For more than an hour on Tuesday, Cathy Woolard grilled the two women competing to become Atlanta’s next mayor — both of whom knew that Woolard’s support could be the difference in the race.
Throughout the evening, Woolard gave no hint of which way she might be leaning.
Earlier this month, when Woolard herself was one of a dozen candidates in the mayoral race, she placed third, failing to make the Dec. 5 runoff — a contest now between city councilwomen Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood.
Woolard had defied expectations, earning more than 17,000 votes. But having lost, she still has a say in who could win.
Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president, sat on a stage in a room filled with her supporters at the Carter Center’s Cecil B. Day Chapel.
With her legs crossed and her hands folded on her lap, she spent a portion of the political capital she earned over the last eight months, asking questions that reflected her detailed nature.
As mayor, who would help create a statewide campaign to get Georgia to divert gas taxes for public transit? Each candidate said she would.
What would each do as mayor to create more affordable housing in the city?
Norwood suggested renovating vacant homes. Bottoms would create a $1 billion fund.
During the discussion, Woolard left no doubt about who was in control.
When Norwood got a little long-winded, Woolard cut her off.
“Wait. Wait. Wait,” she said. “That’s enough.”
Norwood tried to continue, but Woolard interrupted again — with a joke.
“Let me go all City Council President on you,” Woolard said.
Woolard also coaxed a promise out of Bottoms to release copies of her income tax returns on Wednesday. Norwood released hers last week.
Bottoms said that the person who oversees her finances was out of the office last week for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Woolard saved the toughest questions for the end.
She noted that Norwood, if elected, would be the city’s first white mayor in more than 40 years, and she had recently appeared to stumble when she answered a question about racial profiling.
“Who advises you about race?” Woolard said.
Norwood tried to defend her previous answer about profiling. But Woolard reminded her she only had a couple of minutes.
“I wouldn’t dwell on that,” Woolard said.
Norwood said her City Council staff had always been at least two-thirds African-American and that she leaned on their advice.
Woolard referenced the ongoing federal bribery investigation into City Hall and said that current Mayor Kasim Reed, who has endorsed Bottoms, hadn’t done enough to help lift the cloud of corruption.
Woolard said she thought it was “illegal” for Bottoms to hold a $135,000-a-year position as executive director of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority while serving on the Atlanta City Council.
She wanted to know how Bottoms would create a different atmosphere at City Hall.
Bottoms said she had asked the city’s chief ethics officer about the Fulton County job and was told there were no problems with her taking it.
She insisted that she was her own woman and she didn’t need Reed to hold her hand as mayor.
“This will not be a third term of Mayor Reed,” Bottoms said. “I’m not a pixie dust candidate.”
Both candidates left the forum unsure of whether they had earned Woolard’s support.
After the forum, Woolard said she would have an announcement by 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“I’m not being coy,” she said.
But she needed to give herself a deadline.