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Forum spotlights lesser-known Atlanta mayoral candidates, Clifton Corridor transit

Attending the Oct. 5 mayoral forum on the Emory University campus were (front row, from left) candidates Antonio Brown, Andre Dickens, Kirsten Dunn, Nolan English, Sharon Gay, Mark Hammad; and (back row, from left) Kenny Hill, Rebecca King, Felicia Moore, Kasim Reed, Roosevelt Searles III, Richard Wright and Glenn Wrightson. At the podium is moderator Jocelyn Dorsey.

By John Ruch

A mayoral mega-forum featuring 13 of the 14 candidates on Oct. 5 spotlighted some of the lesser-known contenders and let them all weigh in on such issues as a new MARTA rail line to Emory University.

The forum also made unanimous the entire field’s opposition to the controversial Buckhead cityhood movement — though one candidate supported the neighborhood’s right to vote on the question.

Held at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church on Emory’s Druid Hills campus, the forum was sponsored by the university along with the ACLU of Georgia, the League of Women Voters Atlanta-Fulton County, and the Urban League of Greater Atlanta.

The five top-polling candidates — Antonio Brown, Andre Dickens, Sharon Gay, Felicia Moore and Kasim Reed — have appeared in many forums already and largely repeated their answers to similar questions.

But it was a rare spotlight for the others, who included Kirsten Dunn, Nolan English, Mark Hammad, Kenny Hill, Rebecca King, Roosevelt Searles III, Richard Wright and Glenn Wrightson. Walter Reeves was the only candidate on the Nov. 2 ballot who did not appear; he joined a previous forum to share his views and “blue-collar street cred.”

Even that giant panel was incomplete, as the forum organizers did not invite the two certified write-in contenders — Henry Anderson and Brandon Adkins.

To view the video of the entire forum, click here or scroll to the end of this story. For more about the election and candidates, see the SaportaReport/Atlanta Civic Circle Voters Resource Guide.

Spotlighting the lesser-known candidates

In a time of political discontent, several of the lesser-known candidates are pitching themselves as system-rattling outsiders. The forum’s format was against them, as it barred direct criticisms of any candidates, politicians or even — as moderator and former WSB-TV figure Jocelyn Dorsey put it — “blanket attacks” on government, a framing that naturally insulated the establishment contenders. Searles, one target of Dorsey’s chiding, finally noted that a federal corruption investigation into City Hall was a fact, not an attack — though even he didn’t specify the scandal dates to Reed’s prior administration.

Nonetheless, the less-than-front-running candidates got their chances to introduce themselves. Some excerpts of their appearances:

Dunn said the city is facing “nontraditional problems” and needs her “nontraditional leadership… to take Atlanta to healing.” She repeatedly used current Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ “One Atlanta” slogan without attribution in such campaign ideas as a “One Atlanta app” that would allow residents to easily follow City Council votes.

English, a Kentucky native, said he chose to live in Atlanta “kind of like I chose my wife” as a good place to raise his children. Emphasizing the importance of leadership, he paraphrased a popular quote in saying, “An army of lions will always be defeated by an army of lambs” — if a lion is also leading the lambs and vice versa.

Hammad blasted crime and the Buckhead cityhood movement as failures of leadership by the status quo and career politicians with “short-term, selfish thinking.” Pitching his appeal, he said, “I’m a political outsider, I’m a nonpartisan, and I will bring change.” Among his specific ideas was that policing is not the root of the crime problem, but the rather lax treatment of repeat offenders.

Hill said that crime and corruption were dividing the city. “Atlanta deserves a new kind of mayor,” he said, one that lacks “political entanglements or personal agendas.” On housing affordability, he cited his operation of a program that helps homeless, single mothers transition to homeownership within a year.

King is a Buckhead resident and previous contender for a City Council seat there. She said she was motivated to run by “crumbling infrastructure,” crime, and “because I wanted Buckhead to stay in the City of Atlanta.”

Searles said he is “representing the people of Atlanta who are fed up, who are tired, who are frustrated” by out-of-touch leaders. He had one of the most detailed anti-crime proposals, including a “People’s Patrol” of 1,000 veterans and social workers to handle non-emergency police calls, moving “habitual violent offenders” into long-term rehabilitation facilities (though the City does not itself prosecute or imprison felons) and a plan to “legalize marijuana within city limits.”

Wright said he has the right “skillset, mindset and temperament” to be mayor. That includes a business degree and training as an accountant. He said that “racial animosity” is among the challenges that he can help to solve.

Wrightson said he’s running because “I think the city government needs to be more productive.” That’s not so much a matter of new programs, he said, as a “reboot” of existing ones to get more for the money. He also positioned himself as the only candidate talking about climate issues.

Clifton Corridor MARTA line

Emory wanted to know how the candidates would “promote” MARTA’s long-planned Clifton Corridor, a light-rail line intended to run between Buckhead’s Lindbergh Center Station and Avondale Station through the university area. Though part of the “More MARTA” sales tax funding package, it remains stalled.

The responses ranged from low-detail promises to begin construction, to calls for more analysis, to one outright rejection.

Reed and Wrightson pledged a quick start without detailing how, as mayors do not control MARTA. Reed said that the groundbreaking would come “before the end of my term,” which could mean up to eight years under Atlanta’s term limits. Wrightson said he’d get the project off the drawing board as part of his approach to being “less talk-y talk-y and more do-y do-y.” Wright specified that new federal infrastructure money should be spent on the project if Congress approves the bill.

Hammad called for a do-over, saying rail is inferior to bus rapid transit on such factors as expense and length of construction. BRT could be implemented in the area within a year or two, he argued.

Dickens and Moore said a priority list of transit projects needs to be set against the backdrop of equity in planning and such other list-topping items as light rail on the Atlanta BeltLine. English called for a reevaluation of the project at the Neighborhood Planning Unit level, and transit-oriented development as a key part of any project.

Brown and Searles said MARTA needs to rebuild trust as a way to get money and support. Brown called for expanding BRT around the city and getting rider representation on the MARTA board as among the steps.

Gay and King offered broad support. Gay called the project “essential,” while King looked ahead to offering incentives to boost ridership.

Dunn simply called for the existing plan to continue.

Buckhead cityhood opposition

The candidates offered no support for the Buckhead cityhood movement, or as English called it, the attempt to “secede from the union.”

Hammad and King are both Buckhead residents. King said she believes improved cityhood services would convince Buckhead voters to remain. Hammad said he believes it likely the cityhood question will make it onto the 2022 ballot, so leaders must target the neighborhood’s undecided voters.

Searles says he opposes cityhood but supports placing the question on the ballot because “we don’t live in a dictatorship” and people should have the right to choose.

Wrightson did not directly state opposition, but referred to cityhood backers as a “disgruntled spouse” and predicted that under new City leadership, the neighborhood would elect to remain part of Atlanta.

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