ATLANTA — Candidates jockeying to lead Georgia’s capital city clashed over crime and ethics at a Tuesday debate held as voters across the state went to the polls for the first day of early voting for nonpartisan municipal elections.
Atlanta voters have more than a dozen candidates to choose from in the open race to replace Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who made the surprising announcement this summer she would not seek another term.
The outgoing one-term mayor was seen as a rising national star just last year, when she was reportedly a contender for then presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate. But she has faced growing criticism back home for her handling of the city’s rising violent crime, which has drawn the scrutiny of state GOP leaders.
A runoff election is widely expected, with City Council President Felicia Moore and former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed seen as the frontrunners. City Councilmen Antonio Brown and Andre Dickens, attorney Sharon Gay and Buckhead businesswoman Rebecca King were all tied in a recent 11Alive SurveyUSA poll. But about 31 % of voters said they were still undecided.
Three weeks of early voting kicked off Tuesday, with election day set for Nov. 2.
Although a city role, the top leader of Atlanta City Hall factors prominently into the state affairs playing out across the street at the Gold Dome.
When Republican Gov. Brian Kemp first took office, he trekked over to City Hall to meet with Bottoms. The short walk was seen as a gesture after a hard-fought gubernatorial election, when Bottoms campaigned for Kemp’s Democratic opponent. But the relationship has frayed during the pandemic as Bottoms embraced stricter safety measures than the governor approved.
Reed has highlighted his friendship with then Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, boasting Tuesday that he had “the best working relationship with a Republican governor of any Democrat mayor in the United States because we were focused on jobs.”
But his advantage of being a former two-term mayor may be dulled by the lingering federal investigation into City Hall during his administration. That has left the former mayor fighting off criticism from opponents and assuring voters he was cleared of wrongdoing.
Moore called Reed’s tenure “the most corrupt administration in Atlanta history” and has made ethics a central theme of her campaign.
“People jailed, indicted, awaiting trial. Thirty million dollars and counting for (Department of Justice) responses, and it keeps going,” Moore said. “The tone is set from the top, criminals like your melody. Why should Atlanta voters believe that you are singing a different tune?”
Reed emphasized that he is not under investigation.
“The bottom line is I never dishonored my office and I kept my word to the people of Atlanta. I am here because Atlanta is in a crisis that occurred under your watch.” he retorted to Moore, referring to the rise in violent crime.
Crime concerns are helping to fuel a new Buckhead secession movement, which is looming over the mayoral race. A group of GOP state lawmakers have said they plan to file legislation that would give Buckhead residents the opportunity to vote in 2022 on whether to leave Atlanta.
“We need to have a plan to come together in terms of fighting crime and homelessness,” said King – the Buckhead resident – when asked how she would make the case against Buckhead leaving the city.
“If we leave the city of Atlanta, we’re not solving anything. Crime is not going to stop at an intersection. We need to tackle this head on. It’s been going on for a long time around the city, it’s just moved to our direction.”
The candidates faced one another Tuesday night as part of the Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young Debate Series. The video of the debate can be found here. A second debate featured the mayoral candidates with the lowest polling (that video can be found here).
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Photo: Frontrunners former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta City Council President Felecia Moore sparred over City Hall corruption and Beltline votes during Tuesday’s Atlanta Press Club mayoral debate. Screenshot from GPB broadcast.