By John Ruch
The 2017 Atlanta mayoral race got an unofficial kick-off at the Buckhead Coalition’s annual luncheon Jan. 25, where eight candidates gave brief pitches that defined their personalities.
The only moment of heat came when one Buckhead candidate, former city Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman, slammed another Buckhead candidate, City Councilmember Mary Norwood, and Council President Ceasar Mitchell with allegations they are unethical or corrupt. Aman also fenced with Buckhead Coalition president Sam Massell, a former mayor, over the relevancy of his answer.
“None of this is on subject,” Massell said at one point to interrupt Aman, who replied with a business-oriented quip about his real campaign strategy being “proprietary” information.
“I know exactly what you’re doing,” Massell replied.
The mini-debate on government ethics came as a City Hall bribery scandal neared a boil that came later that day, when contractor Elvin Mitchell Jr. reportedly pleaded guilty in federal court to bribery and money laundering charges in the ongoing investigation. One of the luncheon’s regular attendees, Mayor Kasim Reed, was said to be running late and ultimately did not attend to hear from the candidates who aim to replace him.
The Buckhead Coalition is an influential, invitation-only group of 100 area CEOs and community leaders. Its annual luncheon, held at the 103 West event facility on West Paces Ferry Road, is also invitation-only.
In addition to Aman, Mitchell and Norwood, the other candidates appearing included City Councilmember Keisha Lance Bottoms; state Sen. Vincent Fort; City Councilmember Kwanza Hall; Michael Sterling, a former federal prosecutor and former Atlanta Workforce Development Agency director; and former Council President Cathy Woolard.
The candidates all sat together on a stage. Massell, acting as moderator, asked only two light but tightly focused questions, basically letting the candidates make 1-minute elevator pitches for their merits and explain what constituency would give them enough votes to win.
The feel of the event was reflected in Massell’s third “surprise” question: a request for them to commit to giving next year’s keynote address if they won, which each candidate naturally did. There were no questions allowed from the audience, though during lunch the candidates sat at tables with other attendees.
Aman and Fort were the only candidates to mention the bribery scandal or other ethical clouds.
“Atlanta City Hall has lost its way,” Fort said, adding that the bribery case confirms his suspicions. He said his opponents on the stage all worked in that City Hall during Reed’s administration, hinting at a taint.
Aman named names rather than hinting. He referred to no-bid contracts and officials with multiple ethics violations, then said, “I’m referring, of course, to Mary Norwood and Ceaser Mitchell.”
Massell cut off Aman’s comments because the question was about the candidate’s voting constituency. Norwood did not directly respond, while Mitchell later said only, “The first thing I’m going to have to do is have a thick skin.”
Several other candidates talked about crime on the streets rather than in City Hall, among many other issues. In general, their answers gave a sense of the personal appeals they are using to woo voters.
Bottoms highlighted her personal toughness and character with a brief story of her father’s arrest and imprisonment when she was young. That helped give her the “fortitude to run toward the fire and not away when things get tough,” she said.
Hall and Woolard staked territory as collaborative candidates would who unite the city.
“I’m going to be everybody’s mayor,” said Hall, who also promised to “create a neighborhood renaissance” through local policing and transit-oriented development.
“It is not the job of the mayor to have all of the ideas,” but rather to bring people together, said Woolard. She noted her role as an early supporter of the Atlanta BeltLine and an early backer of LGBT legal protections that have “stood us well” in keeping business going.
Norwood pledged “total transparency to city government,” touting her effort for an online city checkbook, among other work. On specific policies, she wants a new subway between the city’s western side and Buckhead’s Lindbergh Center Station, and called for a repeat offender statute applied to juveniles.
Sterling also took the tough-on-crime approach, saying he is the only one who has prosecuted criminals. He promised to address root causes of crime and “tackle it vigorously.”
Mitchell focused on his familiarity with city government. “I’m not going to need a manual,” he said. “I’m not going to need a translator. And I’m not going to need a map to get around.” He also pledged a collaborative approach and “entrepreneurial spirit” on such policies as working better with Atlanta Public Schools and uniting transit service like the Atlanta Streetcar under MARTA.
Fort positioned himself as a truth-teller and focused on crime as well. “I’m very concerned there’s an elephant in the room City Hall doesn’t want to talk about,” he said, declaring the city has a rising murder rate driven by gangs.
Aman took a business-oriented approach and his “insights on how the private sector creates jobs…I am not a politician, unlike many on this stage.”
After the event, Massell said the candidates all did a good job of assuring citizens they would be good stewards of the city. “I think the audience was very impressed with the amount of [political] talent we have,” he said.
The annual luncheon is typically where the Coalition distributes, via a gift bag from Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls, its annual “Buckhead Guidebook,” a magazine containing virtually every imaginable statistic and data about the neighborhood, but this year’s edition was delayed by the printed and will be shipped out “shortly.” However, this year’s gift bag did contain another publication: now-President Donald Trump’s 1987 book “The Art of the Deal.”