Room at the top

Four very different hopefuls eye City Council president's job

Five million bucks is going to buy tons of sound and plenty of fury. So chances are, by November, you're not going to be able to ignore Atlanta's mayoral race no matter how hard you try. Shirley Clarke Franklin, Robb Pitts and Gloria Bromell-Tinubu — Atlanta's top three candidates for mayor — will seem like your kid brother pulling at your pants leg.

But there's another race shaping up that may prove even more intriguing, if quieter, than the mayoral battle. Four formidable candidates are squaring off on a smaller stage: Atlanta City Councilmembers Michael Bond, Julia Emmons, "Able" Mable Thomas and Cathy Woolard have all declared their intent to run for Council president.

So you've got three candidates who've run as reformers and a relatively mild-mannered fourth (Bond) with a pedigreed past. At the outset, the race seems better suited for de Tocqueville's living room than Atlanta streets — a refreshing change considering how down and dirty politics has been in City Hall for the last, well, 30 years.

But if you ask Atlanta politicos who will leap from this group to light a fire under city voters, you get ifs and buts instead of names.

While the position doesn't generate newspaper ink the way the mayor can, the $37,885-per-year gig is the city's top legislative spot. The council prez appoints committee members, shapes the debate on the Council and casts the deciding vote in the case of a tie. He or she can also set the tone for council relations with the mayor (a decidedly off-key tone during the tenure of the last two presidents).

Each of the four hopefuls is also possessed of a distinctive style.

There's Bond, 35, son of famed civil rights activist Julian Bond, who has obvious ties to the city's black political aristocracy even though his personal background is more blue-collar than blue-blooded. Bond, a former corrections officer, represents District 3, one of the city's poorest sections.

Woolard, 44, a public policy consultant, is Atlanta's first openly gay city councilwoman; she represents District 6, which includes some of the city's most affluent and fast-growing neighborhoods. So far, she's the top money raiser in the president's race.

Thomas, 43, who currently holds citywide Post 1, is a forceful former state representative who took her longtime campaign slogan and officially added it to her name. She bills herself as a populist, someone who wants to change the rules so running doesn't take the kind of money Woolard and the others must raise to win an election.

Then there's the deliberate, articulate Emmons, 59, who has a Ph.D. in history and entered local politics after building a name as the woman behind Atlanta's Peachtree Road Race. She currently holds Post 2.

"It should be something," says Clark Atlanta University political science professor William Boone. "There's the juxtaposition of a lot of different styles and approaches. Contrast Able Mable versus Councilwoman Emmons' style. Emmons is more of a behind-the-scenes kind of person while Able Mable is up-front and aggressive."

Not surprisingly, the candidates see eye-to-eye on many non-controversial issues: more cops on the street with better pay and benefits, affordable housing, dependable services and so on. But they differ on how to solve some of those problems.

Take affordable housing, for instance.

The Atlanta Development Authority made headlines two weeks ago by adding an 11th hour restriction to a Houston developer's plan to build a $44 million apartment high rise near Centennial Olympic Park, a tax-break-friendly area of the city. But when the ADA demanded that the developer, Hanover Co., set aside 15 percent of the units for low- and moderate-income housing renters, Hanover pulled out.

Bond thinks the ADA was right. "It should be understood that if you're getting something, the city should get something in return," Bond says. Still, he says, the ADA should have given the developer a heads-up much earlier.

Woolard agrees. "We're still experimenting as a city in finding a balance in the demands we can make, and it's going to be a while before we get it right," she says.

Emmons, however, thinks the ADA simply doomed the project. Atlanta badly needs the tax money such developments create, she argues, and every project — especially one at a prestige address — can't be held to the same standard.

Still, she says, the city must work to protect the most vulnerable of its citizens. What has been so difficult about gentrification is its speed.

"My point is that you can't let rapid change happen in such a way that it engenders the kind of fears we felt in that room last week," Emmons says, recalling a racially-charged redistricting meeting April 30.

Thomas, who sponsored a gentrification task force, says density bonuses — basically letting developers build more units if they agree to offer some of them to lower- and middle-income tenants — is one way to go.

But race is the undercurrent to the gentrification issue, Thomas says, and sponsoring a forum for black and white Atlantans to talk to one another would be a way to head off nasty outbursts like the ones that ripped through a recent meeting over council redistricting.

Regarded as a tough-minded councilwoman and part of what she terms "the loyal opposition" to Mayor Bill Campbell, Woolard has been energetically raising money for the November election. By the end of March, the last disclosure date, Woolard had raked in $114,377. She, like the others, is thinking it's going to take about $300,000 to get her message out.

Woolard notes that 68 percent of her war chest came in donations of $100 or less, citing it as proof that she can run a campaign at the grassroots level. "It's a one-on-one proposition," Woolard says. "I see us pulling voters from all over the city."

Woolard's biggest challenge, however, may be in convincing Atlanta's influential black preachers — a generally conservative lot — to embrace a gay candidate for council president. Woolard is running on her record, not her sexuality, but that record includes vigorously pushing for sexual orientation to be added to the list of things Atlanta employers can't consider when hiring someone. That plays well in District 6's Midtown, part of Woolard's cozy nest, but how will it play in southwest Atlanta?

Boone says the jury is out. "Americans are generally conservative," he says. "If black preachers have shown a reluctance to embrace gays, so have white."

Woolard says she doesn't think anyone else on council can claim her level of legislative activity, which includes working for tax equity for Atlanta in DeKalb and infrastructure repair.

Bond likes to point to his record, too, particularly the volume of bills he has introduced and passed.

Bond also benefits from his name. But he initially sought a lower-profile lifestyle, deciding to drop out of college, get married and go to work. When he ran for City Council in 1993, Bond was supporting himself on a jail guard's salary; now divorced, he is still working his way toward a degree.

"My biggest job is just getting my record out there," Bond says. That very record may also work against him: As Woolard notes, he might have introduced more successful legislation than other members, but much of it was at the behest of Mayor Campbell.

"The perception is that Bond is tied closely to Campbell," Boone says. That's a good thing in southwest Atlanta or in neighborhoods like Kirkwood, for example. But if you're courting Atlanta's business community — or the bulk of Atlanta's northside, for that matter — this is not a good time to be perceived as a Friend of Bill. Bond is going to have to prove he can stand on his own even as he attempts to ride on the mayor's diminished coat-tails in those areas where Campbell is still popular.

During the 1997 campaign for District 2, Emmons, 59, benefited from a scandal-plagued opponent who enjoyed little public support. This time around, she's on her own. Even so, she's already raised $64,300, of which 83 percent came in donations of $101 or more.

In the last election, Emmons says she spent her Saturdays walking door-to-door and, like Thomas, she has experience running a citywide race.

"I carried every district I walked," Emmons says. But she might have to invest in a few more shoes to raise her profile beyond those of Bond and Woolard. She admits she has work to do in southwest Atlanta, but her campaign manager has worked on a number of successful campaigns in Atlanta's majority black districts.

Thomas, a husky-voiced iconoclast, has much the same problem, Boone says, albeit in a different part of the city. She's well-known on the westside, where her legislative district included Bond's District 3, and she performed well in her 1997 bid for the Post 1 council seat in majority-white Districts 7 and 8. But she's not a household name north of Interstate 20.

Even so, Thomas has proven herself a fighter. In 1984, at the age of 25, she beat Grace Towns Hamilton, the first black woman elected to Georgia's state Legislature. She served eight years before dropping out in 1992, to make an ill-advised run for U.S. Rep. John Lewis' seat. Thomas got stomped.

Ironically, it was Thomas who broke ranks with Atlanta's black political establishment in 1986 and supported Lewis in a divisive congressional race against Bond's father. Lewis won.

Thomas thinks she'll be able to raise as much money as the other candidates, but she isn't happy about having to seek it. In any case, she says, an established group of volunteers and a familiarity with grassroots campaigning may free her campaign from relying on cash.

"Even in a race that is citywide, I don't need as much money," Thomas says. "Because of my volunteers, my cost is not as prohibitive."??