Longtime Atlanta councilmembers face tough runoff challengers

Longtime Atlanta Councilwoman Cleta Winslow (left) is facing Jason Dozier (second from left) in a runoff for her District 4 seat. Joyce Sheperd, another veteran councilwoman, is facing Antonio Lewis in a runoff for her District 12 seat. FILE PHOTOS



Longtime Atlanta Councilwoman Cleta Winslow (left) is facing Jason Dozier (second from left) in a runoff for her District 4 seat. Joyce Sheperd, another veteran councilwoman, is facing Antonio Lewis in a runoff for her District 12 seat. FILE PHOTOS

As Antonio Lewis sees it, the runoff for Atlanta City Council District 12 has a simple dynamic.

“My race is Blue Lives Matter vs. Black Lives Matter,” the 34-year-old activist-turned-candidate said.

Lewis — one of two young, progressive candidates trying to oust longtime incumbents in the Nov. 30 Atlanta city council runoff elections — was born and raised in the Southside district he’s vying to represent. He knew Rayshard Brooks and Oscar Cain, young Black men from the neighborhood who were killed by police, and has organized local marches and protests.

He counts himself firmly in the Black Lives Matter camp — and has framed his campaign against incumbent Joyce Sheperd as a referendum on policing and ineffective local leadership.

But Sheperd, who has represented the district since 2004 and chairs the City Council’s public safety committee, says that’s nonsense.

Sheperd was the primary sponsor of the city’s deeply controversial bid to build a new police and fire training facility in DeKalb County, and said the need to replace those agencies’ current facilities is urgent. She said the constituents she talks to in the district — a collection of low-income neighborhoods that are now seeing new investment thanks in part to the arrival of the Beltline — tell her “continuously” that they want more police in their community.

Sheperd said she’s capable of supporting the police force and Black Lives Matter at the same time.

She said she’s worked on creative approaches to police reform for years, touting her role in the new diversion center recently announced by Atlanta and Fulton County. The new police and fire facility will present opportunities to rethink training, use of force policies and police militarization, Sheperd said.

“If a police officer did something wrong, he or she has got to go,” she said this week. “But at the same time, we can’t be anti-police to the point that we’re cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

Sheperd is a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School and has lived in her home off Metropolitan Parkway since 1979. She was chair of the local neighborhood planning unit before joining the City Council.

She said she’s worked for nearly two decades to improve the quality of life in her district, improving infrastructure and increasing greenspace and affordable housing options. She wants to continue the work.

“The agenda is not just about the police,” Sheperd said. “Our quality of life in our community, we have to build it out. And unfortunately I’m not sure that [Lewis] has the skillset.”

Lewis, who nearly matched Sheperd’s vote total in the three-candidate general election earlier this month, interned in Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin’s office before attending college in Missouri. He later worked for Congressman Lacy Clay Jr. and for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.

He currently works for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the country’s largest trade union for public employees, and runs a community center he started last year.

Lewis said he jumped in the race because the city needs fresh, innovative ideas — and he believes Sheperd has let the community down.

A recent electrical issue at the local Kroger left residents with no other nearby grocery store for days, he said.

“Our district has been left behind the most because our councilperson isn’t as active in bringing in resources that we need,” Lewis said.

The 38-year-old and the 27-year incumbent

Just to the west, in District 4, a similarly contentious fight is underway.

Jason Dozier, a 38-year-old activist and Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is trying to oust incumbent Cleta Winslow from the council seat she’s held since 1994. He came close to pulling it off in 2017, and made it to this month’s runoff by nearly matching Winslow’s vote total in a seven-candidate general election.

“People have seen the same leadership for close to three decades,” Dozier said, “and they realize that they’re not getting the services that they need to have the quality of life that they should have.”

The AJC made many attempts to interview Winslow for this story but managed only a brief Tuesday morning phone call.

During the call, Winslow said she was “running with gasoline drawers like my [butt] is on fire” — “running fast and furious trying to take care of the people’s business.”

She likened her district — which stretches north from the Venetian Hills neighborhood through West End, the Atlanta University Center and South Downtown — to a girlfriend who was “fat and ugly.” Thanks to her work, she said, it’s now “looking good again” and drawing more suitors like her challenger.

Winslow has previously pointed to her work bringing new city funding for parks and sidewalks improvements to her district, and said she has helped shepherd in new development during her tenure.

“People thought it was a good idea to keep me in for 27 years,” she said this week. “Whether they think the next four is, I don’t know. But let me just say this, you can’t fool the people. An elected person can’t fool the people for 27 years.”

But Dozier said his campaign knocked on 13,000 doors prior to the general election and District 4 residents are tired of “bread and butter issues” like potholes, sidewalks and trash collection going unaddressed. He said the district also deserves better representation on matters like public safety and affordable housing, and more input on major projects like the redevelopment at the Gulch, the Atlanta Civic Center and Fort McPherson.

Dozier, who works for a veteran-oriented nonprofit called Hire Heroes USA, has also frequently raised questions about his opponent’s history of ethics violations related to campaign funds — and expressed disappointment that Winslow has declined to participate in recent candidate forums.

“My life has been committed to serving others,” Dozier said, “and I want to make sure the city is committed to serving others.”

Other council races

Here are the other council races headed to the Nov. 30 runoff:

Post 3 At-Large

This citywide seat is currently held by Andre Dickens, who is now in a runoff for mayor. The top two vote-getters on Nov. 2 were Jacki Labat, a small business owner and management consultant, and Keisha Sean Waites, a former state representative. Labat’s husband is Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat; Waites has run for council three times before and launched unsuccessful bids for Fulton County Commission chair and U.S. House.

District 1

The crowded race to replace Councilwoman Carla Smith resulted in Jason Winston, a marketing consulting business owner, advancing to a runoff against Nathan Clubb, an auditor and the former president of South Atlantans for Neighborhood Development. District 1 covers much of southeast Atlanta.

District 3

This Westside district is currently represented by Councilman Antonio Brown, who launched an unsuccessful campaign for mayor. Byron Amos, the former Atlanta Public Schools board member who lost to Brown in a 2019 special election for the seat, was the top vote-getter in the general election, advancing to a runoff against second-place finisher Erika Estrada, whom Brown has endorsed.

District 5

Located on Atlanta’s Eastside, District 5 is currently represented by Natalyn Archibong, who is in a runoff for council president. Liliana Bakhtiari, a community and social justice advocate, was just a few dozen votes away from winning the seat outright but will face off against Mandy Mahoney, the former director of sustainability for the city, in the runoff.