Democratic presidential debate sidesteps suburbs for star’s Atlanta studio

High-profile Nov. 20 event opts for Tyler Perry Studios over 6th District venue City Springs.
The entrance to Tyler Perry Studios is seen on Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

The entrance to Tyler Perry Studios is seen on Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

The Democratic presidential debate will be held next month at Tyler Perry Studios, according to several party officials, sidestepping the suburbs for the newly opened $250 million complex near Atlanta’s airport.

The studio was selected for the Nov. 20 debate after jockeying that pitted Perry’s studio in heavily Democratic southwest Atlanta against the sparkling new performance arts center in Sandy Springs, once-solid Republican territory that’s become increasingly competitive.

The hosts of the event, The Washington Post and MSNBC, did not comment, and some involved in the negotiations said final details have yet to be hashed out. But Stacey Abrams, the party’s 2018 nominee for governor, said on social media that the “site is set” for the studio.

"@TPstudios is a model for Georgia's vibrant film industry, an engaged corporate citizen and an exceptional location for our #DemDebate," she wrote on Twitter, referring to the handle of the facility. "Looking forward to welcoming the candidates to Georgia on November 20."

The complex is the only major film studio in the nation owned by an African American, and the debate is certain to be a crowning achievement for Perry, a once-struggling playwright who, more than 20 years ago, had been kicked out of his apartment and was living out of a car.

Now one of Atlanta’s highest-profile celebrities, Perry developed the studio complex on 330 acres of land at Fort McPherson he purchased in 2015. It features 12 massive sound stages for other Hollywood studios to rent, including a replica of the White House for his upcoming series, “The Oval.”

More: ‘We’ve got next.’ Georgia Democrats prepare for close-up

Perry said he named each of those sound stages after a legendary African American figure because he didn't see any of those names on studios in Los Angeles. Among those who received their own sound stages: Denzel Washington, Cicely Tyson, Sydney Poitier, Della Reese, Diahann Carroll and Harry Belafonte.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms aggressively lobbied for the debate to be held in Atlanta and was said to be directly involved in the talks over the last week that helped seal the deal. She also helped lure the debate to Georgia, with a Sept. 21 letter to Democratic National Committee officials about the capital’s importance.

“With people of color being the cornerstone of the Democratic Party, Atlanta remains set to provide a large portion of votes for our eventual nominee,” she wrote, a reminder that African Americans made up roughly 60% of primary voters in the 2018 vote.

In a statement, Bottoms said she is “proud that Atlanta has been chosen as the next debate site” but declined to comment further.

“Out of respect for the party and the network, it would be inappropriate to speak on a location before they have issued a formal announcement,” she said.

A ‘missed’ opportunity?

The decision was a blow to some who wanted the event held in Sandy Springs to reflect the party’s push to fast-changing suburbs and to showcase U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who represents the area after winning the nationally watched race for Georgia’s 6th District last year.

At one point, Democrats were buzzing about a deal to locate the debate at the 1,070-seat three-level theater at City Springs, a mixed-use development that opened last year. But the suburb’s officials were recently told the site was no longer in the mix.

“I understand this decision, but the DNC missed a great opportunity to energize and recognize the importance of Georgia’s 6th and suburban swing districts like it in Georgia and around the nation,” said Sandy Springs City Councilman Andy Bauman. “City Springs would have been a fabulous venue for this debate.”

Other Democratic officials indicated that Sandy Springs was never a top focus. Dan Halpern, a member of the Democratic National Committee’s executive board, said there was no “strong push” by the national party to hold it in the suburb.

“Everyone is very excited about Tyler Perry Studios,” he added.

More: Things to know about Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta

The location of the venue was so closely watched in part because it’s meant to hold symbolic resonance.

The debate in Houston was held at a historically black college in one of the city’s strongest Democratic bastions. The 12-candidate mashup this month in Ohio was at a small college in the northeast outskirts of Columbus, a reliably GOP area where Democrats recently flipped a sweep of seats.

The scene at Westerville, a town of about 40,000, offered a glimpse of how a debate can transform a community. Hundreds of journalists and politicos converged on the Ohio city, and CNN racked up 15,000 man-hours worth of work to transform a campus gym into a sophisticated TV studio.

The November showdown, the first major political debate in Atlanta since 1992, will feature at least nine candidates and an all-female panel of four moderators. It will also be a two-hour event rather than stretching three hours like the debate last month in Ohio.