July 11, 2019 Atlanta: The entrance to Tyler Perry Studios is seen on Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Southwest Atlanta steps into spotlight for Democratic debate

A staunch Democratic stronghold for decades, southwest Atlanta will finally find itself in the national spotlight Wednesday night.

As presidential hopefuls arrive in town ahead of a debate at Tyler Perry Studios, local activists and residents say it is an opportunity to put their neighborhood at the forefront of political discussion.

Ten candidates will take the stage at the sparkling new $250 million studio complex on the grounds of Fort McPherson, the former U.S. Army base, closed since 2011. It’s the only studio to be owned by an African-American, and opened last month to much fanfare and a gala that drew Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce and Samuel L. Jackson. When it was chosen as the debate host site, Democratic Party of Georgia Chair Nikema Williams said the studio “represents the promise of Georgia’s future, by elevating economic opportunity and diverse voices.”

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The studio is seen by many as an economic boon for the area, which is overwhelmingly black and has a median annual income under $35,000, according to data from the Atlanta Regional Commission. The neighborhood immedately surrounding Fort McPherson is 93.8% black, and Atlanta City Council District 12, where Tyler Perry Studios is located, is 89% black, according to ARC data. Neighboring council districts 10 and 11, both on the southwest side, are both more than 90% black.

Southwest Atlanta voters feel the choice of Tyler Perry Studios affirms their value to the Democratic Party, said Lewanna Tucker, chair of the Fulton County Democrats and a resident of the neighborhood.

“This is the [political] community saying ‘We see you,’” Tucker said. “It’s not often that we feel seen in our community, and our vote maters. This is your base. These are the people that make sure Fulton County delivers. This is the thing that the community needs to see, that we see you and we hear you.”

Precincts in southwest Atlanta voted overwhelmingly for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2018, with her vote shares ranging from 95 to 99% in that area; voting precinct 12L, which contains the studio complex, had 236 votes for Abrams and two for now-Gov. Brian Kemp. In 2016, the same precinct recorded 251 votes for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and five for President Donald Trump.

Some in southwest Atlanta have felt neglected by the Democratic Party in the past. While the area has reliably delivered high margins for the party, recent spotlights have been on newly competitive suburban congressional districts and counties including Cobb and Gwinnett that were long Republican bastions until flipping to Democrats in multiple recent statewide elections.

“They’ve been taking southwest Atlanta for granted,” said Dominique Huff, a businessman and advocate for the neighborhood. “Southwest Atlanta has always shown up and shown out. It’s time now for the people who have always been with that party to say ‘Hey, its our time.’ It’s a chance for southwest Atlanta to say, ‘Hey, don’t forget about us.’”

The debate could serve to remind people that strong turnout in base areas like southwest Atlanta along with the new battleground counties are what could help flip Georgia in 2020, said Rodney Littles, South Fulton captain for the Fulton County Democrats.

The area is emblematic of what the Democratic Party’s platform should focus on, said state Rep. Park Cannon, a Democrat whose district includes the studio. Affordable housing, health care costs and public school resources are chief issues for the neighborhood’s residents, Cannon said. Huff hopes the venue will beget questions to candidates about how they propose to support communities like southwest Atlanta.

“Usually, We have these debates in the nice areas where everything is great, everything is beautiful,” Huff said. “But you’re going to see [the neighborhood’s issues] going in and coming out. So, what are you going to do, Mr. or Mrs. President, to address these problems? Because they’re not unique to southwest Atlanta. We need more jobs. We need more economic opportunity.”

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Who's who in Atlanta's Democratic presidential debate Former vice president Joe Biden U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris Tom Steyer Andrew Yang U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar U.S. Sen. Cory Booker South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg

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