Tuesday’s Atlanta Press Club mayoral debate brought out the claws

The debate was light on crime discussions, but heavy on personal attacks

Atlanta Press Club Mayoral Debate 2021 Andre Dickens Kasim Reed
Andre Dickens and Kasim Reed debate during Tuesday’s Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate Series.

Screenshot via Facebook Live

In an almost refreshing pivot from the typical discourse of Atlanta’s mayoral race, conversations on crime fell by the wayside during Tuesday night’s candidate debate. That subject, however, made way for the jagged barbs exchanged among some of the contest’s top contenders. Election season is truly upon us.

During perhaps the most heated showdown among the mayoral hopefuls to date, former Mayor Kasim Reed knocked City Council President Felicia Moore for what he deemed political missteps and mocked City Councilman Andre Dickens for past business blunders. In turn, Moore and Dickens hammered Reed about the corruption scandal that plagued his administration late in his second mayoral term.

With less than three weeks until Election Day—early voting began on Tuesday—tempers are flaring, and ad hominem attacks abound. Asked after the debate about the incessant sparring, Reed told Atlanta magazine it’s just par for the course. “The back-and-forth was just kind of inside baseball,” he said, reminiscing on experiences from campaign trails while running for mayor and, before that, Georgia state Senate. “I don’t think the tension is high at all.”

But City Councilman Antonio Brown, who escaped the debate unscathed by competitors, lamented after the night’s melee that the relentless fighting was “very unfortunate.” “We should be focused on Atlanta,” he said. “These attacks are a waste of time and energy.”

The Georgia Public Broadcasting studio that hosted the Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate was far from the only arena for these shows of aggression. On Monday, anonymous text message blasts inferred Moore’s camp was in cahoots with Republicans seeking to “take back” Atlanta, Georgia, and the White House. Some of the messages, Moore said, even included her personal phone number.

A frontrunner, Moore said the stunts were strategic distractions. She blamed them on an “anonymous opponent” who was “very nervous” about the race’s outcome. An avowed Democrat, she said, “It was a disservice to voters to do this the day before early voting began.”

The same day the phony Moore ads dropped, Dickens’s team discovered campaign signs had been hung that said, “Defund the police; Vote for Andre Dickens.” His team, too, suspected an unnamed opponent was the culprit and said in a statement that the signs were an attempt to “mischaracterize Councilman Dickens’s support for APD and commitment to community policing.”

During the debate, Dickens reminded audiences of the Reed administration officials indicted and convicted of crimes related to corruption. “These individuals were right under your nose,” he said. Moore added, “Mr. Reed, you had the most corrupt administration in Atlanta history.” They said the scandal and ensuing legal saga had cost taxpayers millions.

Reed, though, whose legal team announced on Friday that he’d been cleared of any wrongdoing in the federal corruption probe, said, “I understand and accept responsibility for the the things that happened in my administration . . . but if you look at the individuals, their behavior did not relate to systemic corruption of your government . . . I never dishonored my office.” He accused his opponents of “attempting to smear my office, despite me not being under investigation.”

Reed countered their jabs by criticizing Moore for raising taxes and not supporting the Atlanta BeltLine project in its early days and attacking Dickens for a business bankruptcy. (Reed even brought a copy of Dickens’s bankruptcy filing to the podium and flashed it during one of his tirades, before moderator and GPB journalist Rickey Bevington noted that props were not allowed.) Dickens’s late furniture company, which “even Kasim Reed was a customer of,” succumbed to the pressures of the Great Recession in 2011, the councilman said.

“[Bankruptcy] is a legal process,” Dickens said after the debate, later adding, “but corruption is a crime.” Accused by Dickens of “turning a blind eye to corruption,” Reed said to the councilman, “Andre, you’re the Wile E. Coyote of this.” The ex-mayor did not expound on that comment when asked about it later.

After the event, Dickens likened that behavior to former President Donald Trump’s short-fused outbursts. “That’s the first name-calling we’ve had in this election and maybe in any city election,” he said.

Even Sharon Gay, an attorney with the Dentons law firm and political newcomer seeking the mayor’s seat, found herself on the receiving end of pointed condemnation Tuesday night. Debate moderators and Reed asked her about her time as executive counsel to former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who was imprisoned in 2006 for tax evasion.

She brushed off the insinuation that she was involved in anything unethical while working for the two-term mayor, saying, “I was there in the first term, and there were no allegations of ethical or criminal issues in the first term.”

Still, Reed piled on, saying he’d utilized Dentons as a candidate in the past. “You never had a complaint when I was paying legal bills to your law firm.” (Gay said later she had nothing to do with whatever work her firm had done for the former mayor.)

Armed with experience and unparalleled name recognition, Reed has undoubtedly positioned himself as the man to beat in this election, so it should come as no surprise that he’s taken a the best defense is a good offense approach in this race. But Reed is no shoo-in. As Gay noted, “There’s a lot of weird polling out there.” And, as Dickens said, “Mayor Reed hasn’t really moved in the polls.” (The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll has Reed in a statistical dead heat with Moore, with his 23.5 percent aligned with her 20.4 percent, accounting for the 3.4-percent margin of error.)

What comes next is anyone’s guess. Odds are, though, more fire and fury are on the horizon.

Watch the debate below: