Mayoral candidates face grilling at Temple forum

By Maria Saporta

Call it the hot-seat mayoral forum.

At Wednesday evening’s Atlanta mayoral forum put on by the American Jewish Committee and the Temple, moderator David Lewis warned the candidates he was going to be tough.

Lewis, an independent filmmaker and a host at WMLB AM 1690, then told the four candidates he would grill each of them for 10 minutes with pointed questions.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood was first, followed by former State Sen. Kasim Reed, Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders and attorney Jesse Spikes.

Lewis asked Mary Norwood, who accuses the city of funny numbers budget numbers, but as a councilwoman, shouldn’t she have kept track of the numbers and why should voters trust her to do as mayor.

Norwood then said the city has 84 different accounts an she’s been trying to get to the bottom of all of them, which she said is tough to do.

Then Lewis asked how she would pay for new police officers on the force. Norwood said she would look for savings in the police department, and that she wants to know the “functionality of every employee” at the city. “I’m only as good as the information’s that handed to me,” Norwood said.

Lewis then told Norwood that she is viewed as a bulldog activist with no history of finding a middle ground.
Not so, Norwood said. When she was fighting against McMansions and infill development, she was able to bring planners, preservationists and developers together.

Lewis then asked about her relationship with the business community and how she had less of a business background than the other candidates.

Again, Norwood took issue with that saying that she ran a radio company in the late 1970s and 1980s and had other business experience.

The one question Norwood seemed to struggle with was when Lewis asked about her family’s membership in the Piedmont Driving Club, which used to not have black or Jewish members.

Norwood said her husband, a pediatrician, is a member and that many of his patients were members. She said she’s delighted the membership now includes African Americans and Jews.

Next, Kasim Reed was asked how he would be able to come up with more money for police officers.

Reed said he would start by using funds raised by the tax increase passed by council earlier this year.

Lewis asked Reed about his stance against gay marriage.

Reed said that his faith prevented him from condoning gay marriage. But Reed said he supports other gay and lesbian issues such as anti-hate crime legislation.

The funniest part of the Reed interview was when Lewis said the former state senator about his aloofness and not seen as being warm and cuddly.

“I think I’m pretty cuddly,” Reed said, adding that he really wants to be mayor. If I need to smile more to become mayor, I’ll be smiling all the time.

Lewis also asked Reed whether he would prohibit giving any city contracts to any donors who had given him $1,000 or more.

“No I won’t,” Reed said. “I’m not going to sit in the Temple and lie.”

When asked about the role of race in the campaign, Reed said he told Norwood, the top white candidate, that she had every right to be in the race.

“There will be no mayor elected in the future who does not have broad support in the white community and who does not have broad support in the black community.”

Lisa Borders then got to sit on the hot seat.

Lewis’ first question was about her close ties to developers because she worked for Cousins Properties. Borders said she was not a developer and had spent most of her career in the healthcare industry.

Then Lewis asked her how she could run for mayor and head the Grady Hospital Foundation. Borders said she had taken an unpaid leave of absence on Sept. 15, but after she had helped raise $84 million for the hospital in the past eight months.

Asked what is one thing that is essential to the city’s future that probably can’t be done, Borders answered it would be the consolidation of the city of Atlanta with Fulton County.

“But it won’t happen because people would have to give up power,” Borders said. “We have too much government today, but it won’t happen in my life time.”

Borders was then asked how to get transit and MARTA into the suburbs. She said she would appeal to the region’s economic goals. “There’s an economic imperative that we must all work together,” she said.

When asked about her comments about rolling back taxes, Borders explained that she does not see that happening. But she said the city needs new revenue, and one goal she has would be for the city to directly collect the sales tax revenue rather than relying on the state to filter the collected revenue.

Another revealing question was about how she helped integrate the private Westminster Schools.

“We are still very much divided,” Borders said. “In this town, we have not had an honest conversation about race for the past 30-40 years.”

Then it was Jesse Spikes’ turn. The first question to him was why was he running. Spikes said it was time for a change and that he felt he could bring an outsider’s approach to City Hall. “Being in politics does not teach people how to lead,” Spikes said. “You need to know how to manage.”

But Lewis asked whether there is value of knowing who runs what department at the city.

“My approach would not be to go in and fire everybody,” Spikes said adding that he would first hire a strong chief financial officer.

And how would he work with City Council? Spikes said a number of council representatives are excited about the possibility of him being elected mayor.

Spikes also said he was the first of the major candidates to talk about the need to get the city’s fiscal house in order. Speaking of his opponents, Spikes said: “They are focused more on politics than they are on nuts and bolts.”

Asked whether he was scared about the city’s future if he lost the election, Spikes said, “Nothing scares me any more.” He said the experience of running for mayor that in one sense “I’ve already won.”

And what about the future of the city if he doesn’t win? “City Hall will continue as business as usual.” Later he said he is concerned that if he doesn’t get elected “we won’t get to focus on public policy.”

In this forum, Lewis tried to shake it up. He did hold the candidates’ feet to the fire, but all of them are displaying dexterity that comes with running for office. By participating in so many forums and debates, the candidates have honed in their messages and developed their communication skills.

The forum Wednesday night also showed a level of relatively friendly camaraderie among the candidates that I had not detected in other forums. In fact, Borders and Norwood would huddled together chatting when Reed was being grilled. And I had been under the impression that tensions between the candidates would get worse as election day approached.

The forum, which was a standing room only event at the Temple with more than 200 people, also showed that voters are becoming engaged in the election, which is only three weeks away.

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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