Mayoral and City Council candidates make their pitches on fixing Atlanta’s government
More than 40 candidates in the mayoral and City Council races joined in frenetic forums hosted June 8 by the Committee for a Better Atlanta, where consensus seemed to be that city government is a mess but you’ll have plenty of choices about who will clean it up.
The city is guaranteed to have a major leadership shakeup after the Nov. 2 election, as incumbent Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ decision not to run for reelection set dominos falling for the council presidency and seats. Bottoms wasn’t named during the forums, but many candidates might as well have been running against her as they broadly criticized the current government. Crime fear and reality remained a top concern, but that was just part of a theme about aloof leadership and lack of attention to detail causing poor city services, low transparency and a sense of disconnection. Those trends are culminating in the political embarrassment of the movement for Buckhead to secede and become its own city, an idea no candidate supported but for which several expressed sympathy.
While crowded enough as it was, the forums were missing some contenders, including District 10 incumbent Andrea Boone and Mary Norwood, who previously lost mayoral races to Bottoms and former Mayor Kasim Reed, and is now a candidate for Buckhead’s District 8 City Council seat. Reed himself managed to overshadow the mayoral forum without attending it amid rumors he would make another bid for the office — which he filed to do the next day.
The virtual forums included some sharp questions but allowed only 30 seconds per answer and no debates, amounting to a kind of political speed dating. As a time-saver, the organizers confusingly mixed together candidates from different council races. There were no candidate-specific questions and thus no discussion of such unusual individual situations as a mayoral candidate under indictment on federal fraud charges.
The forum had its quirky moments, including a candidate leaving the stage to take a phone call and another rejecting the CBA’s endorsement due to its support for a controversial police and firefighter training facility at the shuttered Prison Farm.
The CBA is a coalition of businesses and civic organizations formed in the 1990s by leaders of Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Buckhead Coalition to influence voters by scoring candidates for city offices on various policy positions. The CBA has launched its own 2021 policy platform, which focuses on public safety, equitable economic development and housing affordability.
The following is a snapshot of how the candidates presented themselves in their 30-second sound bites. To view the full forum for mayoral, council president and at-large council candidates, click here. To view the forum for district council candidates, click here. Or watch the videos at the end of this story.
All candidates seemed to agree that public safety is the top concern in the city. “Until we get that addressed, all other things will not matter,” said Moore.
Brown offered the most policy detail, saying that crime is “a side effect of generational poverty that has gone unaddressed for decades in this city”; his plan includes a Department of Public Safety and Wellness for non-emergency responses and a $250 million workforce development bond to get people jobs. No one mentioned Brown’s own law enforcement issue: he’s the candidate under indictment on federal fraud charges, which he says are untrue and the product of his whistleblowing on someone else’s corruption.
Dickens offered a specific campaign promise: he would retain Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant on the expectation that crime would drop within his administration’s first 100 days, “and that’s when we start a national search [for a new chief] if not.”
Gay said she has been a mugging victim and could have spoken for everyone when she said that “I’m running for mayor because our city is in trouble and I want to help.”
Reeves asked the audience to imagine a hypothetical looting of the High Museum of Art by rioters. Many of his responses were similarly hard to follow, as he repeatedly touted his unexplained “serious blue-collar street cred” and made obscure references to an FBI art-theft expert and a war crimes prosecutor.
The Buckhead cityhood movement, a separatist effort from some residents of the wealthy, majority-white community, is a major political outcome of crime concerns that all candidates condemned in soothing terms. “The first thing I would do is show up. This is a cry for help,” said Gay.
Brown said all citizens want the same thing, “so this unconscious and unspoken divide … has got to end. And it starts with communication. We’ve got to rebuild the trust and communication with Buckhead.”
Moore, who has regularly appeared in Buckhead meetings to discuss crime concerns, said all concerns of cityhood supporters need to be answered. “I believe if we address the issues, we take away the argument anyone would have to leave this great city…,” she said.
“Buckhead is intertwined with the city of Atlanta. We don’t want to let that go away,” said Dickens, echoing the call for attention to the neighborhood. Reeves called for the Georgia National Guard to police Buckhead, which has happened in a limited fashion under Gov. Brian Kemp’s emergency orders about the pandemic and last year’s riots and crime spike.
All of the candidates indicated they could handle the traditional and sometimes rocky relationships the mayor’s office has with state government leaders and the business community, with various nuances. Dickens and Moore claimed the most direct experience in working with state legislators and governors. Gay said business should be “part of city government” with big requests for help, while Reeves said he would not be a “corporate sock puppet.”
CITY COUNCIL PRESIDENT
Candidates: City Councilmember Natalyn Archibong; Courtney English, former chairman, Atlanta Board of Education; Doug Shipman, former CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center and National Center for Civil and Human Rights; U.S. Army Lt. Col. (retired) Mike Russell.
The forum for the council presidency, a citywide position, echoed many themes of the mayoral race, with an additional focus on more transparency and metrics in city policies and budgets.
Archibong touted her experience as a 20-year City Council member and an “independent voice.” When it comes to working with the council and the mayor, “I will be ready Day One,” she said.
“Unfortunately, Atlanta’s feeling less and less like home,” said English, pledging to create a “policy think tank” on such issues as crime, economic disparity and basic city services.
Russell cited his experience in the military police and Army leadership as why he’s best to tackle crime and dysfunctional city operations. “I know how to bring people together,” he said, decrying the current council as engaging in more “virtue-signaling” than strategic planning.
Shipman said he would be a collaborative president the council needs “right now when we feel the city pulling itself apart and not working together.”
CITY COUNCIL POST 1 AT LARGE
Candidates: Incumbent Michael Julian Bond; teacher Alfred “Shivy” Brooks; attorney Brandon Cory Goldberg; Todd A. Gray, a diversity program leader; consultant Jereme Sharpe
The candidates for this at-large council seat had diverse takes on the city’s most urgent issue. Bond and Gray cited crime and various policy proposals to tackle it. Brooks agreed on crime but added housing affordability. Sharpe said the main problem is “our city is very disorganized” and needs to better organize and promote its services. Goldberg emphasized the “division in our city,” saying the last mayoral election between Bottoms and Norwood showed a “tale of white Atlanta and Black Atlanta” that need to be united.
CITY COUNCIL POST 2 AT LARGE
Candidates: Incumbent Matt Westmoreland
Westmoreland had a lengthy list of policy challenges and priorities: income inequality, health disparities, “racial and social justice,” the need for a funding stream for affordable housing, universal early-childhood education and infrastructure investments through such mechanisms as a renewed transportation special local-option sales tax. Policing improvements should include training officers in a facility “worthy of them,” he said.
This is another race with some diversity in views of political priorities. Labat cited crime and related “division” that is sparking the Buckhead cityhood. She did not mention that she is married to Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, who is involved in political battles over such issues as the fate of the city jail.
Long cited crime, jobs and traffic, adding, “I wish I could combine crime and jobs to ‘crobs’ or something” to reflect their interrelationship. Merriday said “equity” is the biggest issue and touted herself as a “battle-tested leader” from her role as an ombudsman for Atlanta Public Schools during its cheating scandal.
In an unusual moment, Labat halted in the midst of an answer about sustainability policies and left the stage for a few minutes, saying she needed to take a phone call from her son.
The candidates had a variety of priorities for the district’s top issue. Blalock said crime will pass, but the environment is a long-term concern with such issues as pollution in the South River. Clubb cited all forms of transportation and safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, saying he has been hit by a vehicle while biking. Lee focused on housing affordability and avoiding displacement of existing homeowners. Winston emphasized public safety, citing such crimes in the district as the killing of a teenager.
In an unusual start, Blalock said he would not accept a CBA endorsement due to its own political position in favor of turning the former Prison Farm into “a police country club,” referring to the training facility plan.
CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 2
Candidates: Incumbent Amir Farokhi
Farokhi said a major issue he wants to continue working on is “lack of priority of delivering basic public services” because “on a day to day basis, this is what drives people mad.” He added, “This lack of attention to detail is crippling us as a city and puts us at a disadvantage vis-a-vis our competitor regions.”
CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 3
Candidates: entrepreneur Brandon Graham
Graham said that crime is the top issue in his district and needs to be tackled with a comprehensive “tactical plan.” On housing affordability, he said fairness and equity are missing policy pieces. He said discussions are needed with developers and investors to figure out “what true affordable housing means” and to find a pipeline of consistent funding for it.
The District 4 race is another one with a variety of views on the top issue. Winslow cited young people’s involvement in crime and assistance from Atlanta Police Department and Atlanta Police Foundation youth programs. Others focused on low incomes and wealth: Arcila said the area is “poverty-struck,” while Dozier cited displacement of residents, businesses and institutions. Others focused on a lack of organization in city responses. Carter said the district needs “collaboration and coalition” to deliver existing resources effectively, while Scott complained of residents paying for services they don’t receive on basics like maintenance of streetlights and sidewalks.
CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 5
Candidates: Samuel Bacote, chief administrative officer of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity; consultant and lobbyist Liliana Bakhtiari; Mandy Mahoney, president, Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance; marketing executive Katie Kissell; East Lake Farmers Market founder Doug Williams
Housing affordability was a concern of most candidates. Bacote said growth had to be balanced with “preserving our culture,” and Kissel said housing construction must start outpacing population growth instead of vice-versa. Bakhtiari and Mahoney also cited public safety and infrastructure improvements as big issues. Williams said the broad concern is “a broken government that doesn’t work” on such issues as income inequality and completing BeltLine transit.
Not mentioned was Bacote’s role as treasurer of the Development Authority of Fulton County, which is in the midst of a scandal over payments to board members and which has been in long-standing controversy over granting tax breaks on real estate projects within city limits, a practice the City Council has condemned.
CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 6
Candidates: Incumbent Jennifer Ide
Ide said that delivering basic services is a top priority for her district, like filling potholes and picking up trash on schedule. “I don’t think we need to do anything crazy or new and innovative,” she said, but just cover those basics.
CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 7
Candidates: Incumbent Howard Shook
Shook said that crime is the top issue in his district, with infrastructure a distant second. Asked about the city’s homeless population, Shook said he understands that most people remaining unhoused are those who refuse social services support. “And it’s a fact you can’t just dart homeless people who have that attitude and put them in a warehouse somewhere,” he said, adding that people living on the streets have rights and need to be respected.
CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 8
Candidates: Nicolas Uppal
Uppal said he is running for the Buckhead-area seat as an anti-cityhood candidate. “I’m running for this council seat because I’m trying to stop the Buckhead secession,” he said. “I think it will throw the residents of South Atlanta into complete disarray and it will increase the crime problem in our area.”
Barrington-Ward said the district’s main priorities are the “three P’s” of public safety, poverty and public infrastructure. He said young people should be guaranteed a job paying at least $18 an hour for such positions as filling potholes and collecting trash.
Hillis said public safety is the top concern and cited his work on raises for police officers, firefighters and 911 operators, as well as expanding the city’s network of surveillance cameras in the district.
CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 11
Candidates: Incumbent Marci Collier Overstreet
Overstreet said she will continue working on her original campaign promises of improving public safety, city services and growth. She called for more funding for the police surveillance camera system, saying the district only has about 15 cameras.
Both candidates agreed that public safety is the district’s top issue. “Everyone is feeling very unsafe, concerned,” said Shepherd, the challenger, adding that more community policing is needed. Shepard, the incumbent, said the city needs a more comprehensive look at reorganizing APD as well as improving jobs and education in very low-income areas.