October 11, 2017 12:00 PM
The race for Atlanta city hall is extremely crowded. Most of the seats including mayor, city council president, and most of the council seats are full of multiple candidates in each race. The mailboxes and voicemails of Atlanta residents are full of flyers and robocalls describing why each candidate is better than another. In this crowded field it is hard to see anyone stick out. The mayoral election opened several council seats for political new comers interested in running for office. Yet, unlike many previous elections, this year both open seats and incumbents have real battles underway.
The availability of open seats is what makes some city council races stand out this election. In council district 3, Greg Clay, the perceived front runner, is attempting to unseat councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr. Atlanta school board chair Courtney English is running for the city council post-1 seat at-large to unseat Michael Julian Bond. Both Clay and English are two young professionals with varied political experience that represent the next generation of leaders. Clay has worked in high positions throughout five municipalities giving him a detailed understanding of municipal governance. English gained his political experience as the youngest chairman of the Atlanta school board after working as a teacher in the Atlanta school system. Both Clay and English have stepped up to do what many people consider the impossible, taking the torch from an incumbent with name recognition. The district 4 city council seat also has ten candidates and potential “torch takers” all fighting to snatch the torch from long-term incumbent, Cleta Winslow.
Despite their political experience, both English and Clay refused to wait for the torch to be passed. However, the name recognition and years of experience of their incumbent opponents would make many political consultants claim this is an impossible task. If they are successful, both Clay and English would officially lead the pack of young professionals anxious to change the course of politics in the City of Atlanta. If they win, English and Clay will officially become “torch takers.” When incumbent candidates have held on too long and fail to pass the torch it requires a candidate with real political know how and guts to snatch the torch out of their cold stiff hands.
The traditional wisdom for people interested in public office is to run in open seats because most candidates are not willing to put up their time, resources, and effort for what some perceive is an impossible win. Surprisingly, both potential torch takers are beating all expectations by running grassroots campaigns that focus on the issues and getting voters to the polls. Committee for a Better Atlanta recently released scores that put both Clay and English far ahead of their experienced opponents. The heat of the torch takers on the tail of the incumbents is causing friction. For example, a recent Georgia Stand Up forum showed the experienced Michael Julian Bond completely losing his cool and acting unprofessional when faced with criticism by his opponent English. The friction may be indication that Bond realizes he is in jeopardy of losing his seat.
Atlanta is a city that values political royalty. Therefore, the incumbents’ questionably large donations from companies that have contracts with the city may not cause a regular voter, overwhelmed by the large number of candidates, to look past the “I” next to an incumbents name. The power of incumbency is so strong, that once elected, even with major scandals, questionable donations, or ethics problems, incumbent officials stay indefinitely. To change the course of stale politics, where incumbents focus on looking backward rather than towards the future, there must be people willing to walk up in a bold manner and literally snatch the torch at the voting booths.
Incumbents often take these challenges as a personal affront. An incumbent may have done an excellent job while in office yet still have exceeded their effectiveness. If the torch takers win, it may be a sign of changing times in the City of Atlanta and beyond. Following the November 2016 election, people want to “drain the swamps” at all levels. If they win we may see more people willing to step up boldly and challenge incumbents, rather than waiting for their turn. Which for many voters would be well welcomed!