When Ceasar Mitchell explains the importance of the job of Atlanta City Council president, he puts it this way: “It’s a heartbeat-away role.”
“You can go to sleep one night ... and you can wake up the next morning, and your mayor was the council president the day before,” said Mitchell, who held the position from 2010 to 2018.
It’s a somewhat grim, yet accurate, description of the job of council president, the leader of Atlanta’s legislative body and first person in line to lead the city if the mayor leaves office or dies.
While the wide-open mayor’s race is naturally attracting the most attention, a competitive and expensive battle for the second-most powerful elected position in City Hall is also unfolding this campaign season.
In this year’s council president race, a few well-known names in Atlanta politics are vying to replace current Council President Felicia Moore, who is running for mayor, while some political newcomers hope to prove a fresh voice is needed.
On the ballot are veteran City Councilwoman Natalyn Mosby Archibong, who has represented an Eastside district on the Council since 2002; Courtney English, who served two terms on the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education; and Doug Shipman, the former president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center and the founding CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
The lesser-known candidates are labor activist and Socialist Workers Party member Sam Manuel, along with small business owner and former Army officer Mike Russell.
The race will go to a Nov. 30 runoff between the top two candidates if no one gets more than 50% of the vote on Election Day.
Candidates say the concerns they hear from residents are similar to the top issues in the mayor’s race: crime, affordable housing, city services and infrastructure.
While the president runs the biweekly council meetings and appoints members and chairs to city council committees, their powers are limited — they cannot introduce legislation and lack the executive authority of the mayor’s office. And council presidents rarely vote, only vote in the event of a tie, which is uncommon for the 15-member council.
Though Atlanta has traditionally had a strong-mayor form of government, candidates running to lead the council say they want to use the office to work with the mayor’s office, while being a strong voice of accountability and more actively bolstering the council’s role.
“This will be very different council presidency than anything I think we’ve seen in the past,” said English, who wants to create a scorecard for every proposed policy based on equity and how it would affect communities. “You will know how the issues that come before council will actually impact your community.”
English also wants to appoint volunteer, non-voting community members to each of the council committees to weigh in on issues.
Shipman wants to have a collaborative relationship with the mayor’s office to move policy through, while encouraging more legislation to originate from councilmembers. He also wants councilmembers to use their own relationships and resources to leverage public-private partnerships for the city.
“I’ve heard from a lot of voters that they don’t feel like the city is in good shape,” Shipman said, “and they’re looking for fresh leadership.”
Archibong said she would ensure that the council is the “co-equal branch of the government” with the mayor’s office, telling council members that they don’t have to introduce every piece of legislation the administration hands to them without questioning and vetting it first.
“That would be a big difference,” said Archibong, who likened the role of council president to the coach of a sports team. “We can start flexing the muscle that we matter.”
Russell and Manuel, meanwhile, are pitching themselves as candidates who would push back against the city’s political establishment. While Atlanta city elections are nonpartisan, Russell said he would describe himself as a “common-sense conservative” if he had to put a label on his politics. Manuel wants to prioritize the interests of working class people.
“We’ve got to stop this bickering and work together,” Russell said.
The race hasn’t been without tension.
During a recent debate in which the candidates could ask one another questions, English, who is Black, asked Shipman about his use of civil rights leaders in his campaign materials and criticized the Woodruff Arts Center for a lack of diversity.
“Do you believe, honestly believe, that the best thing you can do for Black lives is to further displace Black leadership?” English asked Shipman, who is white.
Shipman responded that he worked to increase diversity at the arts center, and his history leading the civil rights center shows “that I have the leadership that can bring everyone together.”
Shipman has also used photos of former mayor Shirley Franklin in some campaign flyers, drawing criticism from English, whom Franklin has endorsed. Shipman said he included photos of him and Franklin because she asked him to spearhead the civil rights center, and “it is simply trying to remind folks of the work that we did.”
Franklin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that she and Shipman “worked really close ... and hard together. He did not ask me to use my photographs. When he is telling the story of his career, it seems appropriate that he might reference me, but I don’t think I should be the centerpiece of his campaign because I actually endorsed Courtney English.”
Shipman targeted Archibong during the debate, saying he has heard from voters that the city isn’t working for residents. He argued a fresh perspective is needed, asking Archibong: “Why should we give a promotion to someone who hasn’t done a good job?”
Archibong said she has a record of getting things done, and said her knowledge of the council and City Hall makes her uniquely qualified for the job.
“The better question is, why give the job to a novice? Why give the job to someone with no experience?” she said.
Staff reporter Wilborn Nobles contributed to this report.
Candidates for Atlanta City Council president:
- Natalyn Mosby Archibong: City Council representative for an Eastside district since 2002 and bankruptcy and family law attorney. Archibong raised $330,000 by the end of September and has $175,000 on hand.
- Courtney English: Former Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education member and board chair, director of community development for housing nonprofit Star-C. He has $200,000 in donations and $62,000 in the bank.
- Sam Manuel: Longtime labor activist and Socialist Workers Party member. He has not released any fundraising disclosures.
- Mike Russell: Small business owner and former Army officer. Russell has gotten $54,000 in contributions and has $32,500 on hand.
- Doug Shipman: Former president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center and founding CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. He has received over $500,000 in contributions and has about $250,000 left.