In Atlanta City Council races, field of progressive candidates looks to unseat incumbents



This November, Atlanta’s voters will elect a new slate of City Council members in addition to the high-profile mayor’s race at the top of the ballot.

And in council District 12 — a collection of low-income neighborhoods on Atlanta’s Southside seeing a new wave of investment due in part to the Beltline — roughly 30,000 voters have a choice that encapsulates the public safety debates Atlanta has had over the last year.

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Incumbent City Council member Joyce Sheperd, who was the lead sponsor of the controversial proposal for a new police and fire training center, is seeking her sixth term. Two younger progressive with platforms to reimagine policing in Atlanta want to unseat her.

“I think that we are looked at as these radical progressives that are so far-fetched with our ideas … because we want to put people actually first,” said Jenné Shepherd, the challenger whose last name is one letter away from the incumbent’s.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

“After 17 years of failed leadership, it’s time for fresh voice,” said Antonio Lewis, the second challenger, who took to the streets last year to protest the Atlanta police killing of a 27-year-old man he knew, Rayshard Brooks.

The incumbent councilwoman agrees that new perspectives can be productive — to an extent.

“They come up with these radical, extreme ideas. The arrogance of them,” Sheperd said. “I think we need new, young leadership. But I want to make sure whoever it is won’t be arrogant.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The discussions playing out in District 12 mark a trend playing out across several Atlanta’s City Council races this fall, as a wave of new candidates closely aligned with progressive organizations and causes seek to unseat incumbents, some of whom have been on council for over a decade.

Everyday issues like potholes and trash pickup are still central to many of these hyperlocal races. But discussions surrounding crime and criminal justice have also dominated this election cycle.

Several challengers say they were inspired to run partly by the social justice movement of last year, and are banking that voters resonate with their message that the city should do more to address the root causes of violence. Still, it can be an uphill battle running against an incumbent, who often have larger war chests, more name recognition and connections.

“We think as if putting a police officer on every corner is going to solve the problem. ... There needs to be a cultural shift with how we do policing,” said Jason Dozier, one of five candidates running against Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, a 27-year incumbent who represents District 4 on the Westside.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

He and several other candidates — especially in contested Southside and Westside races — also support Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ proposal to close the Atlanta City Detention Center, and opposed the plans to build a new police and fire training facility on city-owned land in DeKalb County.

Left-of-center groups like the Committee for a New Georgia and the Georgia Working Families Party have also thrown their support behind non-incumbent candidates, including Dozier and Devin Barrington-Ward, a local organizer running against incumbent Councilman Dustin Hillis in District 9.

Those organizations are also backing progressive candidates in a few open races, where the incumbents are either not running again or seeking higher office. In many of those races, council hopefuls are still seeking to challenge the city’s status quo on issues like policing, housing and transit.

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The incumbents largely said they have a record of supporting Atlanta’s police officers, and are in favor of additional community policing efforts and programs like the Policing Alternatives and Diversion initiative. Their track record and experience in office are why voters should give them another four-year term, they say.

“I still have the fire in the belly to run, and over the years I’ve accomplished quite a bit in the district,” said Winslow, referencing funding for parks and sidewalks improvements.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Andrea Boone, a first-term council member facing a challenge from neighborhood leader Jason Hudgins, said she doesn’t mind an opponent: “It sharpens your knife. It makes you sharper.”

All 15 council seats will be on the ballot Nov. 2 — three are citywide races, and 12 are district-specific. The council makes crucial decisions on the city’s budget, local laws, large-scale development projects and infrastructure issues like housing and transportation.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Candidates in Atlanta don’t run under a specific political party. While the vast majority of candidates in Atlanta identify as Democrats, Rogelio Arcila, who is challenging Winslow, is a member of Democratic Socialists of America.

The 31-year-old grew up in and around Bankhead experiencing poverty. This is his first time running for public office, and said he may be the first DSA member to run for Atlanta City Council. So far his campaign has yielded nearly $115,000 in contributions and his platform includes defunding the police and closing the Atlanta jail.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Other candidates challenging Winslow include Larry B. Carter, II, a partnership manager with the U.S. Census, Kim Scott, a former Neighborhood Planning Unit chair and five-time candidate Sister Deborah Williams, who started a work force housing group for homeless woman. Most differ from Winslow on her stances on the jail and the training center, and argue she is out of touch with her constituents.

Winslow’s response? “I don’t concentrate on what they’re talking about. ... People ought to run on their own record and let me run on mine.”

In northwest Atlanta, Barrington-Ward, a local activist and organizer, is looking to unseat first-term Councilman Dustin Hillis, whose district spans from Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway to the neighborhoods of Underwood Hills and Bolton on the edge of Buckhead. While Barrington-Ward has raised almost $60,000 and has about $10,000 on hand, Hillis has over 10 times that in the bank, another sign of the fundraising advantage incumbents often have.

Hillis, who voted for the police training center vote, said he supports community policing and keeping the city jail open in the short-term.

”I’ve been involved in my neighborhood and my NPU meetings and have done so for years. I have never once heard that people want to see less police officers,” he said.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Barrington-Ward’s proposals include launching a medical cannabis co-op program for the city and repurposing police dollars to build a 24-hour mental health crisis center.

“Local government is a place where you can have these complicated conversations around progressive issues as it pertains to public safety,” Barrington-Ward said, “and having a different approach to our public safety ... that doesn’t rely solely on police and jails.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Another proponent of the training center is Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who has a citywide post and faces four challengers in his bid for a fourth term. Bond, the son of civil rights activist Julian Bond, is one of several incumbents who have been targeted by progressive activists over the last year. Bond has been a leading critic of Bottoms’ plans to close the jail and sponsored a measure to review a 2018 ordinance that eliminated the Municipal Court’s cash bond requirement for low-level offenses.

“I have a real understanding of the public safety issues and its nuances,” Bond said. “Even though a lot of my opponents are very intelligent men, they do seem to have a deficit when it comes to understanding what the City Council does and how city government operates.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

On the ballot against Bond are Jereme Sharpe, Alfred “Shivy” Brooks, Brandon Cory Goldberg and Todd Gray.

Sharpe is running a campaign focused on housing, transit and urbanism, while Brooks comes from an activist background. The conversations around police reform and the Atlanta jail inspired Brooks to run. Goldberg wants to ensure than any transfer of the Atlanta jail doesn’t end in mismanagement by the county. Gray, who previously served as vice president of the city’s ethics board, said he’s concerned about corruption.

“We have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get onto the right track,” Sharpe said. “That’s what many of these progressive candidates see.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Who is on the Atlanta ballot?

The following candidates have qualified to run for Atlanta City Council this election season:

Council President: Sam Manuel, Mike Russell, Courtney English, Doug Shipman, Natalyn Mosby Archibong

Council Post 1 At-Large Seat: Michael Julian Bond, Jereme Sharpe, Alfred “Shivy” Brooks, Brandon Cory Goldberg, Todd A. Gray

Council Post 2 At-Large Seat: Matt Westmoreland, Sonya Russell-Ofchus

Council Post 3 At-Large Seat: Jacki Labat, Keisha Sean Waites, Ralph Long, Sherry B. Williams, Jodi Merriday

Council District 1 Seat: Victor D. Tate, Clarence Blalock, Kelly-Jeanne Lee, Russell Hopson, Nathan Clubb, Jason Winston

Council District 2 Seat: Amir Farokhi

Council District 3 Seat: Byron Amos, Brandon Graham, Elijah Porter, Keona Jones, Ken Wainwright, Erika Estrada

Council District 4 Seat: Cleta Winslow, Larry B. Carter II, Kim Scott, Jason Dozier, Rogelio Arcila, DeBorah “Sister” Williams

Council District 5 Seat: Liliana Bakhtiari, Katrina “Katie” Kissel, Doug Williams, Amanda “Mandy” Mahoney, Samuel Bacote

Council District 6 Seat: Justin A. Critz, Courtney Jenee DeDi, Alex Wan, Kathryn Voelpel

Council District 7 Seat: Howard Shook

Council District 8 Seat: Mary Norwood

Council District 9 Seat: Dustin Hillis, Devin “Barrington” Ward

Council District 10 Seat: Andrea L. Boone, Jason Hudgins

Council District 11 Seat: Marci Collier Overstreet, Ron Shakir

Council District 12 Seat: Antonio Lewis, Jenné Shepherd, Joyce Sheperd