No fewer than 14 men and women have declared their intent to run for mayor of Atlanta. Five of those have spent freely on glossy campaign materials. And four are regularly invited to appear at forums and panel discussions. But only three have the funding, name recognition and political experience to make a real bid for the job come Election Day on Nov. 3 (and the all-but-guaranteed runoff, but more on that later).
One of those three candidates will — barring an alien invasion, Christian rapture, or some equally improbable occurrence — become Atlanta’s next mayor. At this point, however, with fundraising continuing and TV ads still weeks away, just which of the three will win is anybody’s guess.
Each of the three leading candidates — City Council President Lisa Borders, Councilwoman Mary Norwood and state Sen. Kasim Reed — is calling for greater investment in public safety and an overhaul of city finances. But scratch the surface and major differences between the candidates’ backgrounds, messages and political styles are already readily apparent.
All the candidates are busy bouncing between campaign events, interviews and job obligations, but Norwood has famously been keeping a breakneck schedule for close to two years — ever since she launched a citywide series of meet-and-greets in 2007 that convinced political observers she was testing the waters for the mayor’s race.
Norwood has been on Atlanta’s civic scene going on two decades; she cut her teeth as a community activist fighting infill housing in her upscale Buckhead neighborhood and later chaired Atlanta’s Clean City Commission. A former radio executive, she’s the owner of a successful robo-calling firm that makes recorded telemarketing and political campaign calls.
In 2001, Norwood was one of three new at-large Council members elected citywide; she ran unopposed in 2005. In her nearly eight years in office, however, two Council presidents never saw fit to appoint her to chair a standing committee. On Council, Norwood may be best known for unsuccessfully challenging aspects of Mayor Shirley Franklin’s $4 billion sewer fix, and for a controversial — and largely failed — crusade to restrict McMansions.
Norwood promises hard work and personal attention, backed up by her years of high visibility at neighborhood gatherings and community meetings in every corner of town. Her campaign disclosures list hundreds of small contributions from housewives and retirees. And her campaign platform can be summed up in a few words: Get back to basics.
Rather than suggest dozens of initiatives, Norwood wants City Hall to focus on a few simple tasks: making Atlanta safer; keeping streets and neighborhoods clean; and fixing the city’s finances. Chief among her proposals is a public safety plan that calls for higher salaries and better benefits for police and firefighters; stronger code enforcement; and stiffer sentences for those convicted of property crimes.
All these proposals would cost money, yet Norwood has consistently opposed raising taxes and has no suggestions for generating new revenue — or cutting wasteful city programs. Instead, she argues, there’s little point in discussing these actions until we know exactly how much money the city has.
“It’s appalling to me how badly the city finances have been mismanaged,” she says. “There’s a tremendous amount of money that flows through the city and we need to enact a top-to-bottom audit of all departments.”
Borders, by contrast, is overflowing with ideas for bolstering Atlanta’s bottom line. She wants the city to take over collection of local sales taxes from the state Department of Revenue, a move she believes could capture tens of millions of dollars in now unrealized revenue.
Borders, too, wants to raise police officers’ pay, but she proposes offsetting the cost by opening up the city’s police training center to other jurisdictions. She’s eager to privatize certain city functions — operation of recreation center sites, for one — and look at other ways to “leverage the city’s assets” to save money.
But Borders’ ideas raise the question of why she hasn’t pushed them as Council president. She explains that the president’s role is to manage Council, to set the tone of debate and ensure that meetings run smoothly. Borders says her behind-the-scenes work laid the groundwork for the recent 8-7 Council vote that raised property taxes by 3 mills, thereby allowing Franklin’s proposed $541 million budget to be approved without major cuts.
“I made the budget happen,” Borders says.
While some critics point to Borders’ ties to uber-developer Tom Cousins as a red flag (as they did with Franklin before her), Borders isn’t shy about touting her corporate credentials as a selling point. Coming from a health care background, she has served as administrator for a large ob/gyn practice and is now president of the Grady Health System Foundation. In between, she was VP of marketing for Cousins Properties, whose executives have helped her raise a sizable chunk of her campaign war chest.
Like Norwood, Borders’ appeal seems to cross racial lines. To older black Atlantans, she has a legacy as granddaughter of the Rev. William Holmes Borders, a strong Civil Rights advocate as pastor of Wheat Street Baptist Church. But Borders, who came to City Hall in 2004 in a special election, is also a favorite of the business community.
As city officials, Norwood and Borders must deal with criticism that they share some responsibility for the city’s woes. The tradeoff, however, is higher name recognition than the third leading candidate, Kasim Reed, who’s served 10 years in the state Legislature. To insiders, Reed, a lawyer, is known for managing both of Franklin’s successful mayoral campaigns and for overseeing her fraught transition into office.
Reed also is known as a major player in state Democratic politics, but that reputation likely won’t help him win the mayor’s office. To do that, he’s relying on his command of the issues and problems facing the city.
Like the other candidates, Reed has placed public safety as his top priority. He wants to shift more city resources to bolster public safety and aims to dedicate a certain share of the city’s tax revenue to police and fire services to ensure adequate funding. He and Borders both propose creating housing incentives to get more police officers to live inside the city.
To curb costs, Reed wants to reform the city’s pricey employee pension system, restrict worker overtime and control rising spending by such city departments as IT. Up to $35 million in additional revenue could be raised by stepping up collection of fees and fines, he says.
Reed says he’s consistently worked for the benefit of Atlanta while in the Gold Dome, such as co-authoring the bill to approve a low-interest state loan for the city sewer program and, most recently, helping restore endangered tax allocation district funding.
“Year in and year out, I’ve delivered legislation that has helped the city,” he says.
Borders, Norwood and Reed are so well matched in terms of campaign cash and political prowess that many political pundits say a Dec. 1 runoff is almost assured.
The conventional wisdom holds that, as the only leading white candidate, Norwood is likely to earn a runoff berth — which would mean Borders and Reed will be fighting between now and November for the other slot. In other words, the race will only get more interesting from here on out.
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