Atlanta mayor hopefuls debate over a divided city

2:31 p.m Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017 Local
Vincent Fort (second from left) speaks as John Eaves (left), Ceasar Mitchell (center right) and Kwanza Hall (right) listen at the mayoral debate at The Shrine of the Black Madonna in Atlanta on Saturday, Oct. 7. (Rebecca Breyer / Special to the AJC)

The candidates hoping to succeed Kasim Reed as Atlanta’s next mayor talked about racial issues that divide the city, including gentrification, the lack of jobs in relation to ZIP codes and the so-called “school to jail pipeline.”

“The issue of race frames this election,” said former city of Atlanta COO Peter Aman, pointing out that if he is elected he would be the city’s first white male to lead Georgia’s capital in decades. “It shouldn’t be the first issue and it shouldn’t be the only issue, but it should be discussed.”

City Councilman Kwanza Hall said a contributor to the racial chasm is the imbalance of incarceration among people of color. African-Americans, for instance, dominate the percentage of people arrested for marijuana possession, despite using the drug at about the same rate as whites. “We are not building and loving our people,” he said.

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The discussion, which also touched on education, ethics and public safety, was held Saturday at The Shrine of the Black Madonna in west Atlanta. More than 125 people turned out for the event, which was sponsored by fledgling network Black on Purpose and streamed on Web-connected devices such as Roku, Fire TV and smart TVs.

The hopefuls have kept full schedules in recent weeks, crisscrossing the city to attend growing numbers of forums and “get to know the candidates” engagements — showing up sometimes for as many as three events a day. The packed itinerary is an attempt to reach voters before the Nov. 7 election.

Rohit Ammanamanchi, 24, who said residents may not be ready to vote for someone so young, said it’s evident that white leaders in the ’60s — decades before he was born — separated the city by roads in response to the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Peter Aman (left) speaks while Rohit Ammanamanchi (center) and Keisha Lance Bottoms (right) listen at the mayoral debate at The Shrine of the Black Madonna in Atlanta on Oct. 7, 2017. Black on Purpose TV hosted the mayoral debate. “The issue of race frames this election,” Aman said, pointing out that if elected, he would be the city’s first white mayor in decades. “It shouldn’t be the first issue and it shouldn’t be the only issue, but it should be discussed.” (Rebecca Breyer / Special to the AJC)

“We have highways rolling all through” formerly thriving black communities such as Sweet Auburn, he said. “The idea was to starve the neighborhoods to destroy them.”

The candidates — including Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, state Sen. Vincent Fort, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell — were cordial for the most part. Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard and Aman squared off briefly over ethics, with Woolard asking Aman why he didn’t do more to change the way procurement worked while at City Hall. Aman shot back that the process was not in his hands, but the City Council’s, leading to an ensuing back-and-forth between the two.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Peter Aman, Rohit Ammanamanchi, Keisha Lance Bottoms, John Eaves, Vincent Fort, Ceasar Mitchell, Kwanza Hall and Cathy Woolard take part in the mayoral debate at The Shrine of the Black Madonna in Atlanta on Oct. 7, 2017. The election for the city’s new leader will be on Nov. 7. (Rebecca Breyer / Special to the AJC)

Former Atlanta Workforce Development Agency head Michael Sterling and Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, considered by most as the race’s frontrunner, did not attend. No reason for their absence was offered.

Former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves and Mitchell agreed that improving ethics at City Hall begins at the top while Fort told audience members to ask the candidates currently on council if they or people close to them are being questioned in the ongoing federal bribery case.

“What you should have is confidence in city government,” he said. “You deserve that.”

Bottoms was ready with a response: “Let me say that I am not under investigation,” she said, noting that she had returned more than $25,000 in contributions from engineering firm PRAD Group, a city contractor whose office was raided by the FBI last month.

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