(Exclusive) Vincent Fort: Can a True Progressive Backed by Bernie Sanders Win the Atlanta Mayoral Race?

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

State Senator Vincent Fort has been the most progressive and outspoken city/state elected official for some time in Georgia. While holding elected office, he has taken part in many a protest (even being arrested on Capital grounds) and has a true grassroots following. He also has been labeled a bomb-thrower by the media that in normal times could potentially push middle-of-the-road voters away. These are not normal times.

Being perceived as “careful,” “moderated” and “middle of the road” for a politician today is akin to not standing for anything, as both right and left insurgencies make their mark in pushing the two dominant parties away from consensus-building politics. In this national environment, Fort has cobbled together support and endorsements from varied corners in the Democratic party from the last Democratic governor in Georgia (Roy Barnes) to the almost-presidential Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders. For Fort, the question is: Can he continue the run of recent progressive victories by mayoral candidates in Newark, Jackson and New York City by focusing on a platform of income inequality and gentrification? For more information on the candidate, visit Vincent Fort.

Below is an edited version of the interview with mayoral candidate Vincent Fort held March 29, 2017, at the offices of Atlanta Black Star. [The full transcript is attached.]

Present from Atlanta Black Star: Neil Nelson, co-founder and chairman; Tanasia Kenney, staff writer; Kamau Franklin, political and social editor. (Franklin was Chief of Staff for Fort during the 2014 Georgia State Legislative session.)

Neil Nelson: As you look at this city, you look at the issues, the last 10, 15 years and the next 25, 30 years, what are the top-five issues that you think voters should be thinking about as they pick a choice on who they should be the next mayor of Atlanta.

Vincent Fort: There’s an overarching issue in the city of Atlanta from which all others relate to and flow from, and that is the issue of income inequality. That is the central issue of our time. If we don’t deal with that issue, we’re going to have a problem or we’re going to have a larger problem in the city. What do I mean by that? Atlanta is No. 1 in income inequality, and not only income inequality but income immobility. Atlanta has a certain economic and social history, but the reality is, in the present day, Atlanta has the greatest gap between rich and poor of any place in the country.

What flows from that is income immobility. That is a child born in Grady Hospital this afternoon has less chance of moving into the middle class than anyplace else in this country. That’s the reality of Atlanta for too many people. Unless we deal with that issue and all the impacts that it has, we aren’t going to be the city that we want to be.

In order to deal with that, we’re going to have to have a practical but visionary approach to how we change this city. We’re going to have to have ideas to how we do housing in this city and deal with affordable housing. We’re going to have to have an idea as to how we do education, how we do job training, how we do public safety and all those other things that are important to a city.

My intent running for mayor is to make Atlanta work for everybody, to make City Hall work for everybody. I believe that Atlanta City Hall increasingly works for the wealthy, that Atlanta City Hall increasingly works for billionaires and big shots. It’s the richest guy in the room that makes the decisions ultimately. That runs counter to the way I approach governance. That question of income inequality is a central question and it relates to how decisions are being made at City Hall.

The question then is what are the programs, what is the programmatic approach we’re going to take? But, I just want to emphasize one thing. The programmatic approach is the technical approaches, and all that is all well and good. But, what is central if we’re going to make Atlanta work for everybody is leadership. I don’t think we have a lack of technical skills. I don’t think we have a lack of resources. We have a lack of what? Leadership.

That is what I’m going to bring to the table. I make no bones about it. I’m a thorough progressive. I come to this with a set of ideas and ideals that I want to implement. I just want to give that to you as an introductory information. I hope that spoke to your question, but I can get into the specifics of housing, education, job training, and public safety if you’d like, at this point.

When it comes to affordable housing, the reason for which, take into account what I’ve said, if one issue was absent, I would not be running, and that is the issue of how do we stabilize and revitalize our neighborhoods.

Let me tell you this. If we don’t answer this question about neighborhood revitalization, neighborhood stabilization and affordable housing, if we don’t answer that question between now and November, if we don’t elect the right person to answer those questions, I fear that Atlanta’s neighborhoods will decline to the extent that we will not be able to really put together a credible program of revitalizing, of bringing them back. Ten years ago, 25 percent of Atlanta neighborhoods were considered gentrified. Now, the stats are over 70 percent of neighborhoods are gentrified.

Neighborhood stabilization, revitalization, we’ve got to first of all take care of our senior-citizens homeowners. We’ve got to have a program. We’ve done a great deal, to be honest with you, on homestead exemptions and increasing homestead exemptions for poor seniors, for seniors of limited income. We’ve got to look at that and see if we can do more. Property tax abatement, we have to look into that and try to do some creative, out-of-the-box kind of thing on making sure that senior citizens can age in place. Because subprime predatory lending is having a comeback, we have to make sure we protect seniors.

We need to have a real working definition of affordability. We need to put the resources in the pot. Here comes leadership again. If we can find a way to enrich billionaires to the tune of $500 million for two stadiums, we can do what? We can find the will to find the money to put in affordable housing.

Kamau Franklin: You’re probably viewed as an activist and/or even within your party as somewhat of an outsider, and you being one of the few, if only, Atlanta/Georgia politicians to endorse Bernie Sanders as opposed to Hillary Clinton. With that they try to say that you therefore can’t be taken seriously when it comes to governing. How do you counter those arguments? What do you say to people who see you as someone who’s on the front lines and want to be more secure with you as a possible choice for mayor?

Fort: One, we tell the entire story. When you’re out doing things, when you’re out being a part of efforts to change things, you’re moving forward. You’re not worried about telling the story, because you’re too busy, what? Getting things done. What I would tell them is that they don’t know the full story. The fact of the matter is that I have done practical, hands-on things that I don’t discuss much, and I don’t discuss them for a reason. When you talk about money, you get in the state budget, one thing, when you start talking about it, that’s when people start doing what? Looking at you, what you doing. There’s no one who has gotten more money in the budget in the last 10 years in terms of Atlanta legislatures than I have. No one.

In 2003, the Department of Technical and Adult Education had a list of one through 10 projects, priority projects. The budget really starts in the Governor’s office, then it goes to the House. When that budget hit the floor, they had funded one through four and six through 10. Guess what number five was? A health science building at Atlanta Technical College. They skipped over that one but funded all nine others.

Came over to the Senate. Some folks told me to sit down, be quiet, wait until next year. I said, “No. Where I come from, nothing beat a failure but a try.” The young people in Atlanta that Atlanta Technical College works with had as much right to a new health science building as Cobb or Gwinnett. I fussed, but I mostly hugged and patted backs and got that $50 million in the budget. When other people told me to sit down and be quiet, I got $50 million in the budget.

When you go home, when you take 75, 85 home tonight and you look to your right, that nice modern building is the health science building that I got the money in the budget for, so our children don’t have to go to Tech or Gwinnett or Rockdale. They can go right over there on Metropolitan Parkway, get their little radiology certificate, get their associate degree in medical whatever, being a medical assistant, dental hygienist, job, career, raise a family, take care of themselves.

I’ve gotten another $40 million in the budget that would not have been there except for my leadership. It’s probably somewhere between $45, $50 million with the buildings. We don’t just build buildings. We know that buildings are important for what? If you have a modern building with labs and that kind of thing, you can do what? Offer more courses, better curricula, and so children can do what? Have more programs to benefit from. That’s what I’ve done. I’ll put my record up against anybody.

Tanasia Kenney: In 1990, the City of Atlanta was around 67 percent African-American and now, it’s close to 50. What policies do you plan to put in place to incentivize the reversal of the trend and bring Black people back to the city?

Fort: To a certain extent I’ve already talked about that. The affordable housing that I’m taking has to include an attractiveness to African-Americans, particularly African-American millennials. I talk to millennials and ask, “Why are you living in Clayton County?” It’s affordability. It’s an affordability issue. One of the things that we are going to have to do is make sure that the city’s apparatus is designed to provide the resources to assist people in moving into the City of Atlanta.

Invest Atlanta, which is a city entity, and the state of Georgia and DCA have programs, down-payment assistance, etc., down payment assistance, low-interest loans, etc. That has to be expanded, but people have to be educated on it. I’m thinking through, even as we speak, how do we do that? We need, one, more resources to do it. Then, two, we need to educate young people that these resources are available.

Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, emphasizes mega-projects, big deals. I was on the board of the previous iteration. Maynard Jackson appointed me to the Atlanta Economic Development Corporation, which was a predecessor to Invest Atlanta. I think we need to reorient Invest Atlanta to do the kinds of things necessary to attract young people and others to the city of Atlanta. The affordable housing would be that attraction. That’s, I think. a critical part of this.

I am always dismayed when I meet not just young people, but even baby boomers, and they say they live outside the city, and I say, “Why don’t you move in?” They say, “We can’t afford this idea that millennials, all millennials can move into the city limits.” Prices are a barrier.

Also, I think that more millennials need to be aware of all the neighborhoods. People want to move into Old Fourth Ward, they want to move into East Atlanta, but there are neighborhoods … Adams Park, for example, is a neighborhood if I was a millennial coming into Atlanta, that’s a neighborhood that I would really look at.

Those are some of the things that are going to be necessary. Atlanta, I fear that some of us as African-Americans believe that the best way to advance is to move out of the city. I think we need a leadership that provides an alternative.

Kenney: You’ve recently spoke about decriminalizing marijuana. I assume you believe that police are targeting certain communities, African-American communities, unfairly. Can you speak about the relationship between the police now and the Black community? If you think there are problems with this relationship, do you have any major initiatives to a direction?

Fort: On the decriminalization of marijuana, I have spoken to officers, officers with stripes, who say, “We don’t stop folk in Buckhead and make them eat the concrete and call the drug dog. We only do it in one part of town.” It’s common knowledge. In Fulton County, 93 percent of the arrests for marijuana use are what? African American. In the numbers that I just saw for a section of Midtown and Downtown, 97 percent African-American, mostly what? Young African American males. We know what’s going on in this city. That’s why I’ve advocated for the decriminalization of marijuana for recreational use for small amounts, because we know that that arrest is a barrier to what? Barrier to jobs, barrier to financial aid, etc.

That’s just a part of a larger idea that I have. It’s not original. I stole it. I will tell you — I stole it. I’ve met with activists who are talking about doing a pilot program on essentially decriminalizing quality-of-life violations. They presented it to me and I was very clear to them: “I’m going to steal your idea and drop it into my campaign.”

It’s a pilot program, Midtown, Downtown, where quality-of-life violations, panhandling and other kind of violations, instead you’d get a small fine or maybe have to do a drug program or something, as opposed to what? Fingerprinted, picture taken and arrest record. If you’re mentally ill, if your violation is based on emotional illness, you will be sent to services. If that pilot program works, if I’m mayor, I’m going to make sure it’s implemented. If it isn’t being implemented by the time I’m elected, it will be implemented in January of 2018. If it works, we take it citywide. On misdemeanor-level crimes, we’d have a whole different way of doing law enforcement in this city.

To speak directly to your question, the resources that are saved there because you need fewer prosecutors, fewer cells, if you do that kind of pilot program, and if you apply it citywide, it becomes even more savings. I’d rather shift those resources to other things. I’d shift those resources to things that the city needs, whether it be after-school programs or etc., and put money where it’s needed.

Generally, we’re told — and on January 18, we’ll look at the numbers — we’re told that crime is down. The fact of the matter is murders are up in the city of Atlanta 40 percent since 2009, 33 percent since 2013. Gang activity is up. City Hall doesn’t want to talk about it. Business community doesn’t want to talk about it because it’s bad for business. I’m going to talk about it. We’ve got to do something about that gang problem that we have in this city.

I have some ideas about sitting down the gang-bangers, leadership and talking with them about how we’re going to approach things, that in the City of Atlanta, you got to stop gang-banging, especially if you hurt people or use a gun. I’m going to be actively looking to be in the courtroom making sure you go away. That’s just where I am. If you hurt someone or if you use a gun, when you are brought into court, I’m going to be there in the front row asking the judge during sentencing to keep you away.

Now, if you want a job, if you want an opportunity, if you want training, I’ll do whatever I can. If you need a GED, if you need to go to Atlanta Technical College and get you a skill, I’m your guy. I’m going to do that, but we are going to deal with the gang problem. Ten years ago, it was wannabes. There were gangs that were recruiting and setting up, from what I understand. They’re not only recruiting, setting up new chapters here in the Atlanta area, if not in the city of Atlanta.

The police, we’re going to pay them more, we’re going to ask them to do more. Pay them more, but we’re going to ask you to be a part of a community policing initiative, real community policing, pay you more. There’s a mechanism to pay folk more. I know what that mechanism is. I’m going to put it in place beginning January of ’18. We’re going to ask them to do more community policing.

The murder rate concerns me greatly. That concerns me greatly because starting in the early ’90s, using the Boston model to deemphasize gun suppression, murders had gone down in Atlanta. The increase of that extent over the last few years is very, very troubling. Murders, gun violence and gangs would be an emphasis, putting resources into that, as opposed to prosecuting a 18-year-old for having a joint in his pocket.

Nelson: One of the things that Atlanta is known for is this idea of a Black mecca. Part of that is business and opportunities, at least for certain level of Black folk, professional and so forth. How would your administration invest to attract small business opportunities, particularly for Black business in Atlanta?

Fort: I mentioned Invest Atlanta before. When I was on the board of AEDC, and afterwards, there was, it still remains, a program that does small-business loans. I’m familiar with it because I’ve had friends who did contract compliance on these small-business loans. My history with it, or observation, is that it was fairly successful. For example, Barber College on Cleveland Avenue, who got a small business loan from AEDC and expanded his place, does barber supplies, educates brothers on the other side, cutting hair and whatnot, and it’s still their profile. One of my friends did contract compliance on that. I met with a group of small-business women last week over in Castlebury Hills, and they told me some of the trials and tribulations they were having getting those loans, even very, very small loans.

I think what has happened with Invest Atlanta is, once again, it emphasizes big deals and mega projects as opposed to doing the kinds of small-business loans and grants that people need. I talked about reorienting Invest Atlanta in terms of doing affordable housing, reorient it and emphasize doing those loans for small businesses, many of whom are African-American- and women-owned businesses. I’d also want to strengthen the city’s Minority Businesses Enterprise program.

When I was at the state capitol in 2015, HB 170 was a piece of legislation that called for increase in sales tax on your gallon of gas, six cents every gallon that you pay right now for a gallon of gas. Six cents goes to HB 170 for road, bridges, improving state roads and highways. It came out of the Senate. That amounts to $900 million a year, not nine or 90, $900 million, just about a billion dollars a year. It came out of the House, didn’t have any DBE program in it —Disadvantaged Business Enterprise — program in it. I’m the whip, Democratic whip No. 2 person at the Senate Democratic Caucus. It came out of the House to the Senate. They needed our votes. They needed Democratic votes because the Tea Party guys weren’t going to go with it.

I said, “Uh-uh. Any bill that comes out of this legislature has to have a DBE program in it.” They said, “No, man, can’t do that.” I said, “Okay, if you can’t do it in the bill, then have the governor do an executive.” … “Oh, no, no, no, can’t do that.” I said, “Okay, I’m a reasonable fellow. Have the board — the DOT board — have the DOT board do a resolution.” They never got back to me on that. We had the votes to kill it. We had the votes to kill it.

After we almost killed it, because they knew if it went to conference committee, the Tea Party was going to jump ship all together and it wasn’t going to pass, the governor sent me a message. He said, “I’ll sit down with Fort, look him in the eye, and tell him what we are going to do.” I said, “What?” Because I hadn’t been at the governor’s office for four or five years.

I went. I sat with the governor. He said, “We’ll do the DBE program. We’ll do minority scholarships, engineering scholarships and we’ll work on a bonding program.” I said, “If you do all that, I’ll … ” I went down to the well and I supported it. I said, “The perfect should not be the enemy of the good. I hope my caucus will vote for it.” It passed. Right now, even as we speak, they’re creating a DBE program.

Franklin: A quick follow-up: What’s being said about leadership in Atlanta, Black elected officials in Atlanta, is that outside of Maynard Jackson or post-Maynard Jackson, there’s been this larger tendency toward siding with the white economic elite over Black middle-class and working-class interests. One, I just want to know do you think that’s a fair assessment of what’s been happening

Fort: What I will say is, I think over the last seven years, there has been a decline in City Hall watching out for neighborhoods and regular people, particularly African-American neighborhoods and regular people, but neighborhoods generally. Even white neighborhoods are being neglected in certain ways. I think that’s become increasingly so.

Maynard would say, “We don’t want to take over the table. We just want to have what? More chairs at the table.” This community ought to get their due. I’m not saying they should be pushed out of decision making all together, but there needs to be a more diverse group of people making decisions. I said earlier that, unfortunately, it’s come down to the posture of the richest guy in the room making decisions. That’s not the way it ought to be. Decisions ought to be made taking into account what a diverse city needs.

It’s unfortunate, I think, that billionaire stadium owners get more consideration than regular people in neighborhoods. I think it’s changed over the years, but I think that has been increasingly so over the last seven years at City Hall. The rhetoric is changing, as I said earlier. The mayor is talking about income inequality and immobility as a central issue. The rhetoric is changing. The implementation of programs and strategies to counteract that are in short supply.

Kenney: Would you support the establishment of a minimum wage in Atlanta, and if so, how much would it be?

Fort: Fifteen dollars would be the minimum wage. I’ve worked very closely with the Fight For 15 movement over the last several years, invited them over to the capitol. We’ve had an ad hoc hearing. [We actually had] the first hearing ever on the issue of a $15 minimum wage in front of the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee a couple of years ago. I’m intimately familiar. There’s a local preemption where cities cannot set minimum-wage levels. Only the state can do that.

One thing I have talked of, AFSCME — the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees — had a forum several weeks ago where we were asked about a minimum wage at City Hall, and as mayor, that’s one thing I would do is take care of City Hall employees as far as that is concerned, and set a $15 minimum wage. That would be very, very important to me. I think all the people at the forum jumped on that bandwagon real quick, $15 minimum wage. The very first thing I would do is make sure that city employees are paid at $15 an hour as a minimum.

Nelson: The final question: Why should we endorse you vs. other candidates? As I mentioned before, we are about getting our people better positioned in communities where they live, locally, nationally, internationally.

Fort: The reason you should endorse me is the same reason I’m asking people to vote for me. There are a lot of people in this race, what, eight, nine, 10, or 11 people who are in this race? Almost all of them say the right thing, but few of them have — well, none of them in reality — have the history of following through with that rhetoric.

I was at a forum at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens where Mother Moore, who is an activist from Vine City, asked the candidates about, “Can we do development without displacement?” Because now with the Mercedes Benz Stadium there, the neighborhood’s under great stress, rates are going up, becoming increasingly unaffordable. Everybody on the panel said, all of the other mayoral candidates said, “Oh yeah, I believe in development without displacement.” I said, “Hold it now. Y’all believe in development without displacement, and y’all have been down at City Hall while gentrification of those neighborhoods, English Avenue and Vine City, been going on even as we speak.”

Leadership matters. I would want y’all to endorse me because of not only what I’ve done, but my plans for the future. All elections are about the future, ultimately. The ideas that I have I think are the most credible plans for making this city different. I’m very serious. If we have another eight years of what we’ve just gone through, neighborhoods, regular people, particularly many African-American neighborhoods, are going to be under a great deal of stress. The things that you are emphasizing that are important to this news outlet of having a more just city for African-Americans, that will be, that dream or that goal will be unattainable if things continue as they are. There’s just no other way to put it.

A lot of ideas that I’ve talked about to you in the last hour and 15 minutes are ideas that I’ve taken from other people. I said stolen earlier, but taken from other people. I’ve talked about some of those ideas. We haven’t gotten into technology and how do we make sure that everyone in the city has access to technology, and those kinds of things. I think that’s one issue, one area that needs to be strengthened.

I believe that I have a unique approach to governance that’s different from the others. I love this city. It has done so much for me. Other than my family, it has done the most to make me who I am. It’s a great city. We can make it better if we work together. We don’t have any problems in Atlanta that we can’t solve if we work together, but it has to be done in a way that works for everybody, has to be about justice and making sure that everybody has a role to play in the city’s future.

Thank you for having me, for raking me over the coals.

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