It was Monday night and a standing-room crowd (some sat on the floor) of more than 100 people gathered at a meeting near Piedmont Park.
The audience included Liz Coyle and Alex Wan, the two candidates campaigning to represent the area on the city council.
Standing in the back was Clair Muller, candidate for council president. Amir Farokhi, who's battling Aaron Watson for a citywide seat on the council, found a spot on one side near a large potted plant.
The meeting was held at Hillside, a psychiatric treatment facility in Atlanta's sixth city council district, which for years has been a battleground in city politics. The district is key again for the eight candidates in the four races on the Dec. 1 runoff ballot. The big race is the mayoral face-off between Mary Norwood and Kasim Reed. Muller is dueling Ceasar Mitchell for council president.
It has more registered voters than any district in the city. Most residents are white and many are gay. Because it is the only district with a council race on the runoff ballot, turnout is expected to be high.
"We've tended to be the swing vote," said Julian Bene, 57, a Morningside resident active in civic affairs.
"What's the saying ‘So goes six, so goes the city?,' " said Coyle.
Vincent Fort credits some neighborhoods in the area with his first victory on the Georgia Senate in 1996. Mayor Shirley Franklin won many precincts in the district in 2001, giving her just enough votes citywide to win the election.
The district includes some of Atlanta's oldest neighborhoods, such as Ansley Park, Druid Hills, Midtown, Morningside and Virginia-Highland.
The politics here can be dramatic. In 2005, the incumbent district council member, Anne Fauver, beat Steve Brodie by five votes out of more than 5,000 ballots cast. Brodie thought he had grounds for a runoff, but a judge ruled Fauver the winner.
Longtime residents remember the neighborhood fight in the 1970s and 1980s against a proposed I-485 through the area. The battle spawned several networks of neighborhood groups that pay very close attention to anything going on in their community, says Harvey Newman, who teaches about public policy matters at Georgia State University.
"This has been a cliffhanger district. The people in that district have taken their politics seriously for a very long time," he said.
Wan finished first among the six candidates to represent the district in the Nov. 3 general election with 32 percent of the vote. Coyle finished second with nearly 23 percent. In the mayor's race, Norwood won 58.3 percent of the vote here. Reed finished a distant second with 23 percent of the vote. Reed had a event there Wednesday and another one scheduled for Friday.
"We can do much better in six," Reed said.
Norwood has two scheduled meetings with homeowners here on Saturday morning.
Residents relish the access to the candidates.
"Without a doubt," said Jenifer Keenan, 38, a Virginia-Highland resident, who has told some candidates that the council needs its own legal staff.
The hot issue here right now is a proposal to change the zoning regulations on one corner of 10th and Monroe streets, a key stretch of the Beltline, the city's grand vision to put more parks and mixed-use development around a 22-mile loop over the next two decades. Currently, only single-family homes are permitted at that part of the intersection. The changes would allow condos. The matter came before Neighborhood Planning Unit F on Monday night.
Two Wan supporters handed out fliers written by the candidate stating his concern that the changes are being rushed and he wants a delay. Coyle, who once served on the Atlanta Beltline Inc. board of directors, had been mum on the subject. Some took her silence for support of the proposed changes, possibly troublesome for Coyle since most of the public sentiment has been against the idea.
The buzz here on Wan is he's the pro-business candidate, a thorny label in this largely residential district. Wan, 42, has served on the Atlanta Development Authority board of directors. He scoffs at the characterization.
"You have to strike a balance," he says of business and community interests. "It's listening to what people need on both sides."
If elected, Wan, who is openly gay, would become the first Asian-American on the council. Much of the $95,300 Wan raised through mid-October came from the Asian-American community, his campaign disclosure reports show. Coyle has raised about $36,000, city records show.
Wan wants independent audits of city departments, he wants to "ramp up" the city's program to boost economic development in four commercial corridors in south Atlanta and he wants more police officers walking the beat in his district.
Wan says he has the advantage over Coyle because he's laid out more specifics about his plans. Coyle counters her years of civic experience (she's the former NPU F vice chair) makes her the better candidate.
Coyle, a 46-year-old married mother of two sons, wants department heads to start their budgets from scratch each year to justify their spending. She supports the Peachtree Streetcar idea and has endorsed a plan to add more greenspace in the city over the next five years.
As for the zoning change at 10th and Monroe, Coyle said she's not for it.
"I wanted the community to have its own say...I knew I didn't need to stand on a soapbox," Coyle said.
At Monday's meeting, both candidates raised their hands with the majority of more than 90 others against the proposed changes. The recommendation is expected to be discussed by the council next month.
By then, the runoffs will be over. Bene is dreading that moment.
"I keep saying ‘What are we going to do after all of this is over?' " he said. "What are we going to do for entertainment?"
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