Atlanta’s mayoral campaign has been a learning experience

By Maria Saporta

As we enter the closing stretch of Atlanta’s mayoral campaign, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on how unique this election has been.

Its uniqueness goes way beyond the fact that there’s a white woman who is the odds-on favorite to win the election — either on Tuesday without a run-off, or on Dec. 1.

It goes way beyond the demographic changes underway in our city. And it goes way beyond whether the candidates pass the test of being Democrats, Republicans or Independents. (In fact, pollster Matt Towery said this has been the most difficult campaign he has ever polled because of all the unknowns).

This mayoral campaign has stood out in another significant way. By latest count, there have been close to 50 forums and debates with the top mayoral candidates.

Some people, especially the candidates, have said having so many forums in a campaign is overkill. In previous contested mayoral elections, close political observers say there couldn’t have been more than 20.

As grueling as all those forums have been, they have been invaluable in several ways.

First, it was an opportunity for Atlantans to get up close to the candidates and compare/contrast their views and their presence.

Second, the forums provided an essential educational role for the candidates. In many ways, these were “mayors-in-training” events where the candidates were able to hear from every corner and every constituency in the city about the issues that are important to them.

Whether it was transportation, quality of life, the arts, neighborhood issues, minority business concerns, public safety or city finances, the forums gave Atlantans an opportunity to inform the candidates about what priorities they believe the next mayor should address.

But something else that’s a bit more subtle also has occurred — I’ll call it opinion by osmosis.

The major candidates have been listening to each other during all these forums. While they may not all agree on the various issues, there has been an opportunity for the winner to borrow ideas from his or her opponents.

At the end of a recent forum of the Buckhead Business Association, I asked City Councilwoman Mary Norwood if she has seen a sharing of ideas among the candidates.

She quickly answered yes. Some of the ideas she presented earlier in the campaign were now being repeated by the other major candidates in the race.

City Council President Lisa Borders, former state Sen. Kasim Reed, attorney Jesse Spikes and Norwood might be sick of each other by now. But they have all been become experts on each other’s positions.

So one of the great opportunities of this election is the ability for the winning to candidate to adopt the best ideas that were discussed during the campaign and incorporate them in the new mayor’s agenda.

On the downside, this has been a negative, acrimonious campaign that has painted Atlanta in an unflattering corner. The next mayor will have lots of cleaning up to do to heal the fractures that have inevitably developed.

For starters, the new mayor needs to reconcile with current Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and give credit where credit is due. In fact, the next mayor would be smart to model herself or himself after Franklin in several ways.

She has made ethics a hallmark of her administration, a welcome contrast to her predecessor. She has been able to engage several companies to provide consulting services free of charge. Bain & Co. did comprehensive reviews of the city’s financial situation (remember Franklin found a deficit of about $80 million) when she took office. Bain also conducted “best-in-class” reviews of similar-sized cities to help Atlanta develop its agenda.

Franklin also established a close working relationship with top metro Atlanta business leaders. Through the Atlanta Committee for Progress, she was able to implement a host of initiatives — the Beltline, the Gateway Center, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, Sustainable Atlanta, the Peachtree Corridor and streetcar — to name a few.

Franklin also has been a strong ambassador for Atlanta. She has established close relationships with suburban elected officials through the Atlanta Regional Commission — forging the closest ties that the city has had within the region in decades.

Because Franklin championed a property tax increase earlier this year, the new mayor will take over a city without a budget deficit.

Franklin also has been a strong ambassador for the city nationally and internationally. The new mayor will need to strengthen the relationship with the Obama administration to make sure the city of Atlanta can get its fair share of federal dollars.

Yes, there have been problems. Franklin should have hired a much more qualified finance commissioner than she did. The city also should have been much more careful about committing the city to increased pensions for employees.

My hope is that whoever becomes mayor, be it on Tuesday or four weeks from now, will be forward-looking and visionary. We must get out of the accusatory mode of focusing on the Atlanta’s shortcomings.

With apologies to legendary Atlanta leader Henry Grady, we need to redirect our energies to building a brave and beautiful city.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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