Seeing the many goldenrod-yellow billboards around the city screaming the name "Willis" in huge blue letters atop the slogan, "Yours for a better Atlanta," an out-of-town visitor could easily assume that we're in the grip of a spirited 2005 mayor's race.
They would, of course, be mistaken. With Mayor Shirley Franklin's approval rate hovering somewhere north of 80 percent in the latest polls, the level of opposition she faces in November would stretch the definition of "token." Her cannon-fodder challengers are street vendor and City Hall hanger-on Dave Walker and an engineer named Glenn Wrightson, who showed up to plunk down his $4,295 qualifying fee 20 minutes before last Friday's deadline.
Well, then, it would at least seem that Councilman H. Lamar Willis is in the fight of his life to hang on to his Post 3 at-large seat, right?
Wrong again. No opposition, token or otherwise, stands between Willis and re-election. So what's with all the expensive advertising? (The yellow billboards just came down, replaced by ones that could be mistaken for mutual fund ads.)
Actually, local political observers -- and even some politicians -- seem to agree that we're likely seeing the first public volleys in the 2009 city elections, as incumbents and challengers use the current campaign season to position themselves for future runs for higher office, with the post-Franklin mayor's office the eventual prize.
"If anyone's being honest about this election, they'll tell you this is not a big year," Willis says. "It's about what's coming up, the next mayor's race. All the conversations people are having now are geared toward elections to come."
Which could explain why Willis' ambiguous advertising looks more like a branding campaign than a re-election campaign, although he isn't willing to commit himself publicly to a race four years away.
It would also explain why we're seeing such politically ambitious former council members as Derrick Boazman and Michael Bond -- both of whom made failed bids last year for the council president's job -- now running to reclaim their old council seats.
A victory by either of them undoubtedly would mean more turbulence for Franklin's well-oiled City Hall juggernaut. To establish themselves as credible mayoral prospects, Bond and Boazman would need to show their independence -- which would require more showdowns with the mayor.
In most council races this fall, incumbents aren't expected to have much trouble. But Willis, for one, says he wasn't about to take any chances, especially when he realized, he says, that other city officials, possibly including the mayor, were out to get him.
"I know of elected officials in high places who asked candidates to run against me," says Willis, who is finishing up his first four-year term on City Council.
Although Willis describes his working relationship with Franklin as "decent," he says he heard from several sources that she was working behind the scenes to recruit opposition for him and other council members who often vote against her initiatives or oppose her policies.
Therefore, he explains, he signed a $70,000 contract months ago with Clear Channel advertising for at least two dozen billboards across the city. With more than $200,000 in campaign contributions so far, Willis' war chest is larger than that of City Council President Lisa Borders, who likewise faces no serious opposition.
Although Franklin campaign manager and state Rep. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, says the mayor "has not recruited, or asked others to recruit, opponents for Lamar Willis," it's long been rumored that she has a beef with the aggressive manner in which the 34-year-old Willis sometimes deals with city employees. During the time he chaired the council transportation committee, Willis' shouting matches with airport manager Ben DeCosta became the stuff of legend.
Since then, Willis says, he's found a rapport with DeCosta. "We've got a great relationship," he says. "Well, 'great' may be an overstatement, but it's good."
Last year, Willis further upset the mayor when he accused the city's watershed management commissioner of lying to the council about a bribery investigation involving a city contractor.
While Willis says he still stands by his accusation, the effect of his confrontational approach over nearly four years is that he's alienated Franklin, Borders -- who controls committee assignments -- and many of his council colleagues.
Some council members describe Willis as a once promising, smart young man who has devolved into an immature hothead preoccupied with his own sense of self-importance.
For his part, Willis sees himself as an independent thinker who's not afraid to challenge the mayor on big issues, such as helping spike her proposal last year to create an independent parks authority. He concedes that his combative style has soured his relations with some fellow council members and department heads, but he doesn't see that as a reason to change.
"It's not really my job to be nice or be liked," he says.
While Willis sails to re-election, other council members face somewhat tougher challenges. In District 3, which includes some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, one-term Councilman Ivory Young is sure to get a boost from the west side economic upswing in his battle with Bond, a former two-term councilman who narrowly lost the council president's race last year.
Still, as a two-time loser for the president's post (he lost four years earlier to Cathy Woolard), Bond is reportedly having trouble garnering support for his comeback bid.
Even Bond admits he's been hurt by his close association with scandal-ridden ex-Mayor Bill Campbell.
"People always dump Campbell in my lap," he says.
In south Atlanta's District 12, one-year incumbent Joyce Sheperd has yet to distinguish herself in the job, making her vulnerable to a challenge by her predecessor, the flashy and divisive Derrick Boazman, who's managed to stay visible as a community agitator, even getting arrested while demonstrating against the city's new panhandling ordinance. Boazman's anti-Franklin, race-obsessed grandstanding, however, is likely to cost him support among the mayor's admirers.
Over in District 4, which includes West End, Franklin friend Cleta Winslow has drawn four opponents, but most political observers believe her support is rock solid. In north side Atlanta's District 8, longtime councilwoman Clair Muller should likewise have little to fear from engineer Justin Wiedeman, a one-issue candidate opposed to the mayor's handling of the city sewer crisis.
The most spirited race will likely be in the Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park, where District 2 Councilwoman Debi Starnes, probably Franklin's closest council ally, is stepping down after 12 years in office. The race will come down to Kwanza Hall, a Franklin fan who's leaving a school board post for his council bid, and the unfortunately named Al Caproni, former head of the Inman Park Neighborhood Association.
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