Next January, Atlantans will bid adieu to Mayor Shirley Franklin and place their trust in a cadre of newly elected city reps — both an incoming mayor and at least four new councilmembers — who will be tasked with guiding the city out of its stumbling gait. While most eyes are fixed on who will take over as Atlanta’s chief executive, the 15-member body charged with balancing out — or reining in — the mayor’s vision is also set for an important changing of the guard.
The Atlanta City Council race is still eight weeks from qualifying — and already, more than 30 city residents have filed paperwork to raise money for campaigning. This election year will see more fresh faces on Council than since at least 2002, and observers say even some long-serving lawmakers might be shown the door.
Harvey Newman, a Georgia State University professor who’s closely watched city politics since 1970, says Atlanta’s gentrification and development boom has altered the political landscape — so much so that longtime voting patterns in specific districts might be turned on their heads. Between 2000 and 2008, for example, Atlanta has grown nearly 15 percent, adding 61,000 new citizens.
The influx of residents into such areas as Atlantic Station, Midtown and East Atlanta has begun to change the face of Atlanta. Add to that the demolition of Atlanta’s public housing — with its former residents now dispersed across Atlanta or elsewhere — and the city’s voting blocs as we knew them could be a thing of the past.
“The demographic shift makes this election about as unpredictable as I’ve ever seen,” Newman says. “We know [the new residents] are higher income, better educated. But we don’t know who those folks are likely to vote for. It makes it very difficult to predict who’ll come out to vote.”
One thing is certain: Whoever lands on City Council must be prepared for a constituency rattled by crime, the economy and critical infrastructural needs. Next year’s Council will be dealing with a tight budget, a demoralized police department, the $4 billion sewer overhaul, and the biggest public-works project the city’s ever tackled with the Beltline — as well as the responsibility of working with a rookie mayor.
In four Council races, incumbents are ending their political careers or aiming for higher office.
Councilwoman Anne Fauver, who represents Virginia-Highland and Midtown, has announced she won’t seek a third term. Political observers are already calling the race to replace Fauver one of the city’s most competitive. The slate of candidates to replace Fauver has ballooned in recent weeks as Midtown business consultant Steve Brodie, community activist Liz Coyle, political newcomer Miguel Gallegos and businessman Alex Wan have announced their candidacies. On July 4, Georgia Tech scientist Bahareh Azizi also joined the race.
Mary Norwood, one of the city’s three at-large councilmembers, is running for mayor. In the race to fill Norwood’s at-large seat, the candidates include Amir Farokhi, a lawyer with McKenna Long & Aldridge who’s raised the most money of any Council candidate, and Aaron Watson, a lawyer, accountant and former Atlanta Public Schools president.
Another at-large incumbent, Ceasar Mitchell, and Councilwoman Clair Muller, whose district includes parts of residential Buckhead, are both running for City Council president — a post being vacated by mayoral hopeful Lisa Borders. Mitchell’s decision to run for Council president opened up the floodgates for his citywide seat. Seven people, including event producer Clarence Turner and former Councilman Michael Julian Bond, have filed paperwork to succeed him.
In Buckhead and Chastain Park, which Muller has represented for nearly 20 years, only Yolanda Adrean has announced her candidacy — which means Adrean could waltz into City Hall without breaking a sweat.
In other Council races, history holds that incumbents are generally safe. But that hasn’t stopped challengers from stepping up.
Councilwoman Felicia Moore has picked up one opponent — Darryl Moore — in her northwest Atlanta district. Councilwoman Carla Smith, who represents Grant Park, Ormewood Park and Summerhill, also has a single opponent, Roger Whitley. The same goes for Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who represents Capitol View and Sylvan Hills, and is being challenged by Curtis Davis; and Councilman H. Lamar Willis, whose citywide seat is being sought by former Atlanta police officer and assistant city attorney Shelitha Robertson.
Councilman Ivory Young, who represents Vine City and parts of the Westside, has two challengers: Kendal Richardson and the Rev. Darrien Fletcher.
Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, who’s represented Castleberry Hill, West End and parts of southwest Atlanta since 1994, might face tough opposition from three candidates: LaShawn Hoffman, Sidney Wood and Deborah Evangelist Williams. Councilman Jim Maddox, who represents southwest Atlanta and has been at City Hall since Jimmy Carter was president, also has three challengers: Johnny Dixon, Alvelyn Sanders and Juanita Smith.
No opponents have stepped up against the following incumbents: Kwanza Hall, who represents Old Fourth Ward and downtown; Howard Shook, who represents Buckhead and northeast Atlanta; C.T. Martin, who represents west Atlanta; or Natalyn Archibong, who represents East Atlanta.
The role of a councilmember, to be sure, is rather thankless. What’s supposed to be part-time public service can often turn into a full-time job paying less than $40,000 a year.
But Melissa Conrad, of local think tank Georgia Stand Up, points out that councilmembers have the opportunity to drive policy and pass ordinances to help create a better city — a particularly important task in the current economic downturn.
“What are the systematic changes that need to happen, on a city level, to create a city we all want to live in?” she asks. City Council must decide.
With the long list of candidates vying for a seat, runoffs are almost a given. Yet Newman and others worry that turnout will be low, as it historically is for municipal races. “Local government has more impact on the quality of an individual citizen’s life than state or federal government,” Newman says. “Your streets, your roads, your sanitation, water, education — all that’s a function of local government. Why people don’t care more about that is a source of great frustration to me.”
Says Barbara Payne of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation: “This is either the beginning of the end or it’s the beginning of a new phase for Atlanta. We’ve got to choose wisely.”
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