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DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond: “You call me when the house is on fire.”

Michael Thurmond
Michael Thurmond

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Some politicians follow their gut when taking action. Others follow the votes. Michael Thurmond follows the flowchart.

Take the case of the wacky water bills. When Thurmond became DeKalb CEO in January 2017, residents of Georgia’s fourth most-populous county had been complaining for years about wildly inaccurate water bills: One homeowner who got a $2 million water bill was told by officials simply to ignore it.

With the county already under a court-ordered consent decree to upgrade its antiquated sewer system, Thurmond tackled the billing issue the way he approaches most complex problems: He graphed it out, identifying bureaucratic snafus, equipment failures, and resource shortfalls. It took two years, but the CEO says the root causes have been fixed. Just last year, the once corruption-plagued water department that couldn’t issue reliable bills or avoid sewage spills when Thurmond took office surprised critics by winning a statewide award for wastewater operations.

“I resisted calls to fire the whole department or take other drastic actions when I came in because I believe most people want to do good work if you can get the process back on track,” he says. “I’m strategic. I like to measure twice and cut once.”

Thurmond is aware that some DeKalb residents—and politicians—would prefer he move faster to address the beleaguered county’s many problems, from sluggish economic development to lagging transit growth to violent crime. But, sitting in his corner office on the sixth floor of the Manuel Maloof administrative building overlooking downtown Decatur, the trim 67-year-old CEO defends his deliberate management style with a smile.

“You don’t call Michael Thurmond for easy fixes,” he says. “You call me when the house is on fire.”

No one can dispute that the longtime Tucker resident has a long history of putting out fires. Thurmond was a lawyer and former state legislator from Athens in 1994 when then Governor Zell Miller tapped him to guide the state’s Division of Family and Children’s Services through the challenges posed by new federal “workfare” mandates in which many aid recipients were required to find jobs. He leveraged that success to earn three terms as Georgia labor commissioner, making history as the first non-incumbent black person elected to statewide office.

Michael Thurmond
High on Thurmond’s to-do list: overseeing a $280 million overhaul of DeKalb’s aging sewers.

Photograph by John Spink/AP Images

But after a failed run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, Thurmond settled into private law practice until he was pulled back into the limelight. This time, the DeKalb Board of Education asked him in 2013 to rescue the school district from the threat of losing accreditation, thanks to years of financial mismanagement and erratic leadership. When he stepped down as interim superintendent two years later, Thurmond had helped turn a $14 million deficit into a $92 million surplus, awarded teacher raises for the first time in six years, and set the system on the path to full accreditation a few months later.

So, when he ran for DeKalb CEO in 2016, it’s little wonder that voters overwhelmingly chose Thurmond to lead a county that had been wracked by years of corruption, political scandal, and bureaucratic mismanagement—and had seen its previous elected CEO, Burrell Ellis, convicted in 2015 of attempted extortion and perjury. (His conviction was later overturned, after an appeals court ruled he had not received a fair trial.)

Faced with an array of crises—a dispirited and often dysfunctional county workforce, newly formed cities siphoning off tax revenues, and those leaky sewers—the new CEO saw himself in the role of an air-traffic controller. Most urgent was fast-tracking more than $280 million in sewer improvements after years of false starts—although Thurmond concedes the county won’t meet the court-imposed deadline this June, which could either result in fines or forgiveness, depending on DeKalb’s success in making its case to the judge. Then came building the county police force back to full strength; reversing the government’s ailing finances to produce, at last count, a $110 million budget surplus; battling widespread blight by tearing down derelict properties; and passing a sales tax to repave roads, replace fire stations, and renovate parks. Most recently, Thurmond oversaw contract negotiations for county ambulance services, which can mean the difference between life and death for residents.

He’s optimistic that infrastructure projects will spur economic growth in DeKalb’s flagging southern half and confident that his efforts to reform the government will curb what had been a mad dash to create new cities following the incorporations of Dunwoody, Brookhaven, and Stonecrest. Two additional proposed cities in north and south DeKalb, which have so far stalled in the state legislature, could cost the county a combined $56 million in tax revenue, according to a recent study.

As he nears the end of his first four-year term, Thurmond’s popularity with voters and other local politicians suggests he’s been largely successful in turning around the negative perception many folks had of the government as corrupt or inept. DeKalb’s newest commissioner, Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, says she believes the CEO has restored credibility and stability to the county. The criticism heard most often of Thurmond is that he’s slow in addressing problems, to which he paraphrases a quote by Einstein that sums up his management style: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, because then I could solve it in less than five minutes.”

The author of two books on black history in Georgia who describes himself as something of a nerd, he’s up by 5:30 every morning to spend a few minutes on research or writing—he’s working on another book about Georgia founder James Oglethorpe—before heading into the office.

“The big myth is that being DeKalb CEO is a political job,” he says. “It’s only 10 percent politics; the rest is managing 6,000 employees and a bunch of departments.”

Still, Thurmond has long been considered one of Georgia’s most adept politicians, an engaging, charismatic speaker with a compelling life story: The son of an illiterate sharecropper who was raised in a house without indoor plumbing, he attended segregated schools in Clarke County, but became the only black politician in the Southeast elected in a majority-white district. Which is why he’s being coaxed by Democratic strategists to run—again—for U.S. Senate.

Thurmond is noncommittal. “I’m not just after a title. I want to be where I can be of the greatest service,” he says. “I’m not at the peak of this summit yet.”

This article appears in our April 2020 issue.

Timeline: The long, risque history of Atlanta’s nightlife

Atlanta After Dark timline: Limelight

Photograph by Guy d’Alema

Prohibition is repealed—but not in Georgia, which had outlawed liquor since 1908. It would be another two years before the state lifted its own ban, but unincorporated DeKalb and many other counties would remain dry for decades, making Atlanta a nightlife hot spot.

The Top Hat Club opens on Auburn Avenue, bringing in major acts like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. A decade later, it would be renamed the Royal Peacock.

Ray Lee’s Blue Lantern begins a five-decade run on Ponce de Leon as a notoriously rough-and-tumble, working-class tavern where Blind Willie McTell plays for change in the parking lot. Downtown hotels such as the Piedmont, Biltmore, Ansley, Georgian Terrace, Kimball House, and the Henry Grady continue to bring the ballroom scene.

Exotic dancers and more ribald entertainment come to town: The Imperial Hotel opens the popular Domino Lounge and the Clermont introduces the Gypsy Room.

Hippies take over “the Strip” on Peachtree Street between 10th and 14th at Bottom of the Barrel, Golden Horn, and Catacombs. Downtown’s Zebra Lounge and the Cheshire Cat on Cheshire Bridge Road showcase topless a-go-go.

The celebrated La Carousel jazz club opens in Paschal’s Hotel, featuring headliners like Aretha Franklin and Dizzy Gillespie.

Atlanta nightlife becomes more risque with the opening of the Playboy Club in the Dinkler Hotel.

After decades of name and concept changes, the Clermont Lounge inauspiciously kicks off what will become a reign as Atlanta’s oldest strip club.

Underground Atlanta opens, giving the city a nightlife nexus with Dante’s Down the Hatch, Muhlenbrink’s Saloon, the Bucket Shop, and many more.

Nudie clubs open along such busy corridors as Piedmont Road, Cheshire Bridge, and Stewart (now Metropolitan) Avenue. Gay nightclubs spring up, like the Cove in Morningside and the Armory in Midtown, as well as drag bars like Hollywood Hots on Cheshire Bridge and Mrs. P’s on Ponce.

The Georgia Legislature helps fuel the partygoing by dropping the legal drinking age to 18.

Music promoter Alex Cooley operates his Electric Ballroom, the leading music venue of the era, in the Georgian Terrace for most of the decade.

Underground’s reign is short lived; the new east-west MARTA line cuts the space in half, taking out rows of bars. Aunt Charley’s, a casual neighborhood bar, begins a 20-year run in Buckhead at the apex of the Peachtree-Roswell split.

Developer Don Bender opens the Little Five Points Community Pub, helping relaunch a run-down commercial strip as a trendy youth destination filled with music clubs.

Johnny’s Hideaway debuts in Buckhead; its patrons remain loyal for the next 40 years—and counting.

Atlanta After Dark timline: RuPaul

Photograph by Steve Eichner/Getty Images

Sandy Springs emerges as a party zone with rowdy bars like American Pie, Charley Magruder’s, and Copperfield’s. RuPaul and Lady Bunny help revive Atlanta’s drag scene at clubs like Colorbox in VaHi and the Celebrity Club on Ponce. Buckhead Village comes alive.

Nightclub impresario Peter Gatien arrives in Atlanta to open the Limelight, a neon-lit disco that featured a giant slip ’n’ slide and sharks swimming under the glass dance floor, which quickly attracts visiting celebrities like Eartha Kitt, Andy Warhol, and Rod Stewart.

After 10 years in business, Midtown’s Backstreet becomes a private, 24-hour club and soon has the hottest after-hours dance floor in town.

Rupert’s opens in the former Limelight space, boasting a house band covering Top-40 hits.

Downtown’s wildly popular Club Rio gains national notoriety after a videotape is leaked showing an illegal hotel tryst between a 24-year-old Rob Lowe and the underage girl he picked up at the nightclub. Gatien returns to establish Midtown as the place to party with Petrus in the former Peachtree Playhouse auditorium. He gets help when Blake’s, the gay Cheers, opens.

A former wood-shavings mill in Old Fourth Ward is painted black inside and out and transforms into the Masquerade. Underground Atlanta reopens with a lineup of bars in Kenny’s Alley but fails to capture the magic of its heyday.

Arguably the craziest decade for Atlanta nightlife, the ’90s see the continued explosion of the Mardi Gras–level party scene of Buckhead Village. At one point, there are more than 50 liquor licenses in a six-block area. Midtown’s Crescent Avenue and East Atlanta emerge as nightlife destinations.

The opening of Velvet temporarily makes the downtown central business district seem cool again.

In an extreme case of urban pioneering, Homage Coffee House brings live music and a boho vibe to Trinity Avenue in desolate South Downtown.

A big year for major club openings gives Atlanta the jazz-funk bohemia of Yin Yang Cafe; the underground hipness of the original MJQ; the S&M-themed industrial dance club the Chamber; and the scenemaker’s haven in Buckhead, Tongue & Groove. Steve Kaplan buys the Gold Club in Buckhead, bringing Vegas-style glitz—as well as VIP rooms and pricey bottle service—to Atlanta’s strip-club scene. The fun ends a few years later in a federal racketeering trial featuring embarrassed NBA stars and taciturn mafiosi. After reopening as a church, the building becomes home to the Gold Room in 2009.

The Centennial Olympics spurs another round of club openings: House of Blues in a former downtown church; high-energy danceteria Club Esso; and seminal hip-hop venue Club Kaya on Peachtree.

Centennial Park bomber Eric Rudolph strikes again with a nail-bomb attack at the Otherside Lounge on Piedmont Road. No one is seriously injured, but the lesbian bar never recovers its clientele. Two gritty underground clubs, Nomenclature Museum in Midtown and downtown’s Karma, bring a new level of edginess to Atlanta nightlife.

Sean Combs—then “Puff Daddy”—opens Justin’s restaurant in south Buckhead; patrons come to eat, then dance and party the rest of the evening.

City Hall’s tougher stance on nightclubs and bars, combined with a surge in development (and followed by the Great Recession), cool Atlanta’s overheated nightlife scene.

The city’s crackdown on nightlife unofficially begins after an altercation involving friends of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis leaves two men dead outside Buckhead’s Cobalt Lounge.

Atlanta outlaws under-21 clubs, sounding the death knell for “18 to party, 21 to drink” places like the Somber Reptile near Georgia Tech.

A few blocks away from Buckhead Village, the East Andrews Entertainment District tries to draw the party crowd with a sprawling complex containing bars, clubs, and a comedy club.

After a series of late-night shootings in Buckhead Village and weekend cruising on Peachtree Road, the Atlanta City Council votes to set last call at 2:30 a.m. Backstreet loses its status as a 24-hour club.

Rapper T.I.’s Club Crucial proves to be an instant hit in Atlanta’s Bankhead neighborhood.

Vision, the megaclub that replaced Kaya in Midtown in 2003, is forced to close when the building is sold to a condo developer. A flood of new bars, lounges, and clubs helps make Castleberry Hill Atlanta’s newest nightlife destination.

Following the departure of Tongue & Groove and a few other holdouts, the Buckhead Village nightclub district is bulldozed to make way for high-end shopping.

The Fred in Sandy Springs and Buckhead’s Prohibition kick off Atlanta’s additions to the modern speakeasy trend.

Noni’s, the Sound Table, Cafe Circa, and other bars lure nightlife to underappreciated Edgewood Avenue.

After two years of legal battles, the Gidewon brothers of Vision and Compound fame spend millions to open two new, upscale Midtown nightclubs, Vanquish and Reign; the clubs close four years later.

A former Sears Roebuck distribution center–turned–municipal building reopens as Ponce City Market, kick-starting a slow transformation of Ponce from grit to bougie (see: revamped Clermont Hotel).

In the latest backbend by a strip club to comply with cities’ ordinances to restrict adult entertainment, Oasis Goodtime Emporium adds burlesque.

This article appears in our September 2019 issue.

More Atlanta After Dark

How long can we keep Cheshire Bridge weird?

Cheshire Bridge Road history

Cheshire Bridge Road’s long history as one of Atlanta’s most notorious nightlife destinations began as an accident of geography. When I-85 was constructed through the city in the early 1950s, DeKalb County and much of North Georgia still outlawed alcohol sales. As the first southbound exit inside the decidedly non-dry Fulton County, the previously residential street naturally became a magnet for restaurants, bars, and liquor stores. Shopping centers and motor hotels followed.

In 1971, when gay culture was starting to emerge from the closet across the country, Sweet Gum Head replaced the Cheshire Cat go-go club in a back-alley space near Lavista Road, soon becoming the leading drag bar in the South. It was followed by the Hollywood Hots nightclub and other gay-centric businesses—and then by strip clubs such as the venerable Tattletale Lounge, which opened in 1976 on nearby Piedmont Road.

During the next two decades, the Cheshire Bridge corridor solidified its reputation for vice and nightlife, thanks to establishments like the Poster Hut and Starship adult novelty stores; the Chamber, an S&M–themed nightclub; and numerous strip clubs, lingerie shops, and massage parlors. The rest of the street was occupied by a mix of old-school restaurants, head shops, antique stores, car washes, auto repair shops, and iconic gay nightclubs like Deana’s One Mo Time and Heretic.

The strip’s status as Atlanta’s red-light district appeared all but official in 1996 when it effectively became bookended by two prominent adult toy and video stores: Southern Nights on the east and Inserection on the west. By the end of the decade, a group of nearby residents and property owners wanted to make the street more palatable to mainstream businesses and development. City Hall obliged by commissioning a study in 1999, which observed that Cheshire Bridge “remains a seedy and undesirable locale in the collective Atlanta psyche due, in part, to the proliferation of adult businesses and the unkempt nature of the corridor.”

In 2005, during the heat of the city’s crackdown on the Buckhead Village party zone, the Atlanta council approved a measure for the street that barred any new adult businesses from opening. A 2003 citywide rollback of closing times from 4 a.m. to 3 a.m. had put the Chamber out of business. Three years later, the city leveraged an alcohol violation on 24K strip club that led to its demise.

Still, little else about the area changed; even as office towers, condo blocks, and property values rose elsewhere in the city over the next decade, Cheshire Bridge seemed to remain the street time forgot. But in 2013, at the behest of nearby homeowners, then Councilman Alex Wan submitted a draconian proposal to clean up the street by giving existing adult businesses five years to clear out.

The outcry against the “sanitization” of the street was immediate and widespread. Petitions, op-eds, and public comments delivered the message: Yes, Cheshire Bridge is weird and sketchy—and that’s how we like it. The City Council, which voted the measure down, also voiced concern that the implicit attack on “grandfathered” businesses could set a precedent, destabilizing commercial property values citywide.

But battles against individual adult businesses continue. Michael Morrison, who had to fight City Hall in the ’90s to open Inserection (since rebranded Tokyo Valentino), has spent the past four years in and out of court over the city’s claim that the complex’s downstairs video booths—which have served as a cruising spot for 20 years—are illegal. He won an incremental victory in June, when a federal appeals court threw out an injunction against his business and ruled that he can challenge the city’s adult-entertainment ordinance as unconstitutional. Still, Morrison says, it won’t be bureaucrats but builders who put an end to the area’s naughty groove.

“I believe Cheshire Bridge will always be a gay street,” Morrison says. “But the vice will almost certainly go away because of development.”

The evidence looms over him in the form of the six-story Morningside by Windsor apartment complex that went up in late 2015 nearby on Piedmont Road. A short distance to the north, in the triangle bounded by Cheshire Bridge, Piedmont, and the CSX rail line, a developer is completing a subdivision of upscale townhomes, some of which back up to an auto salvage yard, while others sit across the street from the Den, an unobtrusive sex club geared toward black men.

And in 2016, a pair of new apartment buildings—the first built on Cheshire Bridge in nearly 20 years, according to county property records—took out the longstanding Doll House strip club and Alfredo’s Italian restaurant, a landmark for four decades. In order to make the area more appealing to renters, the developer, Netherlands-based Westplan, also bought warehouses on nearby Faulkner Road and declined to renew leases for the 13-year-old Jungle, one of the city’s largest gay nightclubs, and Club Eros, a gay sex club. Manifest4U, another gay sex club in the same complex, was sent packing in late June.

More changes are in the pipeline. Last year, as part of the MARTA expansion approved by voters in 2016, the transit system’s board of directors green-lit the $350 million Clifton Corridor project, which will eventually run a light-rail line from Lindbergh Station to Emory University. Included in the plan is a proposed rail station on the south side of Cheshire Bridge, a facility that would be located next door to—or perhaps in place of—BJ Roosters and Heretic, the street’s two most prominent remaining gay nightclubs.

Chris Coleman, marketing director for Tokyo Valentino, wants to preserve the street’s gay flavor—so much so that he’s bought a property next door to the former Madam Bell psychic shop with plans to open a “high-end lounge” with an infinity pool and expansive patio in late 2020.

More change could be coming. Atlanta-based Selig Enterprises owns a swath of the south side of the street, including the former Life nightclub, Antiques & Beyond antique mall, Cheshire Motor Inn, and the beloved meat-and-three restaurant the Colonnade. Greg Lewis, Selig’s senior vice president for development and acquisitions, says the company has owned some of the parcels for 40 years and has no current plans to redevelop them. To assuage concerns about the future of the Colonnade (established 1927), the firm points out that the company also owns Midtown’s Silver Skillet (established 1956) and Buckhead’s White House diner (established 1948) and undertook the 2016 renovation of Manuel’s Tavern (established 1956).

Even if Selig is content to wait, other developers are certain to continue chipping away at Cheshire Bridge’s uniqueness, one charmingly disreputable chunk at a time.

This article appears in our September 2019 issue.

The curious history of one of Peachtree’s last surviving Victorian mansions

Rufus Rose House for sale curious history
The Rufus M. Rose House

Photograph courtesy of Keller Williams Realty Atlanta Midtown

After many false starts and unfulfilled renovation plans, a high-profile historic Atlanta home occupying valuable real estate is again up for sale, but this time locals jaded by decades of short-sighted development don’t need to worry about the wrecking ball.

The property in question is the Rufus M. Rose House, built in 1901 in the then-popular Queen Anne Revival architectural style. The three-story brick house would arguably be less remarkable if it were elsewhere in Georgia or even in, say, Inman Park. But the fact that it’s one of the last remaining Victorian-era mansions remaining on Peachtree Street—along with Rhodes Hall and the Wimbish House—ratchets up its importance.

Its status as a locally designated Landmark Building, acquired in 1989, means it can’t be torn down, and any rehab plans must pass muster with the city’s Urban Design Commission.

Most older Atlantans likely best remember the Rose House—which for years has sat vacant across the street from what is now Emory Midtown Hospital—as the longtime home of the so-called Atlanta Museum, a quirky, private collection that showcased Civil War antiquities and Coca-Cola mementos alongside a WWII Japanese Zero plane and a throne purported to have belonged to Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

Yet the house has a better claim to fame, albeit one that’s in serious dispute. Its original owner, Confederate veteran Rufus Rose, made his fortune as a whiskey maker, and most local websites unhesitatingly credit him as the founder of the Four Roses distillery, which produced the country’s top-selling bourbon during whiskey’s mid-century golden age. “In 1906, the ‘Four Roses’ trademark was registered, probably named for Rufus, his brother Origen, and their two sons,” declares the Atlanta Urban Design Commission’s page on the house.

And yet, promotional material for the Four Roses distillery—inconveniently located 375 miles away in Louisville—mentions not a word about Rufus or Origen, instead claiming its founder was a Paul Jones Jr. What the company’s website fails to mention is that Jones was a grocer and distiller in Atlanta before moving his business to Kentucky. The controversy has not gone unnoticed among whiskey scholars, who continue to debate possible backstories. A few years back, WABE quotes a local historian saying he could find no tangible evidence linking the Rose clan to Four Roses, Atlanta connection notwithstanding.

What’s not in doubt is that the 5,200-square-foot house at 537 Peachtree Street was occupied by the Rose family until 1923, 13 years after Rufus had shuffled of his mortal coil and moved into this impressive crypt at Oakland Cemetery. It became a ladies’ rooming house, offices, and a private residence several times again before it was finally purchased in 1945 by antiques dealer James Elliott, Sr., who opened it as a “museum” to the paying public. His son kept the business running until his own death in 1989, after which the contents were sold and the building was briefly used, appropriately enough, as headquarters for the Atlanta Preservation Center.

In 2005, the Rose House was bought by cable TV entrepreneur Vincent Castelli, founder of the short-lived American News Network, who announced his intention to renovate the home as his residence—but that never happened. The property changed hands again in 2011, picked up at auction for the low, low price of $310,000 by pharmacist Gholam Bakhtiari. He charged his daughter, Liliana, who ran a close race for city council in 2017, with managing its restoration into a multi-use arts center. It’s uncertain how much work was done, but the family now has it back on the market for a cool $1 million.

Interested in buying some Peachtree Street frontage? To sweeten the deal, preservation group Historic Atlanta, Inc. will kick in five hours of free consultation to help the new owner apply for historic tax credit programs.

With “The Home Team,” a journalist-turned-filmmaker explores Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s impact on Vine City and English Avenue

The Home Team Camille Pendley
A still from The Home Team

Courtesy of Camille Pendley

At some point in their careers, most journalists come across a story that deserves more space and attention than the assignment permits, a story they can’t stop thinking about long after the article has been written. For Camille Pendley, a freelance contributor to Atlanta magazine, Creative Loafing, the Washington Post, and other publications, that story was the plight of the residents of Vine City and English Avenue, two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods—which sit across the street from the country’s newest and grandest cathedral to sports, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

How could the City Too Busy to Hate justify chipping in hundreds of millions in public funds to help build a shiny new football stadium (that replaced the serviceable if shopworn Georgia Dome), Pendley wondered, when, just next door, half the houses sit vacant and boarded up, and neighbors contend with rampant crime, including what FBI officials have called “the largest open heroin market in the Southeast?”

“It was clear that residents’ perspectives were not being reflected” in most news coverage, she says.

So Pendley made a movie.

The Home Team Camille Pendley
A still from The Home Team

Courtesy of Camille Pendley

Part community portrait, part economic justice polemic, The Home Team had its public premiere on January 31—just in time for Super Bowl LIII. The 45-minute film enjoyed a friendly reception at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema before an audience that included crew members and some of the movie’s subjects, as well as a number of local politicians.

After introducing several residents of Vine City and English Avenue and informing viewers that Martin Luther King Jr. lived in the community in the mid-1960s, when it was a thriving middle-class enclave, the film takes aim at the nearby stadium. In talking-head interviews, ethics activist William Perry contends the city gave Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank a sweetheart deal backed by public funds, while attorney Wayne Kendall explains his lawsuit to force the Falcons to pay property taxes for the stadium. If successful, the suit could result in $26 million annual for taxpayers. (King’s Vine City home was just sold by the King family to the National Park Service and will become open to the public as part of the MLK National Historical Park. Construction of a nearby 16-acre park is also underway.)

Pendley says she decided early on that this story needed to be told in film rather than her usual medium of print because the neighborhoods are so visually rich. It was important for her to allow the neighbors to speak in their own words.

The Home Team Camille Pendley
A still from The Home Team

Courtesy of Camille Pendley

Access to the community came via producer Tracy Bates, president of the Historic Westside Cultural Arts Council and a longtime neighborhood resident. After Pendley recruited filmmaker Laura Asherman as co-director in 2016, the two spent two years shooting the movie mostly on consumer-grade DSLR cameras, although high-end equipment was used for some of the interviews. Kendall, the lawyer, funded the editing and post-production costs.

The film has sharp lighting and lots of slow-motion pans contrasting the ramshackle homes and fancy stadium. But Pendley doesn’t want to reveal the budget.

“I’ll just say it was as bare-bones as possible while still giving us the stylistic look we were going for,” she says.

By employing a cinéma vérité style that eschews an omniscient narrator, the movie leaves some aspects of the story unexplained. It doesn’t dig deep into the work of the Blank Family Foundation, the Westside Future Fund, and other nonprofits that are dedicating tens of millions of dollars on job training, affordable housing, and neighborhood revitalization. Nor does it mention, when making the case that the Falcons should pay property taxes, that SunTrust Park and a number of other venues around the country have been financed in similar fashion, a fact that suggests the local lawsuit faces long odds.

But Pendley says her primary goal in making the film was to show where the city has placed its priorities—and to educate Atlantans about a struggling community they may not know much about. From here, she’s submitting it to film festivals in the hope that a story about a new stadium’s impact on its community could have national appeal.

To find out about upcoming screenings, go to thehometeamfilm.com.

A peek at the renovated Hotel Clermont’s hip rooms and vintage furnishings

Hotel Clermont
Inside one of the rooms at the remodeled Hotel Clermont

Photograph by Scott Henry

We still don’t know when exactly the remodeled Hotel Clermont—which has been shuttered for nearly a decade—will open to the public but we’ve finally had a peek inside the brand new rooms. Earlier this month, the hotel quietly offered tours to what appeared to be a steady stream of hipster millennials. I’m not either of those, but I fortuitously happened to be driving by when I saw a group of sight-seers heading through the front door. One U-turn in the middle of Ponce later and I was inside the lobby, eager to begin my tour and shelling out my donation to whatever lucky charity would receive the proceeds.

But that’s not what you want to know. You want to know what the Clermont looks and, perhaps more importantly, feels like. Even though most Atlantans have never actually seen the interior of the hotel, nor stayed there during what we’ll charitably call its heyday (I did, but that’s a story for another time), there has been a steady boil of anticipation for the Clermont to reopen its doors. Would it live up to expectations? Would it prove a worthy companion to the beloved strip club in its basement? Would it have the right, well, attitude?

Rest assured, based on what I saw, it looks pretty great and occupies the sweet spot for those who want a playfully retro atmosphere but not at the expense of creature comforts. The lobby offers the first clues, with items for sale—flasks, skinny ties, Clermont-branded trucker caps—that function both as tangible metaphors for the self-conscious irony that suffuses the property and as objects the target demographic might actually want to buy.

Hotel Clermont
The rooftop patio

Photograph by Scott Henry

A few steps away is an elevator that takes you to a rooftop bar. The space itself is fairly generic, with a cabana-style covered bar and lounge chairs on an Astroturf surface, but at night with the radio-tower sign gleaming neon red just overhead, it’s undoubtedly more impressive.

Hotel Clermont
The iconic tower on the roof

Photograph by Scott Henry

As for the guest rooms themselves, they offer a good mix of style and luxury as befits an upscale boutique hotel. All the furniture appears to be vintage and mostly mid-century, except for the gorgeous claw-foot tubs in some rooms. And although the beds and dressers don’t necessarily match, the furnishings are all quite tasteful and handsomely restored. A representative told me all five floors had been gutted during the rehab and I believe it; the once-cramped guest rooms have been transformed into airy spaces where the once tiny bathrooms are now surprisingly roomy.

Hotel Clermont
Inside one of the rooms at the remodeled Hotel Clermont

Photograph by Scott Henry

Hotel Clermont
Inside one of the rooms at the remodeled Hotel Clermont

Photograph by Scott Henry

Hotel Clermont
Inside one of the rooms at the remodeled Hotel Clermont

Photograph by Scott Henry

Before I’d visited, I hadn’t realized just how upscale the Clermont’s new owner, Nashville-based Oliver Hospitality, was aiming. A standard one-bed room starts at $199, while a room with twin bunk beds—for those with kids—can top $300. That places the Clermont in the same heady company as downtown’s Ritz-Carlton and Midtown’s Loews, and a notch above fellow boutiques the Glenn and Ellis.

The downstairs lobby bar, with its covetable bar carts, banquette seating and low lighting, appears to be going for a similar feel as Reynoldstown’s Golden Eagle. Down a few steps is Tiny Lou’s, the hotel’s French-American brasserie, which was busy with staff training so I was able only to peer from the stairs. At first glance, it looked casually classy.

The hotel clearly aims to maintain a certain nonthreatening edginess, from a decor its PR team describes as “rock-n’-roll-meets-grandma’s-living-room” to its retro graphics to a range of guest packages that can include expedited entry to the Clermont Lounge, tickets to the Plaza Theatre, and drink vouchers for a BeltLine pub crawl.

Hotel Clermont
Shampoo and soap dispensers in the room’s bathroom

Photograph by Scott Henry

In short, the overhauled Clermont is something fairly new to Atlanta. We’ve got a few hotel chains that shoot for a hipper clientele, like the AC Hotel at Lenox Square and various Hotel Indigos and Ws. But this is our first genuinely eccentric upscale boutique hotel, like the mid-century-themed Dwell Hotel in Chattanooga, the museum-themed 21C hotels around the country, or any of the Ace Hotels.

After nearly a decade of driving past a sadly shuttered Clermont, I’d say Oliver has done a creditable job with the revamp, creating a welcome addition to the city’s hospitality scene. But when the hotel or its restaurant will open remains a question mark. General manager Alan Rae told me perhaps by the end of May. Or maybe in June.

C’mon guys, it’s time for you to hit the stage.

George Lefont, Atlanta’s king of cinema, takes a bow

George Lefont
George Lefont retires after four decades in the cinema industry.

Photograph by The Sintoses

In the summer of 1976, George Lefont was still in his thirties but already mulling his second act. Having moved to Atlanta from his native San Francisco a dozen years earlier to take a job in management consulting, he had launched a successful computer software company and was looking for another opportunity.

On a short trip to Manhattan, Lefont, who’d developed a passion for old movies while attending the University of California at Berkeley, decided to go see the 1948 Humphrey Bogart classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. When he reached the theater, the line for the box office wrapped around the building. “When I saw all those people,” he recalls, “I said to myself, ‘George, this is the business for you!’”

If Lefont’s name sounds familiar, it’s likely because you’ve patronized the Plaza Theatre, Screening Room, Garden Hills Cinema, or one of the other half-dozen Atlanta movie theaters he operated during the four decades since his epiphany in New York. For much of that time, if you wanted to see a foreign, independent, or revival film, Lefont was close to the only game in town.

With last November’s sale of his final theater, the eight-screen Lefont Sandy Springs, the 79-year-old father of Atlanta’s art-house scene retired, rolling the end credits on a career that survived the transition from film sprockets to digital streaming and saw the neighborhood movie house supplanted by the multiplex.

“George’s career encapsulates a whole era of movie showmanship in America,” says Matthew Bernstein, chair of Emory University’s Department of Film and Media Studies and longtime host of the Atlanta Cinema Club, a membership film series whose first home in 1998 was at Lefont’s Garden Hills Cinema. “Movie-lovers in Atlanta owe him a great deal because he’d show films that the big theater chains wouldn’t touch, from small independent pictures like Reservoir Dogs to risqué foreign films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

George Lefont
Lefont with Divine

Photograph courtesy of Arthur Usherson

Looking back, Lefont’s decision to open a theater seems an improbably starry-eyed calling for an ambitious entrepreneur with a business administration degree. Replacing an existing theater in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, the Silver Screen was Atlanta’s first repertory house, dedicated to the kind of films now seen on Turner Classic Movies. For its grand opening in October 1976, Lefont booked Casablanca in a Bogart double feature with The Maltese Falcon—and confronted his first scheduling crisis: after learning Ted Turner was showing the latter on Channel 17, Lefont instead paired the Nazi resistance romance with the General Custer western They Died with Their Boots On.

The Silver Screen quickly became a mecca for local movie fans. Eleanor Ringel Cater, an Atlanta native who in 1978 began her 29-year run as film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recalls that Lefont seemed to put a great deal of thought into his programming choices; for example, he once screened a whole week of movies centered on trains.

“George wasn’t just the man who loved movies; he also had the business acumen to make it work, and you need both.”

Before long, Lefont realized that there was an untapped market in first-run films that weren’t making it to Atlanta. In 1978, he acquired the former Great Southeast Music Hall in Lindbergh Plaza—where the Sex Pistols had played their first American show just a few months earlier—and opened the 200-seat Screening Room. Then came the Beechwood in Athens and the Ansley Mall Cinema, a tiny theater where Lefont presented Atlanta’s first midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

When the Silver Screen’s lease wasn’t renewed in 1979 because the property owners wanted to redevelop the site, Lefont made his biggest gamble yet, buying the Tara Theater on Cheshire Bridge Road the next year and expanding it from two screens to four. He realized his bet had paid off after he secured an exclusive booking for the British sleeper Chariots of Fire and saw church buses unloading entire congregations to see it. When the film won Best Picture in 1981, Lefont fainted at his own Oscar party. “My guests came by like a receiving line to where I was lying on the floor to congratulate me,” says Lefont, who played the film for 16 weeks.

George Lefont
Lefont with Gene Wilder

Photograph courtesy of Donna Lefont

But he didn’t just show family fare. That same year, Lefont defied a local ban to screen the Penthouse-made Caligula and later had a theater raided and the film print seized when he showed the erotic drama The Story of O, an incident that saw him winning a First Amendment lawsuit.

More growth followed—the 800-seat Toco Hills Theater, the cozy Garden Hills, and the Plaza, which showed porn flicks before Lefont bought it. In January 1985, Lefont arranged a private midnight screening for Prince and his entourage to see Amadeus after playing the Omni—one bad-boy musical genius watching a biopic about another. At the height of his cinema empire in 1986, Lefont controlled 11 screens in seven locations and had premiered every one of that year’s Best Picture nominees, including the winner, Platoon.

By then, competition was threatening. In 1987, Lefont made a strategic merger with one theater chain that was building a seven-screen art house in Midtown but ended up selling his share a year later when the company merged with a larger chain. “Overnight, I’d gone from being a partner to an employee, which was not what I wanted,” says Lefont, who bought back the Plaza, Garden Hills, Toco Hills, Ansley Mall Cinema, and Screening Room (the big chain didn’t like running smaller screens). After buying and operating the Coach and Six restaurant on Peachtree Street, Lefont decided to ditch the dining industry and focus solely on his love: film.

In an average week, he attended maybe six or seven screenings of movies. He’d fly to the festivals in Cannes, Toronto, or Telluride (often accompanied by his fourth ex-wife, Donna) to get a preview of the best films being released that year. In 1991, he showed all five hours of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 to a few hardy ticket-buyers, who were given a half-hour intermission to grab lunch. Cinema Paradiso, The Double Life of Veronique, and Wings of Desire—without Lefont’s devotion to cinema, Atlanta might have missed these classics.

George Lefont
George Lefont retires after four decades in the cinema industry.

Photograph by The Sintoses

“Atlanta was so lucky to have had George,” Ringel Cater says. “George wasn’t just the man who loved movies; he also had the business acumen to make it work, and you need both.”

Rising rents and shifting audience trends eventually led Lefont to sell off or close all his small theaters, concentrating his efforts in recent years on Lefont Sandy Springs, which he took over in 2004, showing a mix of art-house and commercial fare. The multiplex soon became home base to the fast-growing Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, a relationship that Sandy Springs’s new owner, financier Brandt Gully, has said he plans to maintain.

Lefont hasn’t yet figured out how he’ll spend his retirement, but he hopes to make it to a few trade screenings a week when he’s not at his Buckhead home watching TCM and spending time with his three daughters and his grandchildren. Looking back on his years showing films, he says, “It’s not everybody who gets to do what he loves doing, make a good living at it, and have people thank you for it.”

This article appears in our March 2018 issue.

Atlanta’s crowded mayoral race is going to a runoff. Now what?

Mary Norwood
Mary Norwood speaks at her election night party.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

For Mary Norwood, it must have felt like déjà vu. Back in 2009 at her election night party at the Varsity—with a runoff against Kasim Reed looming and Fulton County results glacially slow to come in—she urged her supporters to save their energy and settle in for the long haul. Tuesday night wasn’t much different. This time, though, her opponent wasn’t Reed, but Reed’s heir apparent, Keisha Lance Bottoms. Around 11 p.m., Norwood took to the podium at 103 West, in her home turf of Buckhead, and gave the crowd—mostly over 50, mostly white—her blessing to call it a night. The writing was on the wall, after all.

“I know our ground game,” Norwood said on her way out. “I know we have thousands of yard signs. I know we have support in every corner of the city. I know I [have had] double-digit support across the entire city for the past year. I think that’s a great position of strength going into the runoff.

“We have a campaign that is totally inclusive, totally embracing of everyone in this town, whether it’s citizen, resident, business, visitor, regardless of nationality, ethnic background, or orientation. We are the all-encompassing campaign. That speaks to the Atlanta of the 21st century,” she said.

Keisha Lance Bottoms
Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks at her election night party.

Photograph by Steve Fennessy

Just after midnight, seven miles to the south, Reed left his suite on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta and headed down to the Regency V ballroom to warm up the crowd for Bottoms. Security paced him, photographers surrounded him. On the stage, Reed introduced Bottoms as the “60th mayor of Atlanta,” and indeed, Bottoms’ subsequent remarks felt almost like a coronation. To listen to her, you’d have thought she had won outright. “I don’t take the responsibility of being the 60th mayor of this city lightly,” she told the enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred.

She made no mention of the runoff battle against Norwood—a battle that had, effectively, already begun. Indeed, Bottoms ticked off the names of each of her many opponents during the race—even the early, more obscure ones, like Rohit Amannamanchi—before adding, “I stand here a better person for having spent the last year with each of them, because each of us has a very unique style, but we all have a love for this city. I look forward to working with each of my new friends—my new best friends—over the next four years.”

The rest of her remarks were a reminder of why her personal narrative (helped along by Reed’s strident endorsement and fierce advocacy) resonated with voters.

“As I walk through the kitchen to get in here,” she said, “I looked at the bags of trash and paper and I thought about my grandfather. My grandfather used to go to hotels—he called it ‘uptown,’ we call it ‘downtown’—and he would go in the back door of hotels and haul out their paper. Their trash was his gold. He would take it to a paperhouse and he would sell it. And that’s the way he fed his children. I thought about my grandfather walking through that back door so I could stand here tonight.”

“I woke up this morning,” she said, “and there was a poem that was on my heart—it played over and over again. It was a line from ‘Still I Rise’ from Maya Angelou and it said, ‘I am the hope of the slave.’ I stand here with the blood of slaves and slaveowners running through my veins. And I look at each of you and I’m reminded of what is possible in this city.”

Reed’s endorsement is a double-edged sword for Bottoms in the days leading up to the December 5 runoff. Reed’s job approval ratings are in the mid-60s, according to his office, so it makes sense to ride his coattails. But she also needs to show that she’ll be no one’s puppet, along with distancing herself from the shadow of the ongoing federal investigation into corruption at City Hall. During her nine-minute remarks, she gave a glimpse of how she’ll thread that needle.

“I’ve mentioned my friend Kasim Reed, and I’ve mentioned what a great job he’s done on behalf of this city. And because this city has come so very far in eight years financially, we can now go back and pour into our communities the same resources and the same energy that we poured into getting this city on [solid] financial footing.”

By the time all the ballots were finally counted, Bottoms won 28 percent of the vote, with Norwood winning 21 percent. Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president, trailed four percentage points behind Norwood, with 17 percent.

Now comes a four-week sprint to the finish. For Norwood, it won’t be enough to simply bring her supporters out to the polls one more time. She’ll need to draw significant support from voters who’d supported the six other candidates on the ballot. As of today, none of them has endorsed Norwood or Bottoms, or even said they planned to. Perhaps most daunting for Norwood? Bottoms is wisely playing up her own Democrat bona fides, which stand in marked contrast to what’s seen as Norwood’s own political fluidity.

Some other takeaways:

  • Just a few months ago, this election seemed Ceasar Mitchell’s to lose. After all, the city council president had patiently waited his turn and even had the endorsement of Ambassador Andrew Young and C.T. Vivian. But on election night, Mitchell barely scraped into the double digits. You could say Mitchell’s message got lost in the crowded field, but all the candidates had that same challenge. What likely hurt Mitchell the most was Reed, who used his bully pulpit to publicly chastise and belittle Mitchell.
  • Cathy Woolard and Peter Aman weren’t carbon-copy candidates, but they shared many priorities, including transit and affordability. Many voters we talked to were on the fence between the two, and so we have to think the two candidates split votes that otherwise could have all gone to one if the other hadn’t run.
  • Identity politics are alive and well—especially in a race where all the candidates seemed to be saying the same things. Here are two facts: The largest voting bloc in the city are black women, and Bottoms was the only black female candidate. Likewise, this election seemed to identify a new voting bloc: the eastside. Though Bottoms carried southwest Atlanta and Norwood won over Buckhead, Woolard dominated the predominantly white and gentrifying neighborhoods east of Downtown. (You can see a map of how this played out in Fulton County here.) In Atlanta-in-DeKalb communities (which include East Atlanta, Kirkwood, and Edgewood), Woolard garnered more than 37 percent of the vote.
  • Though the runoff for the mayor’s race will dominate Reed’s attention, at least one of his allies still needs his help. Councilwoman Cleta Winslow has a tough runoff challenge for her seat representing West End against military veteran advocate Jason Dozier. And we imagine he’s not done with the Atlanta City Council president race, either. C.T. Martin, a strong ally on the council, lost his bid to oversee the legislative body, failing to make a runoff against council colleagues Alex Wan and Felicia Moore—the most loyal of Reed’s opposition.
  • All through this race, we’ve seen a series of polls that showed most of the candidates clustered in the low single digits, with as many as 20 percent of voters undecided. The fact that the majority of Atlantans stayed home on election night showed either that candidates were getting more favorable internal polling or, following the 2016 elections, they figured polling is worthless and that they’d take their shot. Woolard’s strong showing supports the flawed polling argument. The only question is, did polling actually influence people’s votes?
  • It’s worth arguing whether Atlanta was shortchanged by the sheer number of candidates in the race. It was nearly impossible to get much of a sense of how the candidates differed on policy by going to a forum because no one had much time to speak. Local media’s attention was more focused on the Jon Ossoff-Karen Handel race earlier this year and was unprepared to cover a contest with as many as ten candidates. Forget about city council and Atlanta Public Schools contests on top of that. Unless they attended a number of meet-and-greets, many Atlantans likely cast their vote on fairly superficial grounds.

Everything you need to know about the 2017 Atlanta City Council races in 10 minutes


First, if you don’t know your city council district, enter your address here to find out.

Now get up to speed on what’s happening in each race, plus the races for the at-large posts and council president:

District 1: includes Grant Park, Ormewood Park, Benteen Heights, and much of southeast Atlanta
Candidates: Ron Aribo, Mo Ivory, Oz Hill, Bill Powell, Carla Smith
What’s at stake: Smith, who’s been in office since 2004, has a reputation for being a community-focused council member who’ll answer your 1 a.m. phone call and help clean graffiti off that wall. But she’s facing criticism over a city plan to remove 75 trees in Grant Park for a zoo parking deck. Smith has a particularly tough challenger in lawyer and former radio personality Ivory, who’s raised more money than all the other candidates combined. The district has seen a rise in home prices and Atlanta BeltLine-driven development, but still faces challenges with public safety.

District 2: includes Inman Park, the Old Fourth Ward, Candler Park, and a chunk of eastern downtown
Candidates: Amir Farokhi, Stephon Ferguson, Zelda Jackson, Nick Mulkey, Lauren Welsh
What’s at stake: The race for Kwanza Hall’s open seat would seem to come down to the two candidates able to have raised significant cash: Farokhi, a lawyer turned nonprofit head and consultant, enjoys name recognition from a previous council run, while Welsh works in marketing and is a long-serving Neighborhood Planning Unit chair. The district, which includes Krog Street and Ponce City markets, as well as the BeltLine’s popular Eastside Trail, has become one of the most vibrant—and expensive—in recent years.

District 3: includes Vine City, Georgia Tech, Atlantic Station, Bankhead, and a strip of west Atlanta
Candidates: Ricky Brown, Greg Clay, Ivory Young
What’s at stake: Some of the biggest changes in town are taking place in District 3, with the completion of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the building of Rodney Cook Sr. Park, and the launch of the Westside Future Fund and other programs that will spend tens of millions on schools, job training, and housing. Young, a sincere, workaholic council member now in his fourth term, faces a vigorous contest from Clay, a business consultant and educational advocate who wants to see better cooperation between City Hall and Atlanta Public Schools. The main challenge is bringing development and opportunity to a long-blighted part of town while also preventing displacement.

District 4: includes the West End, Atlanta University center, Venetian Hills, and a slice of west downtown
Candidates: Adassa, Christopher Brown, Daniel Burroughs, Jason Dozier, Kimberly Parmer, Shawn Walton, DeBorah “Sister” Williams, Cleta Winslow
What’s at stake: After years of sitting ignored by developers and being walloped by the housing crash, the district has largely recovered and is starting to see new investment due to the BeltLine’s Westside Trail and renewed attention on its attractive housing stock. The 24-year council veteran Winslow faces a horde of opponents, but some observers are betting that military veteran’s advocate Dozier, whose campaign war chest is larger than the seven other candidates combined, could force her into a runoff.

District 5: includes Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, Edgewood, East Lake, and East Atlanta
Candidates: Natalyn Archibong, Liliana Bakhtiari
What’s at stake: Another four-termer, Archibong is facing a stiff challenge from Bakhtiari, an openly queer Muslim millennial with a background in nonprofits and social advocacy. The district has been the scene of swift gentrification and a recent influx of commercial redevelopment along the Memorial Drive corridor, so the focus of voters will likely be on affordable housing and managed growth.

District 6: includes Virginia-Highland, Morningside, Ansley Park, and Druid Hills
Candidates: Jennifer Ide, Kirk Rich
What’s at stake: Some of Atlanta’s priciest neighborhoods are located in this district—whose seat is open courtesy of Councilman Alex Wan, who’s running for council president—so voters here tend to be most concerned with quality-of-life issues such as traffic congestion, zoning, and infrastructure improvements. Ide is an attorney for a nonprofit and Rich is a real estate executive who serves on the board of Invest Atlanta, the city’s development authority.

District 7: includes eastern Buckhead, Garden Hills, and Atlanta’s northeast corner
Candidates: Howard Shook, Rebecca King
What’s at stake: District 7 already boasted many of the city’s top shopping destinations, swanky hotels, and high-end condos. But the Buckhead Atlanta retail district has helped ignite a residential building boom along Peachtree Road that could add to the area’s traffic woes. Still, four-term incumbent Shook, the only council candidate in any race to have raised more than $200,000, doesn’t appear in danger from King, a small business owner and a board member of Livable Buckhead, a community planning nonprofit. 

District 8: includes Chastain Park, Tuxedo Park, Paces, western Buckhead and Atlanta’s northwest corner
Candidates: J.P. Matzigkeit, Anna Tillman
What’s at stake: The district seat made open by the retiring Yolanda Adrean would represent the city’s most well-heeled homeowners. Traffic, public safety, and reforming City Hall in light of the ongoing bribery scandal appear to be the top priorities in the race between Matzigkeit, a corporate finance officer, and Tillman, a semi-retired geologist and executive.

District 9: includes Riverside, Bolton, Carver Hills, and much of Westside Atlanta
Candidates: Kwame Abernathy, William Harrison, Dustin Hillis
What’s at stake: This long-disadvantaged district is just beginning to see new residential development in some quarters, but should see more activity as the Proctor Creek Trail, the BeltLine’s northwest segment, and Westside Reservoir Park—the ambitious greenspace centered on the abandoned Bellwood Quarrymove closer to fruition. The race appears to be between Hillis, a former aide to Councilwoman Felicia Moore, who’s vacating the seat to run for council president, and the youngest son of civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy. Abernathy, who describes himself as “unemployed,” has so far failed to file any of the required campaign disclosures.

District 10: includes Westview, Audobon Forest, Bakers Ferry and a swath of west Atlanta
Candidates: Andrea Boone, Kenny Hill, Beverly Rice
What’s at stake: Boone was the long-time chief of staff for Councilman C.T. Martin—also running for council president—before becoming commissioner of Mayor Reed’s Office of Constituent Services, and might seem to have the edge in the race to represent a relatively low-income, largely African American section of town. However, Hill, who retired after 30 years with Home Depot to found a nonprofit to provide job training to the homeless, is also leading a strong campaign. The focus will likely be on economic development and public safety.

District 11: includes far southwest Atlanta between Cascade and Campbellton roads
Candidates: Harold Hardnett, Debra F. Harris, Latarsha D. Holden, Anthony Johnson, Edith Lapido, Brionté McCorkle, Marcia Overstreet, Georgianne Thomas
What’s at stake: As home to many of black Atlanta’s business and civic leaders, the affluent District 11 has long been a base of African American political power. That’s one reason we’ve got eight candidates running for the open seat vacated by mayoral hopeful Keisha Lance Bottoms. The leading candidates appear to be small businessman Hardnett, minister Johnson, community organizer McCorkle, and retired flight attendant and women’s issues advocate Overstreet.

District 12: includes Sylvan Hills, Capitol View, Adair Park and Atlanta’s southeast corner
Candidates: Randy Gibbs, Michael Jackson, Joyce Sheperd, Diana Watley
What’s at stake: Some of Atlanta’s most blighted areas lie within the 12th, including the Metropolitan Drive corridor and the Pittsburgh neighborhood. But it’s also home to Adair Park and Capitol View, two neighborhoods that have received a boost from the BeltLine and residents looking for more affordable intown housing. Four-term Councilwoman Sheperd is well-positioned—and funded—to keep her seat from challengers Gibbs, a real estate agent, and Watley, a family counselor.

At-Large Post 1: City-wide
Candidates: Michael Bond, Courtney English
What’s at stake: Bond, who’s served a total of four terms on the council over the past 24 years, appears to be in real danger of losing his seat to the Atlanta Board of Education chairman. Not only has English raised twice as much campaign cash, he carries endorsements from ex-Mayor Shirley Franklin and Bond’s council colleague Andre Dickens. Bond’s political career, meanwhile, is still reeling from a series of ethics violations—including spending public funds on personal travel, accepting free tickets, and failing to disclose hundreds of campaign donations and expenses—that resulted in $15,000 in city fine and a whopping $45,000 from the state Ethics Commission, the largest of its kind ever assessed.

At-Large Post 2: City-wide
Candidates: Cory Ruth, Matt Westmoreland, Bret R. Williams
What’s at stake: With incumbent Mary Norwood running for mayor, this seat is up for grabs—and Westmoreland, the Ivy League-educated APS board member, appears well-positioned to grab it. The son of a former Fulton County Superior Court judge and one of the top fundraisers in any council race, the 29-year-old Westmoreland carries the blessing of Congressman John Lewis and endorsements from the police and fire unions, as well as major business and civic groups.

At-Large Post 3: City-wide
Candidates: Andre Dickens
What’s at stake: Nothing much to report here. Council freshman Dickens is the only city official to go unchallenged.

City Council President: City-wide
Candidates: C.T. Martin, Felicia Moore, Alex Wan
What’s at stake: Actually, not a great deal. The president’s only official duties are to hand out committee assignments, lead council meetings, and to break tie votes. The post has never been a stepping stone to higher office, but the president is well-positioned to be an opinion leader or push back against mayoral overreach. This race is between three council members: Martin, who’s sparred with past mayors (and sometimes colleagues) but has been a floor leader for Reed; Moore, the council’s most vocal watchdog and reliable “no” vote; and Wan, who has more of an easy-going, collaborative style.

Will District 4’s loyalty to Cleta Winslow save her from a runoff for her Atlanta City Council seat?

Cleta Winslow
Cleta Winslow

Photograph courtesy of Atlanta City Council

In her 24 years on the Atlanta City Council, Cleta Winslow has served with three mayors, sat on numerous committees, and attended countless public hearings and community meetings. But one thing she’s never done is face a runoff election.

The conventional wisdom around City Hall is that Winslow, a plain-spoken, sometimes pugnacious woman with a distinctive flat-top hairstyle, always attracts a batch of political opponents—and then always clobbers them outright by collecting a majority of the votes on Election Day.

This year, however, the 4th District incumbent faces a crowd of 10 challengers. About half of those appear to be candidates in name only, having failed either to raise funds or create a campaign website—or in some cases, both—but at least a couple look to have the war chests and visibility within their southwest Atlanta district to give Winslow trouble on November 7.

The hopefuls include Jason Dozier, who served Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and now works for an organization that helps his fellow veterans gain employment skills and find jobs, and Kimberly Parmer, a commercial real estate agent and former president of the influential West End Neighborhood Development community association. Dozier, who says he’s knocked on thousands of doors over recent months, has raised an impressive $74,000—more campaign money than all the other candidates combined, Winslow included.

Admittedly, pundits have declared the veteran councilwoman vulnerable before. In 2013, the last year for city elections, Winslow was arrested for drunk driving after running a stop sign and refusing to take a field sobriety test, but easily skated to re-election a few months later. (After the election, she changed her plea to guilty, paid a fine, and, somewhat redundantly for a council member, was ordered to complete 40 hours of community service.)

Winslow also has drawn criticism—and been slapped with a series of fines totaling $6,500 by the city’s ethics office—for spending taxpayer money on each of her last four re-election campaigns. On one occasion, she allegedly paid several homeless people with funds from her council office fund to hand out fliers while wearing campaign T-shirts. On another, a city employee shuttled her to campaign stops while her driver’s license was suspended. The city’s ethics office reportedly decided to treat the infractions as oversights because Winslow’s financial record-keeping was so shoddy that it couldn’t be proven whether she intended to break the law.

If this year’s campaign disclosures are any indication, Winslow’s accounting skills haven’t improved. She reported collecting nearly $14,000 in contributions in January from a small number of well-heeled donors like developer Michael Russell and attorney Carl Westmoreland, but in later disclosures listed those funds as “in-kind” donations rather than cash. More importantly, she hadn’t disclosed any campaign expenditures as of the end of September, which is unrealistic for someone actively running for office.

When we called Winslow to ask about her campaigning, she quickly became defensive and said every event she takes part in is for the benefit of the district. She also refused to discuss the field of opponents arrayed against her. “I take every race and candidate seriously,” she said. “I run my ass off, but my focus is on serving my 40,000 constituents.”

In the end, it’s likely that Winslow’s ethics stumbles and arrest record will be of more interest to City Hall observers than to voters. With an overwhelmingly African American district that stretches from North Avenue south to Fort McPherson and includes the West End, much of the Atlanta University area, and a good chunk of the neighborhoods southeast of Cascade Road, the councilwoman clearly enjoys the enduring support of many longtime residents. Her apparent confidence could explain why she hasn’t set up a website for her own campaign.

“People will come out of the grave to vote for Cleta,” said one neighborhood leader who asked not to be named. “She has a great emotional connection to people.”

Asheview Heights neighborhood leader Bill Cannon, who was born and raised in District 4, said Winslow will have the loyalty of natives like him for as long as she cares to run, not least because she fought for the area during the 1990s, when it was the scene of some of the city’s worst crime and poverty. In 2008, he noted, she went toe-to-toe with Mayor Shirley Franklin over a proposal to close the West End’s aging Fire Station No. 7 over the protests of nearby residents. One of Kasim Reed’s first moves in office was to renovate the station and return it to duty.

“Cleta has been in the trenches with us and has always been accessible,” Cannon said.

While Winslow appears to have a lock on old-timers, West End and its surrounding neighborhoods, which abut the Atlanta BeltLine’s newly opened Westside Trail, have seen an influx of new residents in recent years and are becoming more racially diverse. Many of these newcomers, said another neighborhood leader, want to see more commercial development and economic progress—as is now happening with other areas adjacent to the BeltLine—and are frustrated with what they see as a lack of visionary leadership.

One of these discontented newcomers is Jason Dozier, who moved to Mechanicsville a few years ago. When the plan to sell Turner Field was announced, he advocated for nearby residents to have a voice in the area’s redevelopment. Instead, he felt like his neighborhood was shut out of the process by City Hall.

“I thought Councilwoman Winslow should have been a better advocate for the interests of the community,” he said, adding that he also believes she allowed Mayor Reed to negotiate the sale of a section of Fort McPherson to filmmaker Tyler Perry without neighborhood input.

Dozier said a primary focus of his campaign is on maintaining housing affordability in the face of gentrification. Kimberly Parmer’s campaign is focused on encouraging development and curbing displacement; building infrastructure for walkers, bikers, transit users, and motorists; and encouraging mixed-use.

One factor in Winslow’s favor, of course, is the sheer number of opponents who could serve to cancel each other out. Others include Adassa—yes, he goes by just the one name—who manages a non-profit business incubation center and owns a hot sauce company; Nick Hess, the longtime leader of the Mad Housers, which builds free huts for Atlanta’s homeless; Christopher Brown, a marketing consultant; Dan Burroughs, a bartender; activist Shawn Walton; Jonathan Whitfield, a Baptist minister; businesswoman Elizabeth Whitmore; and self-described evangelist and perennial candidate DeBorah “Sister” Williams. According to their disclosures, Walton, Whitfield, and Williams have raised no campaign funds.

If Winslow does find herself campaigning past November 7, it will be seen as the end of her untouchable status, but that suits some folks just fine.

“I’ll be surprised if she doesn’t face a runoff,” said a neighborhood leader who requested anonymity. “Some of us want new blood, and I’ve definitely seen fewer Cleta signs than I have in the past.”

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