
And there is very little bond of political commonality between Deveaux and Evans.
Deveaux is an articulate issues man who insists on personal campaigning without plugging into the infamous and often corrupt network of “endorsements”. His independence has cut him off from the usual round of kind words from the pulpit, introductions around Paschal’s inner circle at breakfast and presence on the “tickets”. His clearly middle class background (not to mention marriage to popular WSB TV news anchor Monica Kaufman) was not well perceived by lower income Black voters. His very name was remote and to the last, a mystery (“Dever – Oh, that Frenchman?”)
Ina Evans had far more street savvy than Deveaux, endorsements from such archangels of the city’s lumpenproletariat as former police commissioner Reginald Eaves and State Rep. Bill McKinney, a tireless sign-stapling crew and a husband who aggressively directed the DeKalb County NAACP. The polling results show how much stronger a campaigner she was than Deveaux but the ultimate outcome was no different: defeat. Evans failed to win the in-town White neighborhood support that Deveaux did because of her incomplete attention to issues research Time and again she would confess in debates that she honestly didn’t know the answer to a fairly routine question. Honesty is always good to have in politicians but not while confessing that homework has not been done.
The October elections demonstrated anew the fact that Atlanta remains a snug haven of political anarchy. No political machines set the tone or anoint the candidates. City elections remain a game played and won through a random process. But as sure as they’re bears in Atlanta’s Grant Park Zoo, the pale archons of the driving clubs and executive suites are viewing it all and marveling aloud how easy the Second Reconstruction could be slammed to a halt by swift, highly coordinated assaults when the next elections roll around.
What waits in the wings for Atlanta is far more important than the personal wins and losses acted out on the stage of October’s special election.
Boyd Lewis is a news reporter for WABE FM radio in Atlanta, Georgia.