With the November 30 runoff just days away, mayoral candidates Felicia Moore and Andre Dickens are busy trying to distinguish themselves—largely from each other. Both Democrats with widely overlapping policy platforms, Moore and Dickens have tacked toward whatever strengths they hope will appeal to the most voters. Moore, the current Atlanta City Council president, has positioned herself as the deeply experienced relationship-builder, while Dickens, a councilmember, is courting voters with a reform-minded campaign that’s focused on affordable housing. After the Anyone-but-Kasim Reed movement successfully launched Dickens into the runoff against then frontrunner Moore, voters are asking: What’s the difference between the last two candidates standing?
Some political coverage has cast Dickens as the progressive of the pair, and both candidates seem comfortable with that distinction: When Atlanta Civic Circle reached out to both campaigns, Felicia Moore described herself as “more moderately progressive,” while Dickens’s communications director, Austin Wagner, said Dickens identifies as a progressive.
Wagner noted Dickens’s emphasis on affordable housing and his goal to make public transit free by 2030. While both candidates have focused on public safety—reflecting the realities of a race in which 48 percent of voters say crime is their most important issue—Dickens has made affordable housing more central to his campaign than Moore, who has made a detailed crime and safety plan the cornerstone of her platform.
While both candidates are threading a fine needle when it comes to balancing issues of rising crime and racism in policing, Dickens has historically shown more interest than Moore in police reform. In June 2020, following months of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, Dickens voted along with six other councilmembers to withhold a portion of the APD’s funding until Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s administration created a plan to reinvent the culture of policing. (The measure, which Moore opposed, did not pass, and, while Dickens has defended that vote, his current SAFE Streets Atlanta policy plan includes more funding for police, not less.)
A few key endorsements from well-known progressives have also helped Dickens strengthen his left-of-center bona fides: He’s earned the support of former mayor and Ambassador Andrew Young, former Senator and gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, and former State Senator Nan Orrock.
But Dickens and Moore have more in common politically than either might prefer, particularly when it comes to wooing undecided voters. They’ve been colleagues on the City Council for eight years, and their policy platforms overlap on issues large and small. They’ve both called for investments in public transit and housing protections for seniors and long-term residents, and both have thrown their support behind Peoplestown community members who are battling the Bottoms administration over a long-simmering eminent domain issue.
Their policy overlap has been the most scrutinized on issues of public safety and addressing crime, so it’s no surprise that, in the final days of the campaign, both candidates are scrambling to stake out some proprietary turf. There are a few issues left to scuffle over: They disagree about the future of interim police chief Rodney Bryant (Moore wants him out on day one, Dickens wants a 100-day trial contract), and what to do about the Atlanta City Detention Center, which is currently sitting empty but could become a place to house non-violent offenders, spillover for the overcrowded Fulton County Jail, or some mix of the two. Moore wants it to serve as a permanent solution for alleviating what she’s called a “humanitarian crisis” in Fulton; Dickens envisions using it as short-term overflow and then transitioning it to a mental health and homelessness facility.
While the devil may be in the details, the larger picture looks similar: When it comes to addressing rising crime, Moore and Dickens have both pitched themselves as committed to handling immediate safety issues as well as addressing the factors that exacerbate crime, including poverty, housing instability, and mental illness. They both also readily acknowledge the realities of police brutality: “As an African-American woman, I know the conflict between the police and the community,” Moore said. “I know it on an intimate and personal level.” Wagner, Dickens’s communications director, stressed the importance of moving away from traditional policing for solving issues like homelessness and mental illness. “Some of those things you don’t need a badge and a gun to go handle,” he explained.
Yet neither of them has embraced the kind of deeper police overhaul that some progressives in Atlanta and beyond are calling for, like decreasing budgets or removing officers from schools. Dickens and Moore have both proposed adding more officers to the Atlanta Police Department, and both voted for the establishment of “Cop City,” the 85-acre police and firefighter training center to be built on city land in South DeKalb County. The project generated widespread community outrage, and, for some progressive Atlantans, Dickens’s yes vote is proof enough that he’s not the left-of-center candidate they wanted. Before the general mayoral race, one voter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I don’t think any of the candidates stand out in terms of being progressive.” She was planning on a reluctant vote for Moore.
Ultimately, voters will decide for themselves whether Dickens is a progressive, Moore is a moderate, and if that makes a difference in selecting one for mayor. But the significance of the moderate-progressive framing might not matter so much in a municipal race like this one, says Dr. Andra Gillespie, professor of political science at Emory University. She cautions against interpreting Atlanta politics through the lens of a national movement like progressivism.
“I think everyone’s vision of who a progressive is has been shaped by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren,” she explains. “But every local politician, whether they are liberal or conservative . . . has to deal with how to make the trains run on time, how to pick the garbage up.”
In other words, while a good mayor leads and a great mayor inspires, every mayor—good or bad—is also the highest functionary atop a mountain of functionaries, orchestrating the daily movements of a very complex machine relied upon by millions of people, whether they notice it or not. Gillespie adds, “I think there are ideological debates on the best direction for handling those (everyday problems), but these candidates aren’t necessarily the ones bringing that debate to the table.”
Rather than reading Moore and Dickens through the politics of the national stage, Gillespie thinks the more compelling comparison is between these runoff candidates and the mayors who preceded them. “Voters were clearly opposed to Reed having a third term in office,” she explains. “There’s still a bad taste in many people’s mouths left over from the allegations that came up at the end of Reed’s administration, and (as his immediate successor,) Bottoms was never quite able to shake those suspicions, and she was criticized for not being as transparent as people wanted.” As Gillespie sees it, the success of the Anybody-but-Reed coalition—which landed Dickens in the runoff—dovetailed with a clear desire for new leadership.
“I think that the valence here is reform,” she says. “Moore represents that reformist spirit . . . Dickens is the same way. And so their political bases of support look very different from the Reed and Bottoms bases of support.”
Regardless of the runoff outcome next week, Gillespie thinks we already have an answer to the question of what Atlanta voters want from their next mayor.
“Whichever one of these two candidates becomes mayor, they’ll bring a different coalition to bear,” she says. “It’ll be diverse, and it’ll be people unified around the message of doing things differently.”
This article was produced in partnership with nonprofit news outlet Atlanta Civic Circle.