By Regina Willis
Atlanta's top mayoral candidates battled over who has the best gay credentials during an hour-long debate before LGBT business owners and allies.
The event came as part of the Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce's first-ever LGBT Business Summit on Friday at the Four Seasons Hotel in Midtown. Veteran journalist Maria Saporta of the Saporta Report moderated the candidate forum.
The candidates – Council members Keisha Lance Bottoms, Kwanza Hall and Mary Norwood; Council President Ceasar Mitchell; Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves; former Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman; state Sen. Vincent Fort; and former Council president Cathy Woolard, who is gay – talked diversity in the city and in their cabinets, LGBT inclusion in local and state policy, and their platforms and pro-LGBT attitudes.
One of the clearest moments of catering to LGBT voters came when candidates tried to one-up each other on whether they had gay staff members. Several did, though none mentioned having any transgender, gender queer or gender nonconforming staffers. Few comments from the candidates during the forum addressed transgender issues.
“My admin assistant for the last seven or eight years at the State Capitol is a gay male,” Fort said. “Allie McCullen [Fort's campaign outreach director] is a lesbian. And so, I am very glad to make sure that my staff – my campaign staff, my State Capitol staff – is inclusive. My staff, my cabinet will look like Atlanta.”
Hall hit a similar note during his response.
“Diversity is our strength," Hall said. "My chief of staff for the last 12 years is an openly gay white male. I think I am the only person on council who has that."
“It’s really about merit and talent, and diversity gives you strength. So you look as widely as you possibly can, and you make sure it’s a level playing field, and you include everyone in your decision making," Hall added.
'I have some gays on my team, too'
Woolard – the first openly gay elected official in Georgia – was the last candidate to answer the question. She elicited laughter from the audience when she started her answer by saying, “Well I have some gays on my team, too. I’m going to make you guess who they are.”
“For young people, in particular who live in the city of Atlanta, we owe it to them to see a city that is staffed by people who represent the diversity of our world, so that they can look at that group of people and see a place for themselves,” Woolard added.
The candidates were also asked about the anti-trans law passed by lawmakers in North Carolina last year – often dubbed the “transgender bathroom bill" – and how similar legislation, or anti-LGBT "religious freedom" bills, could be prevented from passing in Georgia.
Norwood referred to the City Council resolution she authored opposing a "religious freedom" bill in Georgia, although the resolutions are largely symbolic gestures that hold little sway under the Gold Dome.
“Well when RFRA appeared, I immediately introduced a resolution, which was signed by all of my colleagues, opposing it,” Norwood said. “I will continue to exert that kind of leadership. We can never have anything which could harm any of our citizens in anyway.”
Mitchell talked about his work speaking out against the North Carolina bill.
“When you see something like that you’ve got to speak out against it,” Mitchell said. “When that bill was passed in North Carolina, I got on TV, I put press releases out and I spoke against that bill. And then encouraged Atlanta to pursue the NBA All-Star game, and take it from Charlotte, even though I’ve got friends and family in Charlotte.”
Bottoms highlighted the importance of Atlanta’s inclusivity to its reputation.
“Not even an hour before coming here I was at the Metro Atlanta Chamber and a huge portion of our conversation surrounded Atlanta’s reputation as being an inclusive city, and the need to make sure Atlanta separates and stands apart from the rest of the state,” Bottoms said.
“I think that has to be a very, very clear message from the mayor at all times, that we are an inclusive city,” Bottoms added.
She noted that during her conversations with the chamber, the organization said the city's human rights ordinance – which prohibits discrimination against LGBT people and other groups – is important in attracting special events, trade shows and conventions to the city.
Aman spoke specifically about the suicide rate among transgender youth, one of the few mentions of the challenges faced by the “T” communities in LGBT during the candidate forum.
“We absolutely cannot go down the path of having legislation at the state level which is that discriminatory and unwelcoming,” Aman said, noting that he will work across party lines to oppose such bills.
“Forty percent is the rate of suicide attempts for transgender teens, 40 percent of transgender teens attempt suicide. They almost, they primarily come from families or communities where they are not accepted,” Aman said. “We have to point that out to people.”
'There’s no one else who has done more for LGBTQ businesses'
During speed rounds addressing gay adoption, the inclusion of LGBT people in civil rights bills, and maintaining Atlanta’s reputation as a welcoming city, all eight candidates raised their hands indicating they supported these issues.
In a question that was of particular interest to attendees at the AGLCC summit, the candidates addressed how their administrations would interact with LGBT businesses. All the candidates mentioned variations on putting in place some sort of liaison and including gay business owners on advisory boards.
Eaves mentioned specific ways the city could better include gay-owned businesses in the contracts it issues, including pre-bidding workshops.
“I’m not sure if the city has done this but it’s something called a disparity study," Eaves said. "If there is a disparity then you have a legal basis to provide additional points [in the bidding evaluation process] for that community.”
Later, during closing remarks, Hall made his pitch to LGBT voters clear.
“There’s no one else on this panel who has done more for LGBTQ businesses directly, than I have. And as mayor I’ll do even more, and especially at the airport," Hall said.
'I am collaborative'
Some of the candidates also took jabs at Mayor Kasim Reed during a question about how their leadership would differ from his.
Eaves told the audience he is, “more collaborative as a leader. And it has worked marvelously as chairman of Fulton County. We are a diverse constituency – Democratic, Republican, black, white, gay, straight, north, south – and I have done a good job.”
When pressed by Saporta about how that is different from Reed’s style, Eaves paused before saying, “he’s more of a dictator.”
“I’ll smile while I cut you,” Bottoms said to laughs. “I think that Mayor Reed has a very unique but effective style in his way.”
“I am collaborative in a very different way,” Bottoms added.
Mitchell noted that he and Reed have had their disagreements, but that he sees the benefits to the mayor’s style in his ability to get things done.
“I mean I guess it’s probably obvious given the scuffles I’ve had with the mayor, how our styles are different, but he’s a good mayor in many ways,” Mitchell said.
“You talk about what we just did with Philips Arena, the win-win there was being able to get money put back into Turner Field for that community, and taking the extra effort to find the win-win is something that I will do,” Mitchell added.
Aman, the only white man in the race, also gave a nod to how his identity might be viewed unfavorably by some constituencies in the city during a question about party affiliation. All candidates except Norwood identified as Democrats; Norwood calls herself an independent.
“You have to openly acknowledge the divisions that others have spoken about, along race and class. Those divisions are real, people will make decisions about who they vote for based on those divisions, even as much as we wish they would not,” Aman said.
Atlanta's city elections are Nov. 7.
[top photo clockwise from left: Peter Aman, Cathy Woolard, Keisha Lance Bottoms, John Eaves, Ceasar Mitchell, Mary Norwood, Vincent Fort, Kwanza Hall]