Atlanta mayoral race kicks off with barbecue, “The Art of the Deal,” and early jabs

“We’re going to be slicing and dicing this vote up in many, many different ways”
Atlanta mayor's race
Who else wants to run?

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

Atlanta’s mayoral race has been quietly humming along since last year, with candidates raising money, attending intimate meet-and-greets in supporters’ homes, and plotting how they can best more than 10 other candidates in what has become a crowded race.

But yesterday, in a Buckhead restaurant filled with CEOs and elected officials, the race to decide who will lead the city over the next four years officially kicked off over a spread of Brunswick stew and tabletop buckets of Bud Light.

On a stage at 103 West, the eight candidates deemed most viable by Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell gave their elevator pitches to an invitation-only crowd interested in who deserved their vote—or at the very least, their campaign contribution—this November. The event‘s down-home theme (Filet Mignon, not barbecue, is normally served) was a nod to “the local election fever that will set the stage for continued success of Atlanta,” Massell said. Gift bags, to many people’s surprise, included a copy of “The Art of the Deal” by President Donald Trump.

Massell, who served as Atlanta mayor from 1970-74 and ever since has been an ambassador for affluent Buckhead, selected the eight candidates to sit on the stage in alphabetical order. There was Peter Aman, a former business consultant and one-time City Hall chief operating officer; Councilwoman and Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority director Keisha Lance Bottoms; state Sen. Vincent Fort; Councilman Kwanza Hall; current Council President Ceasar Mitchell; Councilmember Mary Norwood; former Atlanta Workforce Development Agency executive director Michael Sterling; and Cathy Woolard, a former Council president. (Several other candidates, many of whom are virtually unknown in local political circles, have also filed to run.)

The event’s “rules of engagement,” distributed weeks ahead of time, were simple and specific: The candidates would be asked two questions chosen by Massell and given one minute to answer each. The first asked why they were more qualified for the office than their opponents. The second called for candidates to argue how they were going to round up enough votes to survive not only the crowded general election on November 7, but also a runoff roughly one month later. Here’s how it played out:

Aman noted his experience working with the private sector and his knowledge of City Hall. In the early 2000s, the Pennsylvania native helped former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin study how to streamline local government. However, Aman said, he’s not a politician. He also made clear whom he views as his chief competition. When asked about how he’ll win support, Aman brought up Mitchell’s past ethics issues and Norwood’s past policy proposals. Massell chided him, saying “none of this is on subject.” (Mitchell later responded that he has “thick skin.”)

Bottoms said that what motivated her to attend law school and enter public service was seeing her father led away in handcuffs as a child and watching her mother work to support the family. That experience has made her as comfortable in a Vine City dining room as a Buckhead boardroom, she said. Bottoms said she had the “executive experience” to lead and “fortitude to run toward the fire, not away, when things get tough.”

Fort said he’s always “told the truth” to his constituents, and was the first on stage to discuss the corruption scandal that’s recently rattled City Hall, alleging each of his opponents on the stage were at City Hall “in some capacity” during the time in question. “Atlanta City Hall has lost its way—not the people,” Fort said. “And there are people [in City Hall] who are more interested in serving their interests than the people’s interests.” He also said he would address an “elephant in the room:” gangs, an issue he claimed the city didn’t want to discuss.

Hall, who’s long been considered a candidate but only officially entered the race last week, told the crowd that “Atlanta’s not asking for a black mayor, a white mayor, a gay mayor, or a straight mayor. Atlanta wants a great mayor. And I’m the only one with a proven track record for bringing neighborhoods forward, neighborhoods that were left behind.” He promised to push for transit along the Atlanta BeltLine and through Midtown and to boost neighborhoods.

Mitchell said he would “unlock the exponential power of the position” and would “collaborate, work well, and play together in the sandbox”—for example, by working with Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to sell off shuttered schoolhouses. The West End resident, who grew up in Edgewood, cast himself as the candidate who knew the city best, saying he did not need “a manual, a translator, or a map to find my way around.”

Norwood, who lost the 2009 runoff election to Reed (who did not attend the event) by just over 700 votes, underscored her strong support from neighborhoods. She vowed to push for transparency, promising to pursue audits of city accounts, post expenses online, and overhaul the city’s bidding process. In addition, she’s giving top billing to building transit “from the western part of the region” to Lindbergh. Norwood also promised to address crime.

Sterling said he was “the only person sitting on this stage who has any experience in law enforcement,” pointing to his time working in the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Northern District of Illinois. He vowed to “tackle the root causes of crime.”

Woolard, an early champion of the Atlanta BeltLine, put an emphasis on vision and collaboration, saying it’s not the mayor’s job to have all the ideas but “to bring people together, build the vision for the city, and block and tackle to get us there.” She pointed to her past efforts in working to pass a civil rights protection bill.

Unsurprisingly, each candidate said they were confident they could find the roughly 40,000 votes needed to win. Hall said his council district saw strong turnout in previous elections. Sterling noted that councilmembers have not had much luck winning the top job at City Hall.

But as the recent presidential race showed, past performance (and polls) don’t necessarily predict the future. Woolard, who’s won a citywide race before as council president, said the current political climate could draw out more voters looking for change on the local level. She offered a blunt assessment of how brutal the path to victory just might be.

“We’re going to be slicing and dicing this vote up in many, many different ways,” Woolard told the crowd. “My guess is you’ll see three or four of us fighting to see who gets the last little numbers to get into the runoff.” Then, she said, those two candidates have to get their voters, plus other supporters, back to the polls in order to win.

Candidates have roughly 11 months to fight for those top slots. As Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens said shortly after the rapid-fire session came to a close and he made his way toward the exit, “this is going to be good.”

What to watch for: At the end of this month, candidates will file their latest fundraising disclosures. Mitchell currently leads the pack.