(Exclusive) Cathy Woolard Wants to Make a Comeback to Elected Office As Atlanta Mayor


Atlanta Black Star’s editorial staff is conducting a series of interviews with Atlanta mayoral candidates for the upcoming 2017 November election. After interviewing each candidate, we will endorse one based on how their policy ideas will impact our readership.

Cathy Woolard, has been a known entity in Atlanta politics for 20 years. She was first elected to the City Council in 1998. Later, as president of the council from 2002-04, she was one of the architects who helped bring the Beltline into fruition. Still a fierce advocate of the project, while acknowledging its role in gentrification, Woolard supplies a coherent vision of the future needs of Atlanta. A particular concern for Woolard is meeting transportation and housing needs in a city that is expected to experience tremendous growth in the next several years.

One important question that Woolard addresses is why run now after being out of elected office for such a long time. Her challenge is, despite her name recognition, can she convince Atlanta voters that she is relevant for these times. With a solid progressive history in a city that is becoming more expensive to live in, people are searching for alternatives. Will Woolard convince enough people that she is the right fit at the right time? You can find out more at Cathyforatlanta.

Below is an edited version of the interview with mayoral candidate Cathy Woolard held March 22, 2017, at the offices of Atlanta Black Star. [The full transcript is attached.]

Present from Atlanta Black Star: Neil Nelson, co-founder and chairman; Andre Moore, co-founder and chief technology officer at ABS; Cliff Albright, contributing writer; Kamau Franklin, political and social editor.

Neil Nelson: What do you see as the top five issues that voters, readers should think about as they make a decision [on] who to support, who to vote for this fall?

Cathy Woolard: When I got into this election, I thought that community development was the most important thing. And, I’m going to talk about that cause there’s clusters of issues in there. Since that time, we now have a pretty extensive bribery scandal happening at City Hall, which I think voters don’t think a lot about, and I think they should think a lot about it. And I think the third thing, and it’s the cluster of things, is the election of Donald Trump. And what mayor is going to be able to not really, not necessarily, kind of face down Donald Trump, cause that’s not a hard thing to do, right? But, deal with the repercussions of what the policies of the Trump administration are going to hand us at the local level. So, those are the three, sort of, categories of things.

Community development is really, sort of, the net of it all, right? How are we going to triple the size of our city in the next 25 years, and make sure that every part of our city, every individual of our city, sees a place for themselves in here as we do that? As we think about how we grow this city and how the city has grown, you know, people have clustered in neighborhoods that are around schools that work. Right, you see density in Buckhead, you see density in Midtown, you see density in Virginia-Highland, Candler Park, Lake Claire, because the schools function well and everybody’s trying to shoo-in, you know, shoehorn into those neighborhoods, right? So, the next mayor has got to really be thinking about, how do we make sure all the schools work and not have purview over the schools, right? Mayor doesn’t have direct purview, but the mayor’s got to have a relationship with the school system.

And, then, we’ve got to think about how we grow the city together, right? So, if you’re closing Whiteford Elementary School in Edgewood, which is a pretty high-performing school, a small elementary school, pretty high-performing, and that is a neighborhood that’s experiencing great growth in densification, that’s not a recipe for success in terms of how we’re growing our schools, right? The flip side of it is, is we start thinking about how we’re going to have transit and transportation? How we’re going to have housing choices all over the city, you know? I think about a neighborhood like in Southwest Atlanta like Capitol View, Capitol View Manor. The neighborhoods that, like, you know, are along the spine of Metropolitan Parkway, right? Well, Metropolitan Parkway is a place where we should be thinking about building transit and building some densification and some market-rate housing while we do it, thus helping spur, perhaps, some better outcomes for that particular elementary school. See what I’m saying?

So, we got to talk about how we’re going to grow the city and how we’re going to do this in an equitable manner. But, we have to do it in concert with education. … But, I would say the big three categories are community development, but within that: transportation, housing, education, public safety.

And then, the bribery scandal. … If we don’t have ethical government, nobody wins. You know, this is not the first one, it’s not the second one, not the third one. You know? … When people pay $1 million in bribes, and that’s the only part we know about right now, that’s $1 million that’s coming off the top of taxpayer money, right? Nobody gave that out of their bank account. They got a contract that allowed them to return some of it. So, when we think about the pressing problems that we have in neighborhoods and money is going off to people … either for bribes or for deals that are not … right.

And, then, I think within the Trump administration, what I think is really critical, is that when we start thinking about income inequality, when we think about housing choices, the wins that we face in this city, and it’s cities all over the country, are exacerbated by policies that happen at the national and state level. Right? So, we talk about, you know, affordable housing in Atlanta. Well, Atlanta’s not the only city that’s got an affordability problem. We’re late to the game, you know, frankly. And, we’ve got some affordable housing, we’ve just got to figure out how to unleash it.

So, the next mayor has got to figure out how to do the things I said we need to do in terms of growing this city with a president that is, like, digging a hole as fast as he can. If we kick everybody off of health care, you know, we’re turning a lot of people into a very difficult, sick position. I still have to look at them as mayor, right? If somebody’s homeless or we’re not delivering Meals on Wheels to seniors who are living alone in their homes, I still got to find a way to feed them.

Cliff Albright: On the implications of Donald Trump. So, what is your perspective on how to deal with that? Because you’ve got cities whose response is to actively resist … like sanctuary cities saying, “We’re going to keep doing what we do.” And, then, you’ve got the other perspective of, you know, “Nothing I can do about what he does, but we’ll just have to figure out a way to deal with it.” So, where do you stand on that? What solution?

Woolard: So, I’ve been a lobbyist and advocate for social justice my entire career. And, I have been outside the decision-making room and I’ve been inside the decision-making room, and I’ve been at the head of the table of the decision-making room. I’ll tell you that I really like to get things done. I have learned over the years that having people work effectively on the outside’s really good. Right? You need people to raise the issue, to crystallize the issue, to bring attention to the issue, and I can do that as good as anybody. But, where I really think I’m good, is at trying to find solutions that either neutralize bad things or actively defeat bad things. And, there’s somewhat of a difference, qualitatively.

We have a general assembly that, you know, is generally hostile to the things that I care about. I don’t think there’s ever been an issue I’ve worked on at the general assembly where I walked in the door and they were supportive of me. And, we can talk about some of the issues that I’ve worked on. But, just for example, these were religious freedom bills, right? For the last four years, I’ve been one of about two or three lobbyists that have been working on these. And, every step along the way … You haven’t heard about it, ’cause I don’t talk about it, ’cause I don’t need to talk about it. But, I present solutions constantly. Every time they come up with a version, I come back with another version. Every time, you know? Trying to help them have political cover or whatever it needs they need to stop doing it. You know, as a result, you know, they just did it again on Monday on an adoption bill and I fully expect that we’ve now got the Governor in a place where he understands the dangers of doing this, both politically and, you know, to the kids that are going to be impacted.

So, I think we have to be smart enough to play inside the room when there is something to be gained inside the room. And, when we want to have opposition, I play to win. Right? If I’m going to stand up and poke somebody, I’m poking them because I know I’m going to win when I’m done. So as a mayor, if we need to file a lawsuit, if we need to, you know, resist in any particular way, I’m going to do it in the most effective way I can do it. But, I’m not going to do it all day long. Because I still have to get infrastructure money out of this administration. You know, I still want this general assembly to start funding transit operations for MARTA. You know? So, it’s not going to behoove me to be the mayor that’s poking people in the eye all day long. But, believe me, I will resist and I will find the most effective way to do it.

Kamau Franklin: Now, you haven’t held public office for that long, for a little bit over a decade. And, this is going to be your last softball question. Why, now, did you decide to jump back in and run for mayor of Atlanta?

Woolard: Yeah. That’s a great question. So, first of all, let me tell you why I left office so that you can be really clear about that. So, you know the Atlanta Beltline was a project that I worked on for a long time. When I got to be council president, was still working on it, got $23 million in federal funds dedicated to it, helped create the idea of the tax allocation district to fund it, held 90 community meetings to get people to tell us what they wanted on it. I decided that we had reached a point where I could continue on, but it might not happen unless I stepped away from it. You know, because political reality is it’s a mayor’s project, you know? It had reached a point where it needed to be handed off. Out of the blue, Denise Majette decided she was going to resign from Congress with 100 days left. And, it seemed to me that we needed a transit advocate, a transportation advocate in Congress. And, so I decided, with Shirley’s blessing, to resign, to run for Congress, in the hopes that I could be that transportation advocate. And, we’ll talk more about transportation, I’m sure.

I didn’t win and so I just went back to my business. I have a really happy life. I lobby and I advocate for things that I really love and that I’m passionate about and I didn’t think I was ever going to run again. I have done it and I’ve enjoyed it and I’m not somebody that needs to be in the newspaper. I’m not somebody that has to be in office to get political fulfillment because I still do what I do.

I decided to get involved because I felt … like the quality of development along the Beltline, both in terms of the affordability issue, but just the quality, the architectural design, you know, the way we were making connections or not making connections into communities was disturbing to me. And, as I thought more about it and got more concerned about it, I thought that maybe I should step back in. You know, and, to me, the Beltline is transit-oriented development. If you don’t put transit on the Beltline, you don’t have the Beltline in concept. Right? You’ve missed it. And, you’ve oriented density around a sidewalk and that is just not what the game plan was. So, that got me involved.

And, then I started thinking about, “Well, what would it be like to mayor now?” You know, if I got to be mayor now? Besides very clearly addressing these issues with the Beltline, getting transit going, which are big in and of themselves, the issue that crystallized the most for me was that we’re No. 1 or No. 2 in income inequality on any given day. And that kinda leads me back to this thing about community development, right? That we have left some communities behind. We have almost destroyed some communities by over-building and doing, making … not making decisions that have led to, you know multiple high-rises and nowhere to go, you know, things like that. And, so I really felt like, the combination of the experience that I’ve had working on social justice issues and the experience I have had on, you know, working on infrastructure in a very detailed way … I really felt like I had something that I could offer here. And there’s no huge solution. Like, I can’t snap my fingers and end income inequality. But, I do know how to work in partnership with people to develop communities. And, I’m really interested in that. And, that’s my reason for running.

Franklin: In terms of the gentrification and the Beltline, in some people’s opinions, [it’s] a driving force. What would you as mayor like to do that changes that situation, even as a proponent of the Beltline?

Woolard: So, I want to, first of all, say a couple things. One is, I do think that the Beltline and coming out of this recession, you know, has exacerbated housing costs. But, I also want to make it really clear that this confluence of federal and state policies — you know, frankly traffic driving people intown because they don’t want to sit in traffic anymore. You know, it’s sort of a perfect storm. And, I’m not trying to be an apologist for the Beltline, but I just think it’s really important to not place the blame all on an infrastructure project that has generated great excitement, that has not even had enough time to do more than just a little bit. Right? So, I think there’s that.

Secondly, for the better part of the last decade, we have not had a Planning Department that has had strong leadership. And, we had a mayor that [does not] seem particularly interested in how we grow as a city. And, I don’t actually say that as an indictment. I don’t say that really to single him out. Every mayor has their own strengths. But, this is not one where he seems to be particularly interested. And that’s okay. Next mayor needs to be interested.

Developers have been allowed to build in Buckhead, in Midtown, and along the Beltline with really no guidance from the city as to what we want. And, as a result, we really created a bit of a mess. So, I think that that’s important to say. The next mayor has got to, you know, unleash what I think is a stronger Planning Department and make the Planning Department even stronger, to be very, very specific about what we want and where we want it to make sure that it gets done, and then direct the incentives that we use to make sure that happens. I mean, we have given incentives and Fulton County has given incentives … Developers in Midtown, they were developing luxury apartments. Why on Earth would we do that? I mean paying someone to develop market-rate apartments in Midtown is just ludicrous. I, you know, maybe somebody could convince me we need to do it, but nobody’s tried. So, there’s that.

If we say we need more affordable housing, then we’re shooting in a very narrow lane. We need housing for homeless people, we need housing for kids just out of school, we need housing for people in pretty tough income brackets, and we need to make sure that seniors can afford to age in place and live in this city really no matter what their income is, right? You know, because Social Security at anybody’s level is not going to keep up with where taxes are and things like that.

So, we’re going to have to be very creative about that and we really need to think through … In the next 25 years, if we’re going to triple in size, where are we going to do it? And how do we accommodate these ranges of people and incomes and situations that are not folks who can kinda, like, take care of themselves and figure it out, buy a single-family home and they’ll work their way in, right? So, we’ve got to figure out, what do we need to deal with all those things and then how do we scatter them? … Who needs them, right? Buckhead needs more workforce housing because they just flat don’t have it and they need a lot of workers. You know, we’ve got to figure out, how do we get homeless people, you know, into homes and into places where they’re near the services that they need? So, I think the next mayor has to kinda scope that out.

Albright: But, there’s an elephant in the room, right? Particularly around affordable housing. There were reasons why people were building and getting incentives to build, you know, luxury apartments on the North side. And there were reasons why developers, as well as community members, don’t want affordable housing on the North side. And our politicians are generally responsive to those power dynamics. So, it’s the elephant in the room, right? So, some of the ideas that you’ve talked about are good ideas. But, any one of those that deal with where affordable housing is located?

Woolard: So, I have not heard that people in Buckhead and on the North side don’t want affordable housing. In fact, I have heard the opposite. I mean I sat at the BUCKHEAD REdeFINED meeting about three weeks ago, and they said, I think 40 percent of the people who work in Buckhead make less than $44,000 a year. They are highly cognizant, people who run hotels, people who run office buildings, people who run restaurants, that they can’t get their workers there. You know? I mean they can’t. Because, hell. You know, those streets are so clogged with traffic. If you’re riding a bus, I don’t know how you ever think you’re ever going to get there on time. It’s got to take you three hours even if you’re in the city limits, you know? You can get there by MARTA, maybe. So they … People in Buckhead recognize that there is a real problem.

But, I think that people want to see it and I think people are willing to work creatively with it.The same thing on the Northeast side. I go to meetings and people say, “How are we going to make things more affordable?” You know, when I came out of college, back to Atlanta, you know, everybody my age, like lived in Candler Park and Virginia-Highlands because you had tons of 8-plexes and they were cheap, you know? And you could do that. And we’re losing that stock. So, I don’t know if I agree with you that there’s that elephant in the room. Now, any particular given project may send people off. But, I want to say that I think that people are much more open to it. We’ve just got to be able to figure out how best to deliver it.

Andre Moore: One follow-up on the gentrification. There are racial implications to the development that’s taken place. Where a lot of residents in Atlanta feel as if there’s this … There’s a top-level [effort] to push them out of the City of Atlanta. What is your perspective on that in terms of assuring African-American Atlanta residents that you would work against these moves that do push them out, whether intentionally or unintentionally, but — as Cliff alluded to — it’s seen as an intentional move?

Woolard: Yeah. Well, I can understand why people would think that. You know, it is an income issue. And income relates very directly to race in America. And very directly, you know, in this city, in some neighborhoods. And, so that’s the places that we have to look, really closely to figure out, you know … How do we make sure people have places to be when change comes? Cause the answer is not “Don’t have change.” You know, we’re an incredibly segregated city and we’re segregated by race and we’re segregated by income within that. Right? And that hasn’t served anybody well.

Nelson: We’re saying that, I don’t buy the idea that you can’t do development except for gentrification, which is you bring in wealthy people to take the land that was being used by poor people. That can’t be the only model.

Woolard: No, it can’t be, So, no, I don’t really disagree with you. What I want to say is, let’s just not use terms that get very diffused, right? So, let’s talk about, how do we address poverty in Atlanta, Ga., against the trends that are causing the suburbanization of poverty around the country, right? That’s where I’m much more comfortable.

So, again, it kinda goes back to this issue that I started with, which was community development. How are we going to develop communities that haven’t seen development? We’ll leave the ones that have seen it off the table for a minute, ’cause that’s just a whole other thing. So, you know, how do we grow the city? ‘Cause the city’s going to grow. If we triple in size in 25 years, it is going to grow. And, so, with some intentionality, we’ve got to figure out how do we let the people that are here stay here and accommodate new people that aren’t, you know, high-income? Because we need them here. Right?

And so, with that, I think what you do is, again, you create a pretty detailed plan about what you have, who you have. Like, who you have and what assets you have that are, you know, that help provide housing. Housing in particular, right? But, transit. too, because housing and transportation are so closely aligned, particularly in this city, this car city we have. That we’ve got to figure out a way that we can house people and let them have transportation options and not have to own cars. Right? So, I think that that’s how we create a growth plan for the city and we figure out how many people we have. What’s really interesting about Atlanta is we only have about a half a million people. If you look at English Avenue and Vine City, you really only have a couple of thousand, you know, like, owner-occupied homes. Right?

And, so you need to think about, like, “Well, what do we need to do to make sure those folks keep in their homes if they want to in light of inevitable rising taxes?” Right? Or just the fact that they may not have the money to put a roof back on it and then they start running the risk of losing their home. And we can survey … You know, one of the things I think people do is they throw a lot of money over the top of stuff. I mean, we know of foundations in this city that have been working in neighborhoods for decades and spent millions of dollars, and they’re not different. When, maybe, if you gave people a paycheck for 30 years, it might be different. You know? And, so we need to think about solutions that are very, very specific to people. That’s my approach to it.

Nelson: I think that racism as a cultural construct is missing from our previous dialogue for the last hour about what are the tools that can be used to fix that problem. ‘Cause we’ll be talking about policy, which are good, I think, to fix these problems. We’re talking about capital, which is also good. But, if people are being motivated by some other nonmaterial variables, we have to also think about how does a mayor address those nonmaterial, cultural variables in rectifying poverty, housing, transportation, in what Cliff was talking about, why some people would be disagreeable to fixing problems for other people while those folks can fix for themselves. So, it’s okay that we get … Again, the Beltline, not to pick on the Beltline. It’s okay that we get the Beltline, which I love, by the way. I ride it on a weekly basis. Okay that we get the Beltline and better housing and these stores and transportation, and all these things. And schools. Absolutely. But, these other people who are culturally different, distinct racially and other ways, I don’t know if our tax dollars should go into paying for those things for them.

Woolard: You need a mayor to be able to say, “Look, you’re going to pay for people’s health care. whether you have Obamacare or not.” Right? You know, you’re going to pay for it straight up at Grady every single day or you’re going to help people have a way to participate in making themselves healthier by helping them get insurance and I think you have to be willing to talk about it and I think the really interesting thing about where we are as a society right this minute … You know, frankly because of Black Lives Matter, but because of the shootings-That have caused the conversation. That have elevated lots of other parts of the conversation is. It is like a conversation that, like, we decided 30 years ago … And Atlanta’s the worst, right? We decided when we were ending segregation that the way things were going to happen is the business leaders were going to get together, in a room, and figure out, like, “How are we going to sorta fix this and divide up the pie? And then we’re going to kinda go back to our sides and have a good time.” Right? And I really don’t mean that to be disrespectful, I really don’t. You do things in a moment of time and it worked, right? I mean it helped, you know? It helped. But we’re in a different moment in time and it can’t be left up to a few people, sort of at the top, to decide what’s right. Now, it really needs to be the community coming together in a dialogue that says, “Look” you know, “We have a problem with juvenile justice.” You know … And you can do it down to numbers. Right? If you don’t care about people that cost $90,000 a year to house a kid in a prison, you know, vs. less than 10 to deal with him in a program that’s home-based. You know? Or, hell, send him to school …

Nelson: Okay. Final question. We ask everyone the same question. This final question is as I mentioned earlier, in the [metro area of Atlanta, our readership] is about 300,000 each month. So, what do you say to them and why they should vote for you in particular as opposed to other candidates that are out there?

Woolard: I think they should vote for me because I sort of have the great privilege of being an insider outsider, right? I’ve served at City Hall, so I understand how City Hall works. And, I have accomplished a lot in the short period of time that I was there, and I will talk to you about that in a minute. The flipside of it is, I am not so enthralled with the idea of being in public office that I have felt like I have had to run for everything that was out there. I want to be the mayor because I want to do the things we talked about, right? I want to focus on community development. I want to make sure that we clean up City Hall, once and for all. You know, and that we figure out how we both combat and extract the best possible results from this administration that’s scaring the heck out of all of us.

Just a couple things that I did at City Hall that are of interest. The Beltline, obviously, is one of them. I also passed the only comprehensive civil rights bill in the state of Georgia. The state of Georgia doesn’t have a civil rights bill. We’re one of three states in America that don’t. I passed one 15 years ago that covers housing, employment and public accommodations for everyone, including sexual orientation and gender identity. But, it has served us well in these recent RFRA fights, but it also has not been challenged. Right. This general assembly — and you know this — they could’ve preempted that. I didn’t particularly want you to print that cause I don’t want to invite it. But, they haven’t because they understand that it was the right thing to do. They’re not ready to do it, but we needed it because both to say who we are and also provide protection for people who had absolutely none.

And I have worked on social justice issues. I worked on LGBT issues, I’ve worked in Florida to try to repeal the Stand Your Ground laws, I’ve worked for transportation policy, I’ve worked on environmental issues, I’ve worked for CARE, combating global poverty, at the executive level. … I have devoted my life to seeking justice and making policies happen that do that. And I don’t feel a need all through my career to make sure everybody was noticing I was doing it, but I never missed a beat. I did it the whole time. I was a Peace Corps volunteer after college, you know, and I’ve done it up until this day, today down at the Capitol, making sure that stupid RFRA bill doesn’t fight.

And, so I think that, for your readership, if you want to think about what a fresh voice is, you should look at what I’ve done, both in my private career and at what I did in the six or seven years I was on council. Pretty damn major stuff. And, you know, women aren’t supposed to do that, right? We’re not supposed to brag about what we do, but I am now, not as bragging but to say, “I helped make a very complicated project get done that most civic leaders didn’t want to have happen.” There are so many things that are way easier than that that we can accomplish in this city if we have focus and we engage everybody in the city in helping find the solutions, and then get about it. And, so that’s why I want to be mayor. Thank you.

Nelson: Thank you.

Woolard: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. I’ve enjoyed this.

Comments: Get Heard