Atlanta Mayoral Race: So many candidates, so little time

There are so many political hopefuls running at this point, it’s nearly impossible to come away with much substance, even from a two-hour forum before an attentive audience
Michael Sterling, one of 10 candidates who attended Tuesday’s mayoral forum, mingles before the event.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

More than 400 Atlanta voters got a good look Tuesday evening at the candidates vying to be the city’s next mayor—and a look is pretty much all they got.

That’s because there are so many folks running at this point it’s nearly impossible to come away with much substance from even a two-hour forum before an attentive audience, like the one held at Atlanta Technical College in Southwest Atlanta on Tuesday. In all, there were 10 candidates crowded on stage, which meant abbreviated introductions and answers limited to 60 seconds a pop, with no time for follow-ups or debate. And those 10 didn’t even include the clear front-runner, Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, whose absence was left unexplained both by event organizers and her own website.

What emerged was a polite event that offered few surprises and little red meat for onlookers. If you were unfamiliar with the men and women onstage—business consultant Peter Aman, mediator Al Bartell, Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, state Sen. Vincent Fort, Councilman Kwanza Hall, entrepreneur Laban King, Council President Ceasar Mitchell, former Atlanta Workforce Development Agency chief Michael Sterling, and former Council President Cathy Woolard—you likely didn’t learn much to enable you to distinguish between their platforms. Many are singing from the same hymnbook of better transit, good government, and progressive criminal justice measures. But voters will also want to know the specifics.

A few themes and issues did seem to emerge, if only judging from the number of mentions and audience response. For instance, the mostly black crowd—the event was sponsored by the National Pan-Hellenic Council of Greater Atlanta, NAACP Atlanta Branch, and the League of Women Voters of Atlanta-Fulton County—clearly liked Hall’s pledge to rein in gentrification and preserve “legacy neighborhoods,” even though he didn’t have time to detail his plans. There was also clear concern over crime, with several candidates promising to hire more cops and raise police salaries, and others arguing that public safety needs to start with effective education and after-school programs. Fort’s assertion that “Atlanta is already Chicago” was met with vocal rebuffs from some in the audience.

Asked how to combat City Hall corruption, Woolard called for a forensic audit of the city’s books; Eaves called for a more transparent procurement process; Aman said he’d push for additional training for all city employees; and Mitchell suggested strengthening the city’s ethics code. Pot decriminalization—or simply drastically reducing the penalties associated with getting caught with marijuana—as championed by Hall and Fort, also received some applause.

There were only a couple of sharp elbows thrown. Eaves introduced himself by saying, “What sets me apart from everyone else up here is that they’re followers, but I’m a leader,” a boast that elicited a few stunned gasps from the crowd. Later, without naming names, Lance Bottoms said some of her fellow candidates had accepted money from some of the parties implicated in the City Hall corruption scandal, but stopped short of suggesting any illegalities had occurred. (An observer noted that a company registered to E.R. Mitchell, Jr., who plead guilty in January to paying bribes to secure City Hall work, gave $250 to her Council campaign in 2013, as well as Fort’s Senate campaign.) Finally, Aman ended the evening by pointing out that Norwood had missed other recent candidate forums—an absence that he called “the elephant not in the room,” a simultaneous play on words and tease that his fellow Buckhead resident is a Republican, a claim made during Norwood’s first mayoral run in 2009. Aman’s focus on Norwood makes sense, since they are likely competing for the same northside voter base.

A few other crumbs were dropped that will be interesting to follow as the race lumbers on:

  • In keeping with his Bernie Sanders-style campaign, Fort said he believes “the city of Atlanta has lost its way” by ignoring regular people in favor of corporate interests.
  • Lance Bottoms reminded voters that she wanted to build an Atlanta Streetcar line south past Fort McPherson to provide transportation for southside commuters.
  • Eaves said the city had failed its homeless population and needed to invest in crisis intervention—and made one of the few references to Mayor Kasim Reed, saying the chief executive has dragged his feet on working with the county on providing more beds for the homeless.
  • Woolard, who last night at yet another forum raised eyebrows saying the Atlanta Braves are “dead to me” after leaving the city, advocated a more robust supportive housing program to get homeless people off the street and stressed the need to end food deserts.
  • In response to a question from an audience member, pretty much every candidate said they would support getting rid of the depressing smokers’ “lounges” in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport where travelers light up before boarding flights.

Until the pool narrows, it will be hard to hear more specific plans from the candidates. But a lot can happen in seven months.