By Mariann Martin, contributor
A long line of mayoral candidates did what they could to stand out from the crowd at an Atlanta mayoral forum held at Emory University.
The petite Cathy Woolard stood up, joking that her request for a phone book had not been fulfilled. Laban King wore a t-shirt, commenting that if he wanted to rob the community he would wear a suit and tie. State Senator Vincent Fort opposed the annexation of Emory University, saying he thought the area would be allowed to “jump the line” when it came to transportation and city services.
However, many of the 11 candidates present offered similar positions and solutions to policy questions on affordable housing, gentrification, income inequity and transportation. The forum, hosted by WSB and the League of Women Voters, is one of several scheduled across the city with a little over a month left in the race.
About 150 people attended the two-hour event held at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory. Moderator Jocelyn Dorsey, director of editorials and public affairs at WSB-TV, asked the candidates a series of questions, with each candidate given 1 to 2 minutes to respond. Candidates were not allowed to attack each other or other elected officials, a rule that Dorsey enforced several times during the evening by stopping a candidate during the middle of a response.
“We all know having difficult conversations is not easy,” Emory President Claire E. Sterk told the candidates and the crowd when she welcomed everyone. “But Atlanta’s future depends on the ability to truly listen to each other; we need everyone working together.”
A recent WSB-TV poll shows city councilwoman Mary Norwood remains the strong frontrunner. Norwood did not attend the forum Thursday evening, one of several forums she has skipped throughout the summer.
Candidates jockeying for second place include Atlanta City Councilmembers Keisha Lance Bottoms, Kwanza Hall, Ceasar Mitchell and Peter Aman, former city of Atlanta chief operating officer. The race is expected to go to a run-off between the two top candidates.
Also in close competition are former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, former City Council President Woolard and Fort. The recent poll only focused on the top eight candidates and did not include former Atlanta Workforce Development Director Michael Sterling, Rohit Ammanamanchi, Laban King and Glenn Wrightson.
Affordable housing, gentrification, transportation and income equity were all topics of discussion during the forum. Two questions also focused on the proposed annexation of Emory and the surrounding area and a federal bribery investigation at City Hall, where three people have already pleaded guilty.
“It is now more important that at the local level we have strong and decisive leadership,” Keisha Lance Bottoms said. “That we have leadership that is willing to acknowledge and to understand and to work to address the complex issues that face us.”
Mitchell and Hall said they would focus on making the thousands of vacant and abandoned homes on the west and south sides of the city available to address affordable housing. Sterling promised innovative solutions such as micro housing and container homes.
Most of the candidates said they would increase the homestead exemption and look at some form of tax relief for homeowners whose home values were increasing.
Woolard called the displacement happening in the city an “emergency” and said she would take immediate action to see what could be done to halt it.
“Do not push out of Atlanta the very people who built Atlanta,” Aman said. “I will bring will and commitment to this issue.”
When the question of transportation came up, candidates talked about walkable neighborhoods, light rail, the need for more people to use MARTA and better bike lanes. The state also needs a regional transit plan and to provide state funding for public transportation, candidates said.
“There are no shortages of plans,” Sterling acknowledged. He went on to say the city needed a one-time capital infusion and public-private partnerships to better address the issue.
Most of the candidates said they did not approve of privatizing procurement services for the city, a topic that has come up due to the federal bribery investigation.
Eaves and Wrightson said they were open to the idea of privatizing the services, but other candidates said they keep it public while making it more transparent. Woolard said she would order and independent review. Sterling, who is a former federal prosecutor, said he would do more to protect whistle blowers inside City Hall.
King and Fort were the only candidates who said they would oppose the annexation of Emory and surrounding areas.
Aman said he welcomes all annexation, saying “I’m in favor of the growth of the city in any direction.”
Woolard said she thought any annexation should first be thoroughly examined to see what would be gained and lost on both sides.
Throughout the evening, the audience remained attentive and engaged, but were not permitted to ask questions. The latest poll shows that many Atlanta residents say they are still undecided who will get their vote.