How Would Buckhead Vote if it were a City?
A closer look at the racial and political landscape of Buckhead amid cityhood talks
Lately, residents of the northern Atlanta community of Buckhead have expressed support for breaking away from Atlanta to form their own city. The cityhood movement has been met with support from community organizers but opposition from city leaders. Today, we are going to take a closer look at Buckhead and how it has voted in recent city and national elections. But before we do that, let’s go over some details about the affluent community.
What is Buckhead?
With a population of about 90,000, Buckhead is a community in north Atlanta that comprises of most of the city’s shopping malls, high rises, condominiums and office buildings. It is the wealthiest part of the city, with a median household income of over $140,000, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Several of the city’s most recognizable attractions are located in Buckhead, such as Lenox Square Mall, Phipps Plaza, the Atlanta History Center and Chastain Park. A pretty well-known Georgian also lives in Buckhead: former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R).
Why do residents want cityhood?
The one-word answer: crime. Residents and community organizers have grown very frustrated by the increase in violent crime in Atlanta over the last year. As of last weekend, the Atlanta Police Department has recorded 44 homicide investigations since the beginning of 2021, an increase of about 60% from this time last year. It has become such a huge problem that Georgia House David Ralston formed a study committee this year to help determine whether or not state troopers should intervene.
Though crime is seen as the biggest reason, it’s not the only one. Some Buckhead residents also believe that they pay too much in taxes compared to the rest of the city and that they are not getting their money’s worth. The process of establishing a new city requires action from the Georgia Legislature, where a bill was recently introduced to establish “Buckhead City.” It’s likely to set off a fiery debate under the Gold Dome, but if it passes, residents of Buckhead will then get to weigh in on the matter.
Opponents of the cityhood movement claim that the move would not only do little to solve the crime problem, but that it would deal a major blow to Atlanta’s economy. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is set to face a competitive re-election campaign this year, argues that creating a new city won’t make crime magically disappear. “As we know, people can travel across geographic lines,” she said. Economic experts and business groups warn that creating a new city would leave a gaping hole in Atlanta’s budget, because Buckhead residents pay nearly half of the city’s property taxes despite making up about one-fifth of Atlanta’s population.
What would “Buckhead City” look like?
Currently, the city of Atlanta as a whole is about 52% African-American and 38% white. Known in pop culture as “the Black Mecca,” analysts have taken notice of an increase in Atlanta’s white population since the beginning of the 21st century. “It increased from 31 percent in 2000 to 35 percent in 2006, a numeric gain of 26,000, more than double the increase between 1990 and 2000.”
In terms of what Buckhead City would look like, the charts above should answer that question. If Buckhead were to break away from Atlanta and form its own city, it would be nearly three-quarters white. Meanwhile, what’s left of Atlanta would be about three-fifths African-American. In a time when most of the country is having serious discussions about racial injustice, the optics of an upscale white community separating from a city widely recognized as the birthplace of the civil rights movement would surely raise eyebrows from opponents.
Being the wealthiest part of Atlanta, Buckhead would also have an extremely high median household income compared to the rest of the city. As I mentioned earlier, Buckhead would have a MHI of over $140,000. That’s almost three times as much as the rest of the city: $53,000.
Moving into Buckhead’s landscape, let’s start off with its local politics. With Atlanta hurdling towards another competitive race for mayor this year, it’s worth reminding everyone of the racial and regional polarization in the city. In the 2017 race for mayor, which was decided by less than 800 votes, eventual Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was strongest in areas south of I-20, where most of the city’s Black voters live. Meanwhile, city councilwoman Mary Norwood, who had run unsuccessfully for mayor eight years prior in a similarly close contest, was strongest in the upscale white areas in and around Buckhead.
Norwood won the proposed city of Buckhead by an astonishing 82-18 margin, but it was not enough to overcome Bottoms’ performance in the rest of the city, as Buckhead only made up less than 25% of the votes cast in the razor-thin contest. Norwood, who lives in Buckhead, has not yet weighed in on the cityhood debate. Instead of seeking a rematch with Bottoms, Norwood has decided to once again run for a seat on the Atlanta Council. Since her 2017 loss, Norwood became the chair of a Buckhead community organization.
A self-identified Independent, Norwood’s political affiliation has always been a topic of discussion among her critics, with some even going as far as to label her as a Trump supporter in the 2017 race for mayor. She has largely stayed out of national politics — that is, until the aftermath of the 2020 presidential race. She signed onto the Trump campaign’s attempts to overturn the election results, and even raised concerns about fraud in both of her narrow losses for mayor.
You would think that a candidate like Bottoms, a Democrat, would have no problem winning citywide elections. But Atlanta’s municipal elections are nonpartisan. This means that there are no party labels listed on the ballot, and there are no Democratic or Republican primaries. Instead, all candidates compete in a jungle primary, and the top two advance to a runoff if no one earns more than 50% of the vote. This very important caveat has led to some extremely close races for the city’s top job, and it could very well do so again this year. So far Bottoms’ top challenger is City Council President Felicia Moore, who is a Democrat herself. It has been decades since an Atlanta mayor was defeated for re-election, but with Bottoms facing high crime rates and serious opposition, her campaign for a second term could be the fight of her political life.
When it comes to presidential politics, Buckhead has not been immune from the trends that we have seen in similar areas across the country: traditionally Republican upscale whites who have been turned off by the direction of the GOP under the leadership of Trump.
Mitt Romney could be described as the living embodiment of Buckhead: a fiscally conservative white businessman who supports tax cuts, personal responsibility and less government intervention. His near-60% showing in Buckhead should not be too surprising to folks who know a lot about the area.
Then, along comes a guy named Donald Trump. Though many people in Buckhead may have supported certain aspects of his economic agenda, they were extremely uncomfortable with his rhetoric and the direction of the GOP under his leadership. Buckhead went from a double-digit Romney win to a double-digit Trump loss in the span of just four years.
Fast forward to 2020, and the results are practically a mirror image of 2012, with Joe Biden winning Buckhead with over 60% of the vote. Unless Trump is the GOP nominee once again in 2024, these types of numbers may not be easy to achieve for future Democratic presidential candidates. Why? Simply put, Trump was just not a good fit for Buckhead voters. After all, they were far more generous to down-ballot Republicans. In the November general election, Democrat Jon Ossoff only won Buckhead with 55% of the vote to Republican Sen. David Perdue’s 44%, an underperformance of about 12 percentage points.
And in State House District 52, which includes part of Buckhead, the Republican incumbent fell just a few hundred votes short of winning re-election as Biden was winning the district by nearly 16 percentage points. These voters may not like Trump, but they have not completely turned on Republicans altogether. If that were the case, we would not be seeing these types of impressive performances from down-ballot Republicans.
Buckhead cityhood remains a very divisive issue, and that’s not going to change any time soon. But the reality is this: if Buckhead were to form its own city, it would be overwhelmingly white and extremely wealthy. As such, a hypothetical city government would very likely be run by white politicians.
In national politics, the once-reliably Republican Buckhead has begun to vote Democratic in recent elections, driven largely by the rhetoric of Donald Trump. But they have not completely abandoned the Republican Party, because down-ballot Republicans have managed to perform pretty well here despite Trump’s unpopularity.
Whether or not Buckhead will succeed in forming its own city continues to be an open question, as this is far from the first time residents have expressed support for cityhood. But amid rising crime rates and growing tensions with city leaders, it’s safe to assume that the prospect of cityhood is higher than it has ever been before.