First head-to-head Atlanta mayoral runoff debate is light on policy


The first head-to-head debate on Thursday between the two women who topped a crowded field of candidates to make the runoff to be the next mayor of Atlanta was short on policy and long on accusations.

Mary Norwood even implored her opponent, Keisha Lance Bottoms, to take the high road for the remainder of the runoff, after the latter brought up Norwood’s delay in answering a question about racial profiling in another debate.

“I ask you very kindly to please not spread salacious or fallacious rumors about me or my life,” Norwood said, after saying video that showed her hesitate to a yes-or-no question about whether racial profiling is real neglected to show the full context of that question.

Thursday, Norwood said, “Absolutely, racial profiling is an issue.”

Bottoms said Norwood “has struggled to answer the question in the past.”

The back-and-forth grew testy there, and when Bottoms asked Norwood about her history of voting for Republican candidates. Norwood, an independent, said she has voted for candidates on both sides of the aisle, and called the question a “distraction” from the corruption scandal that continues to entangle city hall.

Bottoms said she has “zero tolerance for corruption,” and proposed elected officials put their tax returns online,  and  that there be a complete audit of the procurement department and that an electronic bidding system be implemented, to find and prevent future issues with bid rigging or other corrupt practices.

“There are several opportunities for us to prevent corruption,” Bottoms said. “It casts a spell over the entire city, and the city deserves better than that.”

For her part, Norwood took the opportunity to rebut Bottoms’ accusation that she profited when a company she owned was paid to make city robo-calls.

“I would ask you to check your facts before you go on air,” Norwood said. “I want the proof. Next time you ask about $100,000, bring the documents.”

Norwood, saying that nothing in her background was problematic, said that Atlanta “gets an F” for transparency in government. Her administration would be honest, she said. She also questioned Bottoms’ fiscal responsibility, suggesting that her history of tax liens is indicative of the way she would run the city. Bottoms said the issues had been resolved.

The candidates talked about their view of race in the election, with Bottoms saying it is important to look at the candidates as individuals, and Norwood acknowledging Atlanta’s role in the civil rights era, while saying it is a city that “embraces everyone.”

What Atlanta needs most, Norwood said, is an “honest, fair and corruption-free” leader to keep moving the city forward.

Some policy issues were discussed, and in response to a question about whether Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport should be run by an authority after being tied to corruption scandals over the years, Bottoms said she thought the current setup should remain. 

Bottoms said she had a plan to address housing affordability in Atlanta, which she called the “number one issue facing our city.” She called for a $1 billion investment in affordable housing, with $500 million coming from private investment and $500 million coming from the government. She did not elaborate about what the money would do, or where, exactly, the money would come from.

And Bottoms said she would like to see the streetcar expanded into the south and west parts of the city, saying the route now “goes where people don’t need it.” She also wants to look at the expansion of heavy rail. Norwood said there is a need for better mobility, including increased transit in many forms.

Norwood said her “chief focus” will be Atlanta’s redevelopment, but that she wouldn’t allow luxury condominiums or apartments to get tax incentives for construction. She wants to reduce the prevalence of HIV and AIDS, in part by working more closely with Fulton County to increase the number of clinics that provide once-daily pills people can take to limit their risk of contracting the virus.

The pair made their case for supporters of third-place finisher Cathy Woolard, one of the more liberal candidates, with Bottoms saying she supported diversity and Woolard’s policies on affordability and transportation, while Norwood emphasized her deep commitment to sustainability.

When asked what antagonistic relationship each had turned productive, Norwood had no answer — she said she didn’t know if she had ever had an antagonistic relationship — while Bottoms recounted working with a hostile group of neighbors regarding the Turner Field sale. After a year of negotiations, she had kept her word about promises made to the community, Bottoms said. 

At the end of the debate, the candidates were asked — after a campaign that has gone on for more than a year — to tell voters something that they didn’t know.

Bottoms said she makes a mean sweet potato pie, and loves to cook with a lot of sugar and butter. Norwood said though voters may know she ran a chain of radio stations, they may not know the company had the first R&B stations on the air in the South.

“I grew up in black radio,” she said. “I grew up being around black entertainers, black professionals, black announcers, black sales managers, black engineers. Our stations were a wonderful reflection of the diversity then that Atlanta is now.”

The election is Dec. 5.

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