Shirley Franklin and Cathy Woolard step out for Andre Dickens

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin has made no secret of her support for Atlanta City Council candidate Andre Dickens, but Tuesday she stepped out with another longtime politico for her first press conference endorsing the little-known challenger.

Franklin, who has largely stayed out of the spotlight since leaving office in 2010, was joined by former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard to promote Dickens, a Georgia Tech administrator who burst onto the political scene this year with big-name backers.

Dickens is challenging three-time Councilman H. Lamar Willis for his Post 3 At-Large seat, a spot made more vulnerable in recent weeks by Willis’ disbarment on ethics violations.

The Post 3 race has in ways pitted two former allies against the other: Franklin and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a staunch Willis supporter and former Franklin adviser.

Reed has said that while Willis’ disbarment is terrible, “people make mistakes and you move on.”

But Tuesday, Franklin said: “There are some things more important than politics, and having honesty and integrity in a candidate is important. … In my experience, that’s not the person we need to have setting policy and making rules.”

Asked whether her support of Dickens is related to Reed, Franklin was succinct: “It is a mistake to see my support for Andre as anything other than my support for Andre. He’s the better candidate.”

Woolard, who left city office in 2004, said she was surprised Willis has remained in the race following his disbarment. “We have a real opportunity to improve the ethical standards at the Atlanta City Council” with Dickens, she said.

Willis, an attorney, said his disbarment is not a reflection of his public service.

The Georgia Supreme Court ordered on Oct. 7 that Willis be disbarred from practicing law because of ethics violations — chiefly that he deposited $30,000 intended for a client into a personal account. The client, a child injured by a falling fence, ultimately received the money owed through a complicated series of events that included Willis’ bank reversing his deposit and the State Bar of Georgia ordering Willis to settle his debts.

“I failed my client and I acknowledged that I failed my client, but the public’s trust I have never violated, and I take issue with that,” said Willis, who was reached Tuesday after the press conference.

“They have a right to endorse and to pursue whatever they believe is their own personal best interest, and I say that specifically because I believe their endorsement of my opponent is just that, their personal best interest and not the city’s best interest,” Willis said.

Franklin’s appearance — a sure sign the city’s municipal elections are in full effect — comes amid rising tensions between the candidates. The Willis and Dickens camps, the latter led by Franklin’s son Cabral, have hurled accusations of financial misconduct at each other over business debts, bankruptcies and tax liens.

Willis, apart from his disbarment, was fined $25,000 by state officials in 2009 for failing to properly certify a nonprofit he created to raise scholarship money for students.

Dickens, who before working at Georgia Tech owned a furniture store, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2011 when his company crumbled during the housing crisis, leaving him $1 million in debt. Dickens also faced tax liens in the years leading up to his bankruptcy, debts he said are long settled. And the political newcomer dismissed accusations he was dishonest in his bankruptcy filing by reporting that he and his wife were separated at that time.

“Trying to draw a comparison (between us) is ludicrous,” Dickens said of his opponent’s attacks on his bankruptcy, adding his business was successful until the housing crisis and that he manages departmental budgets in his role at Georgia Tech.

Willis has also dealt with tax liens and said he’s paying back a federal tax debt.

Reed has taken to Willis’ defense by painting a portrait of a city left in disarray by Franklin, his mayoral predecessor, who held the city’s top job from 2002 to 2010.

In an interview last week, Reed said he is supporting Willis (and Councilman Aaron Watson, who is running against Mary Norwood to keep his Post 2 city wide seat) because of “their performance in turning this city around.”

Reed touted rebuilding the city’s reserves from $7.4 million to more than $125 million today, and said he took office when “police officers had been furloughed, firefighters were understaffed” and the city’s pension liability had grown from $50 million to more than $140 million.

“On the important things we’ve done like pension reform, Lamar Willis and Aaron Watson were an essential part of the team that reformed it,” he said. “I just don’t believe in turning my back on people who have been supportive of my efforts.”

On Tuesday, Franklin defended her policy decisions as helping lay the foundation for the city’s current financial standing.

“I worked hard as mayor, was honest … and launched a dozen impactful policies and programs that continue,” she said in an emailed statement. “My wish for any elected official is that he/she will be so successful someone else will want to take credit for their leadership and labor.”