Atlanta mayoral candidates throw final jabs, make pitches to voters

The four leading candidates for Atlanta mayor debated one another for the final time Sunday, and many of the attacks again targeted the front-runner, Councilwoman Mary Norwood.

City Council President Lisa Borders, Norwood, former state lawmaker Kasim Reed and Jesse Spikes, an attorney at the law firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge, dueled over ethics, party affiliation and which candidate's plan to combat crime can actually be funded.

The verbal jabs at Norwood began early. For example, Spikes asked Norwood why the council hasn't voted her to chair any committees during her nearly eight years on the legislative body.

"It was a system where you did not have a lot of control," Norwood said of committee chairs. She added that it was more productive for her to work with council members on key issues.

The biggest dispute during an hour-long debate on WSB-TV, which sponsored the event along with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, came when Borders and Reed attacked Norwood over her political affiliation. State Democratic Party officials have sent several glossy fliers to voters in recent weeks accusing Norwood, who has described herself as a political independent, of being a Republican. Atlantans typically vote Democratic.

Norwood said she has voted for each Democratic presidential nominee since 1996, but said she went to a Republican Party convention in 1999 and never went back because of the "distasteful party politics" she said she saw there.

"We all know that I am not a Republican," she said. "We know [questions over her affiliation are] a way to divide the city."

Reed insisted Norwood's past votes in GOP primaries tell a different story about the candidate.

"I believe it shows a pattern of Ms. Norwood misleading the voters," he said.

Election Day is Tuesday, and the Atlanta mayor's race has become one of the most watched contests in the nation. The race also includes candidates Peter Brownlowe, Kyle Keyser and write-in candidates Tiffany Brown and Duke Lewis. Borders, Norwood, Reed and Spikes were invited based on how they're doing in the polls.

Reed defended his plan to hire 750 police officers in his first term, although Borders and Spikes said it is not realistic. City officials say it will cost at least $64 million to hire and train that many officers. Reed has said he'll use some of the money from this year's $55 million property tax increase to pay for more police and collect about $20 million a year in fines and fees he says the city is leaving on the table.

Spikes and Reed differed over whether the next mayor can redirect that much money. Borders argued Reed's plan is not possible because the city's police academy can train no more than 175 officers a year. Reed countered it can train about 200.

"We need somebody who can actually do the math in this job," Borders said during her verbal sparring with Reed on the issue.

Borders said she would conduct a national search for a new police chief, but focus on local candidates. Norwood said she wants a chief who is familiar with the entire city. Reed said he'll focus on hiring a police chief who has experience fighting street gangs. Spikes said he'll conduct a national search for a new chief, but he also wants to hire a public safety director.

The current chief, Richard Pennington, has said he will leave office at the end of the year.

Ethics, an issue that has been discussed frequently in recent weeks, came up during the debate. Spikes reiterated his stance that he would not exclude McKenna, Long & Aldridge from bidding on city contracts, saying he won't play favorites as mayor. Reed accused Norwood of attempting to weaken the city's ethics guidelines by voting in 2006 in favor of allowing council members to receive gifts. Norwood shortly afterward said the city should return to the original guidelines, which it did.

Norwood and Spikes said they won't furlough any city workers. Borders and Reed committed that they would not furlough police officers and firefighters.

In interviews afterward, Reed said he supports outgoing Mayor Shirley Franklin's effort to get a seven-year lease extension with Delta Air Lines at the city-owned Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport approved by the council before she leaves office in early January. Borders said she would support getting the extension passed now if it proves financially beneficial to the city. Spikes said he'll "take whatever is on my plate in January." Norwood will support the extension if it's a great deal for the city, said campaign manager Roman Levit.