Women come up short in latest city elections; Mayor-elect Reed surrounded mostly by men
The boys are back in charge.
While most of the focus in the recent city election focused on the dynamics of race and Atlanta’s changing demographics, gender played an equal if not more significant role.
Think about it.
We’ve gone from electing our first woman mayor in 2001 — Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin — to now having another man as mayor — Kasim Reed.
We’ve gone from having two women city council presidents back to back — Cathy Woolard followed by Lisa Borders — to now having another man in that chair — Ceasar Mitchell.
In each of those races, there were strong women contenders. In the mayor’s race, at-large City Councilwoman Mary Norwood and Borders came in second and third respectively.
And in the city council president race, Mitchell ran against Clair Muller, one of Atlanta’s longest serving city council members.
And that’s not all.
We went from having a woman in a city-wide council seat — Norwood — to now having the three at-large posts now held by men: Aaron Watson, Michael Julian Bond and Lamar Willis.
And then there were the women who held influential positions in the Franklin administration. For most of her tenure, Lynnette Young served as her chief operating officer. And Franklin prided herself in having a diverse cabinet in terms of gender, race, age, experience and geography.
By comparison, in his first two major appointments as mayor-elect, Reed has selected two men — consultant Peter Aman to serve as his chief operating officer for at least a year and Deputy Police Chief George Turner to be his acting police chief.
And remember when the chair of the Fulton County Commission was a woman? Karen Handel left that job in a successful run to be Georgia’s secretary of state. She was replaced by John Eaves.
Looking across the region, in all the major metro counties, the chairs are all men. The one exception is B.J. Mathis, the new chair of the Henry County Commission. Although Henry is one of the fastest growing counties in the region, it still is one of the smallest in terms of population.
Plus a woman has never chaired the Atlanta Regional Commission, the closest entity we have to a regional government. (The Atlanta City Council representative at ARC was Muller, but it’s unknown who Mitchell will appoint to replace her).
The situation is at least as bad, if not worse, when one looks at the top leadership positions at the state. The governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the house and virtually all the other key positions of influence at the legislature are held by men.
Another stark example of the lack of women was at the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s annual meeting on Dec. 3. Every single person on stage during the entire program was male.
At one point, all the former chamber chairs were invited on stage. They were all male. And the only African-American present was former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. Just to be fair, Atlanta Chamber leaders did invite the only woman to chair the influential business organization — the 1997 Chamber Chair Jackie Ward, but she was unable to attend.
Sadly, the lack of women in positions of influence is not unique to Atlanta and Georgia.
Marie Wilson, founder and president of the White House Project, is an advocate for having more women in positions of power.
“For the last 10 years, we have really tried to advance women leaders around the country,” Wilson said at a forum last week in Atlanta. “We are in a crisis in women’s leadership in this country.”
Borders, who serves on the board of the White House Project along with fellow Atlantan Stephanie Davis, gave an example to the attendees at the forum.
“There were nine sitting female governors when Barack Obama became president,” Borders said. “Now we have seven. That’s because Obama put two women governors in his cabinet.”
In an interview a couple of days later, I asked Borders about how she viewed the decline of women in local government.
“The tide ebbs and flows depending on the candidates,” said Borders, who endorsed Reed instead of Norwood during the city run-off elections. She enthusiastically campaigned for Reed, and she believes she helped deliver the votes that led to his victory.
“Just because women are not in the mayor’s chair, doesn’t mean we don’t have influence,” Borders said. “But the most influence obviously is exerted by being in an elected position.”
When looking at Reed’s inner circle, it is almost entirely male, which could be an issue when he selects people to serve in his administration.
“It’s a valid point,” Borders said about Reed’s inner circle. “It is human nature to be with people who are like you. I had a lot of women in my inner circle.”
But running an administration is different than running a campaign.
“You realize when you’re ready to govern, you need more voices and you need to be more inclusive,” Borders said.
Right now Reed has a full plate to deal with the city’s toughest issues — public safety, city finances, the pension obligations — and he has to devote his attention to those concerns.
“He’s drinking from a fire hose,” Borders said, adding that she has agreed to help Reed through the transition period until he takes office on Jan. 4. “Give him some time.”
Still, it doesn’t hurt to remind Reed that he will be mayor for all Atlantans, including women that make up more than 50 percent of the city’s population. And we need to keep issues of balance and diversity top of mind.
“We are not always as deliberate as we should be,” Borders said. “We have to remind folks. We even have to remind women to include women.”
Otherwise, the men will stay in charge.