Affordability, Corruption, Traffic: A Look At What Atlanta's Next Mayor Will Face

Nov 28, 2017

The next Mayor of Atlanta will have a lot of problems to solve when she takes office in January.

Mary Norwood and Keisha Lance Bottoms are in a December 5 runoff to replace Kasim Reed, who is term limited.

Atlanta Magazine articles editor Thomas Wheatley joined Rickey Bevington to discuss the major issues facing Atlanta and how the candidates are poised to handle them.

RICKEY BEVINGTON: Describe in broad strokes the state of the City of Atlanta that the next mayor is walking into come January 2018.

THOMAS WHEATLEY: Well, they should be very grateful. The city is in a much better state of affairs than it was in 2009. Back then we were dealing with the recession. There were furloughs at City Hall. Finances were in a wreck and Mayor Kasim Reed had to navigate that. Now we're a city that has lush reserves and it's growing in a way that it hasn't been growing in quite a while, like many other cities in America. So I think that the biggest challenge is that the next mayor will encounter is affordability. How do we manage that growth and how do we take advantage of it in a way that improves quality of life? In addition to that, transportation. With more people comes more traffic. We need better ways to get around the city. And something has to be done on ethics.

BEVINGTON: In terms of the first two -- transportation and affordability -- both are centered around the BeltLine. The Atlanta BeltLine has prompted a lot of new problems and opportunities for the City of Atlanta. You might say that the next mayor is laying a groundwork for the next 30, 40, 50 years of the city. So are the stakes higher this time?

WHEATLEY: I think they definitely are. They're higher in the sense that something needs to happen soon because we're fast getting to that point where Atlanta could be an unaffordable city. When you're looking at the city it's almost like a clock ticking. North Atlanta is far out of reach for someone who's making a low salary. There's pretty much no affordable housing there left. Then you start ticking down Northeast Atlanta. Those neighborhoods are vibrant. They've got great schools and the BeltLine. They're out of reach. It's hitting Southeast Atlanta. It’s definitely hitting Southwest Atlanta. So what's going to happen with Northwest Atlanta if we don't look at it. Now we're going to be playing catch up in a game where there really is no time to play catch up.

BEVINGTON: Is that what we're doing with transportation? Playing catch up?

WHEATLEY: I think we are. It seems like we're always trailing behind transportation. But what sets us apart now is that we have a big pot of funding that we can use to start with.

BEVINGTON: The SPLOST.

WHEATLEY: Yes, the MARTA tax. I mean it's something around $2.4 billion. I've been told that's a conservative estimate. So where does that money go first? Does it go to the rail line from Emory to Lindbergh? I know that some of it was said to be going to bus rapid transit which is a really smart idea for a city like Atlanta. Bus rapid transit could really help a lot of people for relatively low cost.

BEVINGTON: In terms of ethics, what are voters saying to you about transparency and corruption at City Hall? What do they want?

WHEATLEY: They want to see an end to not just the actual headlines -- about City Hall employees and vendors getting indicted or City Hall being under investigation -- but also the perception that it's there. You talk to people time and time again and they say that doing work with City Hall can be a pain and it can be a headache. There's this perception that it's crooked -- whether right or wrong. I think that the past scandal has shown us that there is some reason to be concerned. They just want an end to that. It's very simple. You want to be able to trust your government. You don't want to feel that certain people are getting an edge and others are not. How you change that comes with stronger policy.

BEVINGTON: What other anecdotes can you share about what voters are telling you?

WHEATLEY: I've been incredibly surprised that this is such a low-enthusiasm, low-energy election. If you would've asked me last year, especially after the election of Donald Trump, I thought that there would be a lot more passion and a lot more engagement surrounding this election. Because the best defense against a president you might not agree with is strong local leadership. But I just have not seen that excitement.

I think some of the excitement was taken away by the District Six Congressional race between John Ossoff and Karen Handel. I think a fixation on national politics is diverting people's attention. They only have so much that they can give. It was a crowded race and I think that is very difficult for local media to cover.

Now, in the runoff, what I'm hearing from a lot of people is if you look at maps of where the votes came from it was the classic Atlanta and North-South divide. With North going to Norwood and South to Bottoms. But then you had this new voting bloc that we hadn't really ever seen before on the East side going to [Cathy] Woolard. I talked to some of those Woolard voters and they don't know where to go. They are not particularly enthusiastic about this election.

BEVINGTON: But that speaks to the quality of the candidates. Both of these women have years -- decades -- in public service. But what you're saying is that voters are just not excited about them.

WHEATLEY: Not from what I've gathered. There hasn't been a lot of excitement. You definitely have Bottoms supporters and Norwood supporters who are excited about them. There were enough of them to get them into the runoff. So when your favorite candidate did not make the cut off you're left wondering “What is it about this person that's actually going to make me want to go out and not just revisit the polls but cast a ballot in support of them?”

Mary Norwood is very energetic. We've called her the Energizer Bunny of Atlanta politics. She just goes and goes and goes and goes. She knows City Hall, she understands the different departments and how things work and she's a great troubleshooter.

With Keisha Lance Bottoms, she has been very good about getting out and responding to issues. A lot of people don't know what she stands for. A lot of her campaign has been about her narrative which is a very strong narrative. But when you get deeper into that -- what is it you want to do? What are you going to do to make Atlanta a great city in the next four years? People haven't heard answers to those questions.

BEVINGTON: Cathy Woolard is having a forum with both mayoral candidates. It's billed not as a debate but as simply a conversation. How influential is Cathy Woolard’s  endorsement or non-endorsement in this race?

WHEATLEY: I think the endorsement will be very influential. There are a lot of voters who wanted to see her at least make the runoff that don't know where to go now. Her putting her support behind someone speaks volumes. If she doesn't endorse, I would be worried if I were Norwood and Bottoms because that is a large chunk of the city that “I need to really get me past the other candidate.”

BEVINGTON: Thomas Wheatley, thank you for joining me.

WHEATLEY: Thank you very much.