Seven days before Atlanta voters elect the city’s next chief executive, ex-mayoral candidate Cathy Woolard appeared relaxed. At a candidate forum hosted Tuesday night by the former city council president herself, Woolard seemed to bask in the privilege of sitting adjacent the political hopefuls’ hot seats, rather than in them, grilling the councilmembers she recently called rivals.
“Let me tell you, losing’s really not that bad,” Woolard told the crowd sardine-packed into the Carter Center’s Cecil B. Day Chapel. “You can sleep in the afternoon. You can say what you want to.”
One thing she won’t do, however: sleep on her supporters’ anxiety about Atlanta’s future. Woolard, who took third place with about 17 percent of the votes in the November 7 general election, knows her endorsement could pack a punch come next Tuesday. She took it upon herself to hash out the policies and platforms of the runoff candidates, because she, like many of her supporters in attendance, didn’t know whether Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms or Councilwoman Mary Norwood should succeed Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. However, as of Wednesday morning, Woolard’s stumping for Norwood.
Norwood and Bottoms fielded Woolard’s questions on all things transit, transparency, affordability, and public safety at the panel discussion she hosted Tuesday (Livestreamed footage is available here). “I didn’t get a lot of answers that surprised me,” she said at a press conference outside City Hall Wednesday morning. The crux of her endorsement decision, she said, was a concern of ethics. “The lack of transparency at City Hall has crushed our spirit,” Woolard said, and she felt Norwood had a better ethics vision than Bottoms. “Keisha has had ethical lapses, and I’m trying to be polite [by not listing them].”
During Tuesday’s panel, Woolard managed to mandate some civility between the embattled candidates who, just hours earlier, had clashed over race and ethics in a heated GPB debate. Woolard even got Bottoms to promise to release her tax returns today. Norwood, who released her returns last week, had previously challenged her to do so.
The duo, surely seeking to appeal to Woolard’s impressive voter base, seemed to promote many of the same policy goals. Building light rail on the Atlanta BeltLine, for example, “is a high priority,” said Norwood. “It really was meant to be the piece that connected so much of the city,” she continued. Bottoms agreed, and added that Woolard’s proposal to string some five transit lines throughout the city was “thoughtful.”
Asked if they’d be willing to lobby the Georgia General Assembly to change the state law around the gas tax—which currently can only be used for roads and bridges—in order to further transit initiatives, Bottoms said she’d “absolutely” be game. So would Norwood.
And whenever talk of transit planning is brought up, soon follows discussion of the affordable living potential nearby. Bottoms reiterated her proposal to dedicate $1 billion in raised public and private funds against the affordable housing crisis in Atlanta. First, she said, her administration would identify all of the city’s land assets. She learned while pulling double-duty as both a councilwoman and head of the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority that such a task is easier said than done. “We really don’t have a true handle on what our public assets are,” she said. “We would sometimes get telephone calls [at the AFCRA] asking about purchasing land that we didn’t even know we owned.”
Part two would involve wooing public-private investments to redevelop that land, adding that “it may not happen overnight.” Such a goal could take more than two mayoral terms to accomplish, perhaps as long as 12 years, she said.
Norwood wants to see the Atlanta Housing Authority step up its affordability game. “We have 10,000 vacant units in the city,” she said. Those units, many of which are blighted, should be handed over to the city’s land bank authority and then converted to affordable residences and commercial spaces.
Both candidates conceded that the city’s economic development arm, Invest Atlanta, is underutilized as a tool to address income inequality, a problem that’s plagued the city for years. Bottoms said that when she joined the city council in 2010, the agency “was more localized”—people who knew the ins and outs of every neighborhood helped market the areas, she said. “Then we moved to a model that was more about marketing of Atlanta in general.” Norwood agreed. “Appointments to the Invest Atlanta board need to understand communities,” she said.
But the best way, Bottoms said, to crack down on Atlanta’s astonishing income inequality issues is to improve education opportunities citywide. The next mayor, she said, needs to be close with the Atlanta Public Schools superintendent and work to create apprenticeship and counseling programs so high school grads can learn skills and find jobs.
On criminal justice reform, Bottoms said Councilman Kwanza Hall’s marijuana reform ordinance is a good step toward keeping nonviolent offenders out of jail, but she thinks the next mayor needs to urge the Gold Dome to pass similar legislation so that Georgia code doesn’t clash with the city’s. (The city’s much-discussed “decriminalization” ordinance only applies to the City of Atlanta.) Norwood, citing a conversation with former candidate and Fulton County Chairman John Eaves, who endorsed her Tuesday, said the city should also consider consolidating the Atlanta City Detention Center with the Fulton County jail.
Next on the docket was a question of how the candidates would maintain LGBTQ representation at City Hall. Woolard, Georgia’s first openly gay elected leader, said, “If [council president candidate] Alex Wan isn’t elected in the runoff, it will be the first time since I won the election 20 years ago that there will not be a gay person on the city council.”
Norwood said she’d make a cabinet-level LGBTQ liaison position. “You actually found an area that we agree upon,” Bottoms replied. Pressed for ideas on how to keep conscious of LGBTQ-related policy issues, both candidates suggested Atlantans need easier access to HIV testing and treatment.
Yet when Woolard exhausted her policy questions and dug into Bottoms’ and Norwood’s controversial backgrounds, the candidates clambered, dismissing and deflecting concerns of campaign blunders. Prodded for a promise that her administration won’t be a sequel to Kasim Reed’s, Bottoms said, “No one holds my hand.” When Woolard wondered why Norwood tiptoes around conversations of race and racial profiling by police, the candidate assured everyone that plenty of black people have worked with her and for her at City Hall and on the campaign trail. “I am not different because I am Caucasian and someone else is African American,” she said.
Despite her endorsement of Norwood, Woolard said she knows her supporters are smart enough to make their own choice. Now, Atlanta voters hold the cards, and by this time next week, all this mayoral race madness will be over. Finally.