By Maggie Lee
Just 11 days before early voting starts, runoff candidates for Atlanta’s top offices met to take questions from reporters — and each other — about ethics, party and more.
At a Thursday morning Atlanta Press Club debate in the WPBA-TV studio, mayoral candidate Mary Norwood tried to truss Keisha Lance Bottoms to scandals at a City Hall presided over by Bottoms’ ally Mayor Kasim Reed. And Bottoms pushed to link Norwood to the Republican Party. And that was less than 10 minutes into the debate. (Videos at the bottom of the page.)
Norwood asked Bottoms about Reed’s controversial use of a vehicle with flashing blue lights to get through town even when there’s not an emergency. Norwood said she asked candidates to sign a pledge to swear off of blue light use except in emergencies, but that Bottoms didn’t sign.
Bottoms said that “this is the first time that I’ve even heard you mention this pledge, as we stand here today. What I will say is there is one mayor at a time … Kasim Reed is the mayor now, he will not be the mayor in January.”
Bottoms said she’ll listen to the police and if they say blue lights are not appropriate, then that is the policy she would follow as mayor.
Then Bottoms, the first-place finisher, pointed out that Norwood has voted for Republicans and asked what it is about the GOP that makes her want to vote for them.
Norwood said she is an independent and has voted for numerous Democrats, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“In my 30-year path, yes I have voted for both sides of the aisle, but if you look at my recent record over the past 10 years, you will see Democratic candidates, you will see nonpartisan ballots being pulled. I am truly an independent,” said Norwood.
She then quickly pivoted, calling the questioning “a distraction” from the ongoing corruption investigation into city procurement during the last few years. “And that is the current administration, to which you are very tied,” said Norwood.
Bottoms’ response: “Ms. Norwood, you were a delegate to the Republican Party Convention. There’s nothing wrong with being a Republican as long as you are honest about being a Republican.”
Endorsements are starting to roll in for the candidates: former mayoral candidate and outgoing city Councilman Kwanza Hall endorsed Bottoms this week. And Norwood got the nod from the Buckhead Coalition, the civic organization run by former Mayor Sam Massell.
But what might push either woman to victory are votes from the parts of the east side where third-place finisher Cathy Woolard beat them both. Woolard is looking to schedule a public discussion with the two candidates.
Norwood and Bottoms both addressed Woolard’s voters as part of the roughly 90-minute debate. Both said they endorse Woolard’s vision of affordability, transportation options and being a city for all.
Norwood said that she is the candidate who has “a deep understanding and background in all of the sustainability issues that you care about and that I care about. I am the progressive candidate.”
Bottoms said she sent her kids to a school in Midtown — part of Woolard’s former City Council stomping grounds. She said it was important to her core beliefs to put her children in an environment that reflected Atlanta’s diversity.
The two candidates left standing for Atlanta City Council president also met on the same debate stage.
Both have something of a wonky reputation: she as a transparency advocate and he as a finance overseer.
The job of Council president is a little unusual. Officially, the president does things like preside over meetings and make committee appointments. Unofficially, the job can serve as a bully pulpit. The president can also be something of an ambassador among Council, the mayor and others.
Both talked about establishing a Council that’s deliberative about policy and legislation, that gets to work in advance and that is a check and balance to the mayor’s power.
Wan said Council should get involved in procurement — definitely not in picking vendors, but instead in reforming the process.
“There are certain portions of that we can daylight,” he said, like maybe limiting the ability to add more money to a contract without competition, or making sure requests for proposals can’t be written to favor a certain vendor.
A Council president could step in, working with the Council and the administration, to work on changes like that, he said.
Moore took a question about Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency; it tries to recruit investors into the city, and its board reviews and votes on things like tax incentives for new buildings, among other things. She said it’s become both the brain and the arm of economic development in the city and that needs to change, that the city’s planning director and Council need to be more involved.
“I believe that it has been heavily moved to a direction where things go outside of the Council so that they can be moved forward by Invest Atlanta, which limits sometimes public input into the process,” said Moore. “So I want it to be the arm, not the brain. I want the Council to be the policymakers of this city.
Note: The debates were organized by the Atlanta Press Club. Both SaportaReport editor Maria Saporta and reporter Maggie Lee are APC Board members.