The choice in runoff for Atlanta council president: Electoral newcomer or longtime office-holder?

Two well-known figures in Atlanta politics with very different backgrounds and breadths of experience are facing off in a runoff to decide who will hold Atlanta’s No. 2 elected post.

The outcome of the election for City Council president will set the tone for how the city’s legislative body operates over the next four years. On the ballot are veteran City Councilwoman Natalyn Mosby Archibong, who has represented an Eastside district on the Council since 2002; 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.

While the contest has made fewer headlines than the high-profile mayor’s race, Tuesday’s Atlanta Press Club debate between Archibong and Shipman saw perhaps just as many fireworks as the tense mayoral debate that happened a few hours later.

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Archibong criticized Shipman over his use of deceased civil rights leaders in his campaign materials, “indicating they endorsed you when it’s impossible for them to have done so.”

Shipman called out Archibong on her previous votes opposing some Beltline-related ordinances, asking, “What value is all that experience when your judgment has been poor on the future of Atlanta?” That prompted the councilwoman to shoot back: “That’s your opinion. I’ve been elected five times, (so) it’s not the opinion of those who elected me.”

The exchange highlights the question facing voters: Should the council be led by a new face at City Hall, or someone who has been part of the city’s elected leadership for years?

The council president is in charge of running the biweekly council meetings and appoints members and chairs to city council committees. But the president cannot introduce legislation and only votes in the event of a tie. The president leads the city if the mayor leaves office or dies.

Shipman, an Arkansas native who lives in the Old Fourth Ward, argues a fresh voice is needed in the council chambers.

While he has never run for office, Shipman is no stranger to Atlanta’s political and civic scene. He was the founding CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, shepherding the museum through a decade of planning and fundraising. Shipman also led the center for a year after it opened downtown in 2014. He took the reins at Woodruff in 2017, announcing last summer that he was leaving that position.

“Voters were looking for someone who was going to make the city work better (and) in some ways take it in a different direction,” Shipman said in an interview, referencing the Nov. 2 election results, where he finished in first place. “We have an opportunity to bring fresh leadership to the city.”

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Archibong, meanwhile, says someone with years of legislative experience should lead the council as it works to build a relationship with a new mayoral administration and grapples with a number of challenges facing the city, such as crime, poverty and gentrification.

She currently leads the city’s utilities committee and works as an attorney. A resident of East Atlanta, Archibong is a former education activist and business association president in the neighborhood.

Archibong, who proudly wears the nickname “Battlin’ Natalyn,” said her time on council has shown she’s not afraid to question or stand up to City Hall officials in the mayor’s office. As council president, she said, she would tell members that they do not have to introduce a proposal simply because the mayor’s office wants them to do so.

“We know that there will be number of brand new council members,” Archibong said. “This isn’t a time to have a council president who also needs to be retrained and guided through processes. Why not elect someone who is already experienced and already knows City Hall and knows public service?”

The two candidates share some similarities — both say they want to use the office to work with the mayor’s office, while bolstering the council’s role and holding the next administration accountable.

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They’ve each pitched some ideas they want the next council to tackle: Archibong mentioned legislation that would require gas stations to install cameras at every pump, and an ordinance to establish child savings accounts for low-income children. Shipman hopes to help shepherd rail on the Beltline, and wants to see the city provide a steady funding stream for an afterschool program to bolster early childhood education. He’s also raised the possibility of a new council committee focused on sustainability.

In the Nov. 2 general election, Shipman performed especially well in Buckhead and northeast Atlanta, taking 31% of the vote. Former Atlanta Public Schools board member Courtney English, who finished in third place and didn’t make the runoff, finished first across much of the Westside and southwest Atlanta, an area where Archibong outperformed Shipman. She secured a spot in the runoff by holding her own on the Eastside and in DeKalb County, garnering support from about 28% of the electorate.

Early voting for the Atlanta elections started Wednesday and runs through Nov. 24.