Mayoral Candidate Forum on Transportation
Last night I attended a forum on transportation, featuring four candidates for Atlanta mayor. My thoughts (and these are mine alone) follow.
Each of the candidates is, in each their own way, uniquely unqualified to be Atlanta’s next mayor. However, I have to congratulate them for running. Thanks to poor governance from the State, truncated city limits and — to put it diplomatically — “constituent issues,” Atlanta is extraordinarily difficult to govern. So my hats off to anyone who wants a job that no sane person should ever want.
Still, we have no fully qualified candidate to be Atlanta’s next mayor. Every candidate has flaws too big to ignore, and some of those flaws were on display this evening. Warning: Sorry, folks, but I’m going to be mean. These people want my respect and my vote, so I’m in no mood to pull punches.
On Jesse Spikes: Before tonight, I’ve heard some good things about this guy. For those who don’t know, Jesse is a lawyer who maintains a solid fourth place in the polls. A respectable… let’s say 2% of Atlanta’s voters say they’ll vote for the guy. Second-hand accounts of private conversations with Jesse gave me the impressoin that he would be the most intelligent, progressive candidate on transportation issues within the city.
Tonight, however, Jesse’s weaknesses were on full display — not to mention the low quality of the second-hand information I received. Jesse’s answers were typically lawerly in a slimy, sycophantic sort of way. In a typical answer, he would talk about how good it would be to get advice, study the issue, etc. He had no idea how much all the issues have been studied to death already. Being a newcomer is frankly not an excuse to be ignorant about what’s already been studied and what new ideas are worth studying. Jesse’s big bomb came when he expressed that he would even be open to the idea of studying new highways or highway tunnels through Atlanta. What a dissapointment. Jesse Spikes gets the n00b stamp.
On Mary Norwood: What can I say that would be nice about Mary? She’s always come across to me as a politican who is very good about taking credit for things that she has absolutely nothing to do with. That is just the way some politicians tend to be — “I was involved in this initiative, and that effort, and that plan, and everything else you see as having had a good turnout. And I fought for you along the way to make sure the end result was a good one.” Being involved and having influence are two different things. Mary displayed no technical competence whatsoever. Her approach to shower the audience with her knowledge and understanding backfired at least among those who know a thing or two about transportation issues.
Mary’s pet project is jitneys — an antiquated word essentially referring to shared taxis. Passenger vans would sputter around the City with cute little ooga horns, picking up and dropping off passengers on-demand. “Jitney” is a nice word to use if you’re trying to convince voters that you have old-timey but knowledgable sensibilities. I think Mary chose the word “jitney” specifically because it’s cute and antiquated, and we should expect nothing less from a southern belle Buckhead aristocrat. No one asked for more details (Who would run it? How would they be regulated to ensure better quality service?). Then again, no one was all that interested anyway — the issue was really a non-starter among the smart growth advocates in the room.
On all other issues, Mary offered platitudes, “I agree” statements, and of course a lot of “I was involved in that…” with very little substance. The consensus in the room, to make an admittedly unfair statement: Mary is scary. Ultimately, it was easy for some of us to see right through her, and to understand that her primary constituency is suburban-minded NIMBYs.
On Kasim Reed: He left early. His answer to nearly everything was to emphasize his relationship with the Georgia Legislature and his ability to work with that dysfunctional body (my words, not his). The top three candidates all may have agreed on the importance of passing the regional T-SPLOST bill, but no one was a bigger agreer on that issue than Kasim.
What he clearly lacks is the ability to administer a city government. He’ll be the guy with a hand out to the legislature, but would have the least ability among the top three candidates to inspire confidence that he would be a good steward of Georgia money. But seriously, he was not at the forum for long enough to judge much beyond that.
On Lisa Borders: Lisa stood out among all the candidates as the most technically knowledgeable and competent candidate, but with one glaring flaw. Many voters hold the perception that Borders is the most developer-friendly candidate because she used to work for Cousins Properties. And she did nothing to demonstrate otherwise.
Having said that, Lisa was the only candidate who clearly has a true appreciation for the need to build Atlanta to become a more livable city. What she must understand is that there are certain issues — e.g., connectivity between developments — that developers ultimately trudge their feet over when it comes down to implementation and nitty-gritty details. At one point in the debate, Sally Flocks asked a question about block lengths. Lisa made the most god-awful mistake of answering the question she wanted asked, rather than answering the actual question that was asked — and she came to the defense of developers of superblocks. What an awful position to take. Sally had to correct Lisa to make sure she understood the question was directed at future development, not pre-existing conditions.
Overall: My biggest disappointment is that none of the candidates are willing to pursue a truly aggressive agenda. Atlanta has so many problems right now. The dysfunction of this City is, in some places, so ingrained as to feel intractible. Right now is a good time to make fundamental changes in the zoning ordinances and to move forward with sidewalk and bicycle infrastructure investments. These things set the stage for a fuller, more sustainable recovery once it happens.
I don’t blame any of the candidates for wanting to focus on restructuring the city’s agencies and finances for the sake of more efficient, transparent and constituent-friendly operations. There is no question that the reformation of city services and operations must take top priority. But a term lasts only four years. There is precious little time to aggressively implement the most important pieces of the Connect Atlanta plan. The candidate who wants to win my heart will have to work very hard to convince me of their capability to hit the ground running and work on both of these initiatives at the same time. So far, none of the candidates have won my heart.