Race was an underlying factor throughout the Georgia Public Broadcasting mayoral debate Tuesday, Nov. 28.

Panelist Monica Pearson said ads placed by Keisha Lance Bottoms’ campaign on black-targeted radio stations appeared racist. The ads suggest Mary Norwood, who is officially a political independent, is a Republican, which is code for white and racist within the black community.

“Just this morning I heard spots on black radio that were basically saying this woman does not support the black community,” Pearson said. “Can you control the Democratic Party and their message, which has become racist?”

Bottoms, who represents Southwest Atlanta, said it is unfortunate race has been interjected into the campaign, but it is important because Norwood has not denounced President Donald Trump, blamed by Bottoms for immigration stops that target people of color in the Atlanta suburbs.

Bottoms said Norwood’s campaign language implies that “you can’t have anything or be a part of government without being corrupt,” a narrative applied to urban governments across the nation.

Panelist Jim Galloway questioned Norwood’s coded speech at a Buckhead Young Republicans meeting in June at which she spoke of Mayor Kasim Reed’s 2009 campaign bringing in thugs and paying people to vote — references to people on housing vouchers and in housing projects.

“The coded language was referring to African-Americans who exercise their lawful right to vote,” Bottoms said.

Norwood said she has spoken to many groups, including the NAACP, about her concerns regarding fair election outcomes. She said she never went public because she didn’t want to “damage the reputation of the city.”

Instead, Norwood waited until a seat was open on the Board of Elections and was appointed.

“I’ve talked about irregularities which I could prove and what I suspected. When I was on the board, it was presented to the elections board 111 people crossed over jurisdiction lines to vote at a public housing address that no longer existed. Thug does not mean African-American,” Norwood said. “Thug means unethical behavior, and it is unethical for someone to coerce a nice person from whatever background or nationality into committing a crime in order to affect the outcome of a vote.”

Pearson expressed concerns about the racial divide that appeared in the November election, when Bottoms won majority-black Southwest Atlanta and Norwood won majority-white Buckhead.

“Black people voted for black people, and white people voted for white people,” Pearson said, but the next mayor needs to unite Atlanta and consider all races and immigrants when introducing legislation on affordable housing, transportation and income inequality.

Bottoms said racial issues are trickling down from national politics. “It’s a very real issue in this city, and that’s why it’s important we know who our candidates are and how they align their politics,” she said. “I think when you’re in a race, it’s important to have conversations people are having in their communities. The racial conversation is a conversation going on in our community, and if we ignore it, we can’t address that issue.”

Norwood, whose endorsements include former Mayor Shirley Franklin, most of the eliminated mayoral candidates (black and white) and every union in Atlanta (a predominantly African-American workforce), focused on the issues that can transcend race, such as transit, sustainability, connectivity, neighborhood preservation and education.

“My campaign has been a campaign of unity, period,” Norwood said. “When I’m out in communities, our communities don’t have this divide. This has been injected into the race as a mass distraction from the corruption and who is going to clean up City Hall.”