Buckhead Coalition kicks off the 2017 Atlanta mayoral raceCandidates stand for a photo. Left to right: Michael Sterling, Peter Aman, Cathy Woolard, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mary Norwood, Vincent Fort, Kwanza Hall and Ceasar Mitchell (Photo by Maria Saporta)
By Maria Saporta
The mayoral race is on – thanks to the Buckhead Coalition.
At the 28th annual meeting of the Coalition, the eight declared candidates for Atlanta mayor were given an opportunity to make their debut in front of a highly-influential business and civic group.
It was a preview of what’s to come over the next nine months when the various candidates will be jockeying for the top job in the city.
First the group. The good news is that it reflects Atlanta’s diversity.
There are four black males in the race (Vincent Fort, Kwanza Hall, Ceasar Mitchell and Michael Sterling) and one white male (Peter Aman); there are two white females (Mary Norwood and Cathy Woolard) and one black female (Keisha Lance Bottoms).
There are four current members of the Atlanta City Council (Mitchell, who is president; Norwood, who is citywide; as well as Bottoms and Hall, who represent a district. There also is a candidate who is a former president of the City Council and is openly gay (Woolard); one state legislator (Fort); and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney (Sterling).
Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell, a former Atlanta mayor, had given the candidates an opportunity to answer two questions with answers limited to 60 seconds (with candidates responding in alphabetical order). What will you do better for Atlanta than your opponents? And what makes it more likely that you will be the one elected?
It was the first time the eight had appeared together in an official setting as candidates. One could even call it a luncheon version of a debutante ball. But what the brief program unveiled was the tactics and themes each likely would be highlighting during the campaign.
Peter Aman, a former consultant for Bain & Co., and a former chief operating officer under Mayor Kasim Reed, said he had experience running a large organization, both in the private sector and at City Hall.
“I have the integrity to lead the City of Atlanta because I’m not a politician,” Aman said.
City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is also executive director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, talked about seeing her father taken away in hand-cuffs and being raised by a single mom and how she was able to go to law school. That experience makes her comfortable visiting with a mother in Vine City and working with executives.
“I best my opponents in every category,” Bottoms said.
State Senator Vincent Fort spoke of possible corruption at City Hall and mentioned that each of his opponents have had positions with the city.
“Atlanta has lost its way. City Hall has lost its way,” Fort said. “There are people there who are more interested in serving their own interests rather than the people’s interest.”
City Councilman Kwanza Hall said he wanted to be “everybody’s mayor.” He pledged to create a “neighborhood renaissance” with transit-oriented development and having a neighborhood-centered public safety policy.
City Council President Ceasar Mitchell pledge “to play well in the sand box.” As an example, he said he would work with Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and hand over the deeds of school-owned property.
Mitchell also pledged to unify the three different transit entities – Atlanta Streetcar, Atlanta BeltLine and MARTA – and “hand over transit to MARTA.”
City Councilwoman Mary Norwood promised to bring greater transparency to City Hall by conducting forensic audits and overhauling the bidding process.
Norwood also said she make sure to work closely with the Atlanta police department to reduce crime. “I will get crime handled,” she said.
Michael Sterling, who also is the former executive director of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, also highlighted his public safety experience – something none of his opponents have.
Sterling described crime as a “nuanced issue.”
Cathy Woolard, who currently is a lobbyist for Georgia Equality, said she would bring people together. She also said she had the vision to push the idea for the Atlanta BeltLine when she was president of the City Council.
Woolard also said she understands Atlanta is the birthplace of civil rights, and she said she worked on comprehensive civil rights bill presented in the General Assembly.
The second question probably exposed the approaches and styles of the various candidates.
Aman used his time to attack Mitchell and Norwood, considered by many to be the frontrunners in the race. By comparison, Aman said he could be trusted to spend $14 billion in anticipated infrastructure investments.
“Others on this stage made bad judgements like expanding the city pensions and issuing no-bid contracts from their council accounts – including one to his brother,” Aman said. “When Ms. Norwood last ran for mayor, even the media said her ideas would bust the budget. And, Mr. Mitchell repeatedly violated the code of ethics.”
Bottoms said when she first ran for City Council, she ran against eight other people and won without a run-off. She said she polls high in her district, which is the base of her support. She also said she’s been instrumental in the Turner Field development plans.
Fort said he regularly receives 20,000 to 22,000 votes in his state district, which is about half of what would be needed to win the mayor’s race. He also said the “elephant in the room” was the increase in murders due to the growing presence of gangs.
Hall said his intown district usually has high voter turnout, and he grew up in southwest Atlanta, where he still has support. He also said he has not had opposition in 2009 and 2013.
Mitchell seemed to respond to Aman by saying: “The first thing I could do is have a thick skin.” He then said he usually receives more than 30,000 votes in his citywide races. That support will grow as he shares his message and vision for the city.
Norwood said she has run citywide four times, and won three of those races. The one she lost was in 2009 in a run-off with Kasim Reed – getting more than 40,000 votes but losing by 714 votes.
She said she has support from throughout the city, and that she is putting together “a ground game like nothing else.”
Sterling said 72 percent of eligible voters do not vote in the City of Atlanta, and he said that only one council member has been elected mayor in 25 years (former Mayor Bill Campbell). He said Atlanta could be an example for the country.
Lastly Woolard said her strategy would be to make sure she was among the top four candidates – and to get into the run-off. She also reminded folks that she beat Michael Julian Bond when she ran for Council. Bond has since been elected to Council and has a city-wide post.
Buckhead Coalition’s Massell then asked a “surprise” third question – one that only required a yes or no answer. If elected, would they commit to being next year’s keynote speaker?
Each of them answered yes.
By the way, current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed – who was expected to show up late – did not come to see the slate of candidates who want to succeed him.