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Riverdale mayor, challenger face voters Tuesday

By Billy Corriher

When Mary Lee was first elected as mayor of the city of Riverdale in 1991, three out of every four voters in Clayton County were white.

Now as she faces voters in the fight for her political life on Tuesday, the black population in the county has climbed to 52.7 percent while the white population has dropped to less than 40 percent.

The numbers are even more dramatic in Riverdale.

There are 14,407 black voters and 3,899 white voters on the active list.

While neither has campaigned on race, it has been very evident in the city this year where the federal EEOC was called in to investigate complaints of racial discrimination in the city's police department.

Both Lee, 69, and her opponent, Phaedra Graham, 38, have been pounding the streets in search of voters as the runoff nears.

Lee, who is white, has held the office since 1991 and either mayor or on the council for 17 years and hopes to win another four-year term.

Graham would be the city's first black mayor.

She led the field of four candidates in the first race three weeks ago.

Graham received 411 votes in the Nov. 4 election, compared to Lee's 260 votes.

Graham was reluctant to credit the results to the black population increase, but Lee said after the election that race did play a factor.

With such a small percentage of the city's registered voters turning out for the election and the possibility of an even smaller showing for the runoff, the victory seems to hang on who can get their voters back to the polls on Tuesday.

Lee said her campaign is stressing her extensive experience with municipal government. She has defended her record as mayor throughout the race and said her campaign is depending on the support of African-Americans in the community.

Lee said she has been campaigning door-to-door recently and talking to voters about the election, but she could not speculate on how many voters would turn out.

"I'm hoping they get out and vote," she said. "We've been telling people how important it is."

Graham, an English teacher at Mundy's Mill High School, said she is hoping for a record turnout for the runoff election.

"I'm making every effort to make sure that people know to vote in the runoff election," she said. Graham said that she has done even more campaigning for the runoff than she did for the first election.

Graham's platform has consisted of a three-part plan: improve community relations in the police department, implement a strong economic development plan and create more youth activities and programs.

Graham has called for trust to be restored in the police department, which has been the subject of an investigation that found complaints among black officers that they were being treated unfairly.

Several officers came forward with accusations of discrimination, particularly against Major Paul Weathers, former assistant chief. Weathers was reassigned and now heads the criminal investigation division.

While the EEOC has completed its investigation into the allegations, it has not released its findings yet.

Lee said the department has taken action and had an independent review and is waiting for another review from the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I think they're going to find out that it's something minor, something that could be handled by the chief," Lee said.

In the first race, two other black candidates got a total of 301 votes.

One of those candidates who did not qualify for the runoff but received 195 votes, Kelley Jackson, said she is endorsing Graham because Mayor Lee is not in touch with Riverdale's changing constituency.

"(Graham) represents the constituency well," Jackson said. "Mary Lee has demonstrated that she is not really in touch with the community any more," Jackson contended.

The polls will be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Riverdale City Hall.