Below is the full unedited transcript of the interview with mayoral candidate Vincent Fort held on March 10, 2017, at the offices of Atlanta Black Star.
Present for interview from Atlanta Black Star: Neil Nelson, co-founder and Chairman of ABS; Tanasia Kenney, staff writer; Kamau Franklin, Political and Social Editor. (Kamau Franklin was the Chief of Staff for State Senator Vincent Fort during the 2014 Georgia State Legislative session)
Neil Nelson: Typically when we go through election cycle, different constituents have different issues that they think about that are near and dear to them, just given the environment and given issues that is being brought to their thoughts. The candidate typically has, at least should have a broader view of the issues, because as you go around the city and you meet with different potential voters, you hear different things, and you also are involved in the city from a different point of view and are seeing things and are aware of things that most voters probably don’t know, and if they know about it, not at the level that you know about it.
As you look at this city, you look at the issues, the last 10, 15 years, and the next 30 years, 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 a 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 a 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 number one 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 of 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.
Atlanta’s a great city. I came here almost 40 years ago. I was going to stay here a year or two and go back up the way. I came here to go to graduate school at Atlanta University. I chose to stay. I chose to stay for any number of reasons, because of the ability, for one, to come here and to be part of the dynamism of the city, benefit from it and give back. It is a great city. It could be a better city. It could be a better city for more people.
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.
I sat with a colleague of mine a couple years ago at a fundraising event, and this colleague of mine was born and raised in Atlanta. At that time I’d only been here 36, 37 years. She said, “Vincent, you know what, man?” She said, “White middle-class neighborhoods used to start over in West End right about where the Cascade Kroger is in West End. Now black middle-class neighborhoods don’t start until you get past the beautiful restaurant going toward 285.” I thought, I said, “Yeah, that’s true.” Those neighborhoods are declining. Those in-town, close-in neighborhoods are declining. Neighborhoods that used to be middle-class, used to be neighborhoods where folk said, “This is where you supposed to live,” now those neighborhoods are in decline.
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. 10 years ago, 25% of Atlanta neighborhoods were considered gentrified. Now the stats are over 70% of neighborhoods are gentrified.
Another eight years of this kind of governance coming out of City Hall? It’s already becoming increasingly difficult for working people, middle-class people to live in Atlanta. I ask everybody I meet, “Where do you live? What part of town do you live in?” People are saying, “I want to live in the city of Atlanta, but I live in Conyers, Lithonia, South Fulton, Fayette.”
Neighborhood stabilization, revitalization, we’ve got to first of all take care of our senior citizen 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 the 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 sub-prime predatory lending is having a comeback, we have to make sure we protect seniors.
We have to find grant money. City Hall used to have grant money, and with a long list of renovations for senior citizens. We’ve got to find the resources to put into a pot so that senior citizens can do what? Apply for and get renovations on their homes.
One time when I was doing my predatory lending stuff, Suntrust and I had a little disagreement, and I got them to agree to put money in a pot, in the City’s pot, to renovate senior citizen homes. That’s something that’s very near and dear to me. That’s one, take care of seniors.
Two, we’ve got to do real stuff with affordable housing. One, we have to have a real definition of affordability. 80% of area median income ain’t going to cut it. The City has a definition. Guess what? It’s suggested and is not mandatory. No developers should get a subsidy from the city without doing real affordability, and maybe it’s a tiered affordability. If you do 100 units, 50 of them go to affordability. The first tier is zero to 30, the second tier is 30 to 50, and the next is 50 to 80, something like that.
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: Let me stop you.
Vincent Fort: Yes, sir.
Kamau Franklin: Because I don’t want you to pre-answer our questions.
Vincent Fort: I’m sorry. Slow me down, doc.
Kamau Franklin: It’s going to be a short interview.
Vincent Fort: Slow me down.
Kamau Franklin: I don’t know if anybody wanted to do a quick follow up to that before we move on to other questions.
Neil Nelson: I do want to come back to the bigger picture here because I think you highlighted at the gate, which is income inequality and income mobility as the big issue that you think voters should think about. The challenge I think is, from my point of view, the publication is how do you get the average voter to grasp the concept of that’s the central issue, and not the other issues, that they are relevant, like public safety is relevant, but it’s not the dominant issue, education, and so on and so forth. That’s the average voter. Let’s say there’s two separate voters, the average voter who’s doing well, who lives in the Northside, and then the average voter who lives in the Southside who may be more akin to that understanding, but still doesn’t grasp it fully as a central issue. How do you talk to both of those segments about this?
Vincent Fort: Politics at the end of the day has to be … Politics and leadership has to be about what? Education. Campaigning is about educating the public and being educated by the public, because let me tell you this, I have some broad understanding of issues, but I give a lot of understanding for the people I talk to. When I talk to people, I talk about income inequality and I talk about how it’s related to those other issues, people understand. People understand on one level or the other.
Two, what people on the Northside understand, many understand, is that if we don’t deal with these issues, they’re going to have to deal with the consequences as well. This is not a Southwest Atlanta issue. This is not a Southeast. This is a citywide issue, because when we talk about income inequality and a lack of education and what emanates from that, folk that out here home invaded ain’t stopping at I-20. They going where? North. We all pay for it.
I think that there are enough people on the Northside and Southside that understand those issues, where my message is a message that they will respond to. I think it’s educative process. Sometimes I listen, because it’s just like teaching. Any good teacher ultimately what? Is taught by their students. Any good elected official is ultimately what? Educated by the public that they interact with. If you’re elected official and that doesn’t happen, your style may be off. I don’t know if that answered your question.
Neil Nelson: I think it does mostly, but I want to follow up on that. When we at least listen to community dialogues that are happening online or other places, other spaces, and also other candidates, they have kind of the same direction, but different. Some candidate may be more of investment, how to get more investments to build infrastructure, but none are dealing specifically with inequality of income. They may see that, hey, more jobs come to Atlanta, we’re all better kind of thing.
Vincent Fort: I understand exactly what you’re talking about.
Neil Nelson: Then there are people who say they want to fight crime, which you highlighted a little bit, house invasions, get tougher on crime, get more police. The challenge I think for you on this issue is going to be getting folks to see it the way you see it and then getting them to vote on it. How do you go beyond education to I guess to convincing folks to vote on it?
Vincent Fort: I don’t know if you go beyond education. You know what I’m most proud of in this campaign is that the stuff I talk about, the other folks started talking about. The Mayor, somebody sent me an article yesterday where the Mayor’s talked about income inequality and immobility. One of the things that is going on, and I don’t mind, because what is that old saying, when people copy you, that’s the best compliment?
Yeah, flattery. Educating people, because people understand the nexus between lack of opportunity and crime. I trust that people, if you explain it in a clear, concise way, that they understand, because when I talk about crime to people, and at the same time I talk about things we need to train people for jobs, people don’t recoil. They understand that those two go together. That’s why the income inequality, the neighborhood revitalization relates to the education piece. The education piece, community schools, two-year tuition-free college, and the job apprenticeship programs.
I’m talking to unions, just like I’m talking to you, getting their support. I talked to the building trades. I probably shouldn’t have had that on … I’m talking to the unions about job training. They’re talking about job training. I said, “Okay, cool. If you want me to help you put together a job training program, will you train people in the inner city?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “We’re together then,” because I’ve done it before.
In the early ’90s when the Olympics was coming, the Labor Council, Central Labor Council, Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council came to me. I was President of the Citywide Neighborhood Association at that time. They came to me and said, “Ford, we need the neighborhoods on board with us to do union labor at the Olympic Stadium.” They said, “If you get the neighborhoods on board, we’ll do a job training program in the neighborhood, similar to Mechanicsville, Peoplestown.” I said, “If you do that, I’ll get the neighborhoods on board.” We did. Probably the most important early partnership between labor, neighborhoods coming together. They did a job training program.
This is not something pie in the sky. My intent in terms of the job training piece is to do a real apprentice program, earn while you learn, not three weeks, then you’ve got to find a job. We’re talking about two to three-year apprenticeship programs, where a person gets a union card at the end of their apprenticeship, but they’re earning while they learn, have a union card, be able to get a job, have a career, take care of their family for the rest of their life. The job apprenticeship program is the third leg of my education piece.
Then the public safety piece is community policing, real community policing. Right now if they send the sergeant out to your neighborhood association meeting and tell you, “This is the number of crimes we had last month and these are the hotspots, that’s community policing,” no. Real community policing, a program to deal with quality-of-life violations, I want to talk more about that, because that’s central, although not original to me, but central to what I want to do, and then strengthen the Civilian Review Board, which I helped to advocate for after Miss Johnston’s murder in 2006. I advocated for that.
I really want to talk about that quality of life piece when we have a minute. The underlying premise is we can’t deal with income inequality, immobility unless we do what? Education, jobs, and public safety. You’ve got to deal with all three of those.
Kamau Franklin: Let me switch to a little bit of a question about how particularly I guess people who are either your detractors or your opponents view you or represent you and how you counter it. 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 a Hillary Clinton type. With that they try to say that you therefore can’t be taken seriously when it comes to governing. I know you’ve heard that kind of stuff before.
Vincent Fort: They’ve said that?
Kamau Franklin: You’ve never heard that? 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?
Vincent 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.
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 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.
When I first came to the Legislature, and I’m going to tell you another story, there was a nightclub in the neighborhood called Chocolate City. What happened is we had run off the johns from the street. At Chocolate City, what they would do is line up the girls, they were underage, line them up so that johns could come in and pick them, which one they wanted. We ran them out of business. Should’ve ran them into jail. Didn’t go to jail. He should’ve gone to jail.
I got a call because the bank foreclosed on the property. I got a call from a bank in Miami. I’ll never forget this. He said, “Senator Fort, it’s some folks who want to buy that property, some bad fellows.” I knew what that meant. It was either another nightclub or it was a strip club. We had fought the strip clubs, not because we have any puritanical approach. We just know that there’s money laundering and child prostitution coming out of those strip clubs on Metropolitan. He said, “We don’t want to sell it to these bad guys.” I guess they had got my name as somebody to call, because he knew I’d probably be down in Miami cutting up at his bank. He calls me and says, “Senator Fort, we’ll sell it to the State at a discount, at $300,000.”
I got to work, and went to Roy Barnes’s Chief of Staff and said, “This is what I need.” They put $300,000 in the budget, bought the building, gave it to the border regions, and guess what? Right now, even as we speak, there’s a classroom building on that property over Atlanta Metropolitan College where young people who look like you and me are getting taught classes, lessons. You understand what I’m saying?
Anybody could talk about what I have or have not done, but I’ll put my record up against anyone, not only one budget money, but policy issues. Whereas I’ve been in the minority, I have had a impact in a positive way. There’s succession. We’ll keep it at that. Some aren’t going to be satisfied with that. They’re going to just say, “Oh, he too this or that.” The question is, am I going to be able to provide the leash if that’s needed at City Hall at this time?
Vincent Fort: Now these are the tough questions?
Tanasia Kenney: In 1990 the City of Atlanta was around 67% 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?
Kamau Franklin: Within this answer you can talk about affordable housing and gentrification more, particularly around policies. Those are certainly connected.
Vincent 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 American, 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.
Kamau Franklin: You brought this up earlier around developers, who obviously feel like they’re on a certain track to continue to build big, continue to get prices to go up. Can you speak a little bit about how you, and even if you offered them incentives, it feels like to me the way the direction is going that developers, they’re just on a strong push to continue building big and building more expensive? What’s in the toolbox for you as Mayor to either reign in developers or go around developers and do something, in addition to Invest Atlanta, to do something that doesn’t require them to take the lead?
Vincent Fort: I was real dismayed when I read recently that the Atlanta Housing Authority was selling property at a premium to a developer that was going to do upscale development without or with just a small amount of affordability, affordable units. The City’s going to have to work with the Housing Authority to make sure. The Mayor’s relationship to the Housing Authority is limited, but those kind of deals cannot happen anymore, to the extent that the Mayor has appointment authority, and thus the board hires the executive director. They were locked into that. The City’s going to have to have a relationship and create, because being at the beck and call of developers is not a good thing.
I remember a time in the city when a developer could get … The question was, if not for the city subsidy, would this development have occurred anyway? If the development would’ve occurred anyway, why are we subsidizing it?
There has become an assumption amongst developers. One of the developers around Centennial Olympic Park, when the TAD Allocation District controversy was going on several years ago., he said, “This is money I’m entitled to, and I deserve it.” I said, “Hold it doc. How is that?” This was a controversy between APS and whether APS should do a TAD, be involved in a TAD. There again, there’s a leadership thing.
I’m going to tell you about a development deal the city had a opportunity to do. There was a civil rights organization in the city that sued a big bank for not maintaining foreclosed property in African American neighborhoods. That is in African American neighborhoods when they foreclosed, the house, the houses, the grass was not mowed, let crackheads go in and steal the copper and whatnot. In other neighborhoods, nicely maintained, for sale sign, real estate agent, moving in real quickly.
This civil rights organization sued this bank. The bank settled, because the bank was in a bad situation because it was just obvious. They did this. They said, “Okay.” They settled. The civil rights organization got lawyer fees, of course. They also got a settlement above and beyond lawyer fees. They also said, “What we want from you is money to do affordable housing.” It was a few million, I think $2 to $4 million for two places, Dekalb County and the City of Atlanta.
They went to Dekalb County, said, “Here’s X number of million dollars.” Guess what Dekalb County did? They jumped at it, did the deal, found the money. People bring money to you and drop it in your lap. They went to the City of Atlanta. Guess what?
They said they couldn’t get anybody to respond, because it was not a what? It wasn’t a stadium. It wasn’t a big high-rise development project in Midtown. It’s not just do we have the resources. It’s what? Do we have the will to do the deal? Guess what the bank did? The bank said, “We want our money back.” Of course they didn’t want to give the money in the first place. “We want our money back until you do the deal.”
I want to talk about the technical parts of it, affordability, etc, but part of it comes down to whether you have the will to do the right thing about the people of the city of Atlanta. That’s why it’s almost humorous at forums to hear folk who’ve been down at City Hall 10 or 20 years talk about income inequality and affordability, development without displacement. It has been going on without a word from them for as long as they’ve been down there. I hope that answered your question.
Tanasia Kenney: You’ve recently spoke about decriminalizing marijuana. I assume you believe that police are targeting certain communities, African American communities unfairly.
Vincent Fort: I do.
Tanasia Kenney: Can you speak about the relationship between the policy now and the black community? If you think there are problems with this relationship, do you have any major initiatives to a direction?
Vincent Fort: On the decrim 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% 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% 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 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.
Now decrim is the piece of that that’s gotten the most publicity. I think it was a center for civil rights action, civil rights justice, Xochitl’s organization proposed this in June. One City Council member proposed-
Speaker 3: Racial Justice Action Center.
Vincent Fort: Yes, and then in July there was a Council member that proposed it. It languished after from what I understand the Downtown business community said, “Hold it now. We ain’t going to have none of this.” Then after November when I proposed and then Deandre Phillips got killed because of thing, thinking supposedly the police officer smelled marijuana, then I started beating the drum. The decrim part of this pilot program has been put on the table as a proposed ordinance, and it may get voted on April 17th. I’d be glad if it was passed, the decrim was passed. I think my pushing for it, as well as the Deandre Phillips situation has pushed it forward.
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% since 2009, 33% 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 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 a 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 you’re guy, I’m going to do that, but we going to deal with the gang problem. 10 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.
It’s based on the premise that we cannot arrest our way out of quote unquote crime problem. Can’t do it. We can’t build enough jail. Even the Republicans at State Capitol realize that. We have got to have the police partnering, real partnering with the community, because everybody knows what’s going on. Children know, young people in the community know what’s going on. They know where the stuff is. Unless you have that partnership, if people perceive the police as being an occupying force, they’re not going to cooperate. They’re going to see the police as bad as the bad guys. We got to have a real community policing kind of approach.
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 have 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.
One of the things that we need to do our research on, because I’m wondering why folks push it back or are silent on decriminalizing marijuana. I have my ideas. I have my ideas about why. I think it has something to do with private probation. I’m going to do more research on this, but I believe that private probation may be one of the reasons that people are pushing back on decriminalizing.
Kamau Franklin: Are you suggesting that there’s a lobby that supports the private probation system because as long as people keep getting arrested for marijuana arrests, they’ll have customers. Is that what you’re saying?
Vincent Fort: What I’m saying is what we need to look at, do research on, is because we know that when a person is arrested for these quality-of-life crimes including possession of small amounts of marijuana, that they go on private probation, and private probation is very profitable. I’m not making the specific allegation that the reason why folk are not for decrim is because the private probation folk are making money off these arrests. What I am saying is we need to look into it to see if that’s part of it.
I know why you have the chief jailer pushing back on decriminalization, because it diminishes his purview. The state of Georgia spends $310 million a year to prosecute marijuana arrests. I don’t know the amount in Atlanta, Fulton County, but you could imagine it’s probably the most of anyplace else in the state. That’s a lot of money that goes to a lot of jobs, a lot of maintenance of the criminal justice system. We have an opportunity in Atlanta if we do it right is to, as I said earlier, change how we do, particularly on the misdemeanor level, how we do law enforcement, in a positive way.
Neil 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. Atlanta policy of encouraging, as you mentioned before, big deals, as opposed to small businesses. How would your administration invest to attract small business opportunities, particularly for black business in Atlanta? What kind of policy or programs do you envision putting in place to make those that are already there more successful and those that want to start or move to Atlanta do so?
Vincent 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, educate 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 which 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 $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 number two 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 going to do.” I said, “What?” Because the Governor I had not … 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.
Just think about it. Let’s say we don’t get the 30% that we ought to get. Let’s say we just get 15%. That’s $135 million a year. I’m talking to black businesses who have a track record of doing DOT projects. I’m talking to businessmen. You know what I would do? If I was starting out, I would get into a business doing grass cutting. The company that has the grass cutting contract in Metro Atlanta, the biggest district, is an African American firm. Other than paving, which is the big jobs, cutting grass, they need people who can cut grass, they need people who can patch the cracks and potholes on 285 and I-85.
My point is, when people say, “Well, we support African American businesses,” I firmly believe that that DBE program would not be in place if I had not fussed. I acted out. I worked with Janice Mathis with Rainbow/PUSH and the civil rights community. We coordinated on a daily basis, good cop, bad cap. I have a history of supporting small businesses, African American businesses.
I am concerned with what I hear, that the MBE program at City Hall is not helping enough different companies. I’m going to look into that. One of the things that Maynard Jackson said, he wanted to create X number of millionaires, not just a small group of folk getting all of the largesse, but everybody competent, able to do the work, but enough, but not just four or five, but dozens of companies doing well. That’s why I’m concerned about the corruption scandal at City Hall for this reason. I’m afraid that the enemies of the MBE program are going to use that as an excuse to go after that program and hurt that program. We’ve got to keep it in place. We’ve got to strengthen it. I just think it’s unfortunate that it’s cast a pall over at City Hall.
Neil Nelson: I’ll follow up with that. I don’t know the answer to this. Does the City work with the State in addressing minority businesses in Atlanta specifically
Vincent Fort: No, no. I was using the State example as a …
Neil nelson: I know, I know. I get your point. I’m saying but is there a opportunity for the city and state to collaborate between those two entities to make, because maybe most people don’t even know about these programs that would qualify for whatever they offer as benefits.
Vincent Fort: Historically, the only thing the city does with the state as far as I know on MBE program is that the state helps to certify DBEs or MBEs at City Hall. I know a lot of the people that try to get work at the State also are working at the …
Neil Nelson: City Hall?
Vincent Fort: … at City Hall as well, as a matter of fact.
Kamau Franklin: A quick follow up. You came back around to a point that I thought maybe I had missed. It’s kind of a policy thing that goes back to your idea of leadership. It seems like what’s being said, and I think 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 towards 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 and what’s led the city to a place, going back to this earlier question, whereas once thought of as the mecca of black business and black people, once 67, 70% black, now potentially even turning a majority white over the next few years, that the black leadership class, elected officials, have been the own worst enemies of working and middle-class black people.
Vincent 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 need 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.
Kamau Franklin: You wanted to ask the question on minimum wage?
Tanasia Kenney: Sure. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Fight For 15.
Vincent Fort: Very much so.
Tanasia Kenney: Would you support the establishment of a minimum wage in Atlanta, and if so, how much would it be?
Vincent Fort: $15 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’ve had a hearing before, The State Senate, actually 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.
Also, we’re going to have to look at how we encourage other employers in the city, for example at the airport, how do we encourage, can we legally … Legally, we may not be able to require employers, people at the fast-food restaurants for example, at Popeye’s and whatnot, to do 15, but there are ways a Mayor can encourage. We should not underestimate the influence of a Mayor on getting that done. That’s something I’d want to look at. The very first thing I would do is make sure that City employees are paid at $15 an hour as a minimum.
Kamau Franklin: Obviously for the most part overwhelmingly in terms of Trump, he’s received no support whatsoever from Democrats and other left-leaning folks, and particularly elected officials. Knowing that, however, what are the potential common interests that a liberal left progressive Mayor of Atlanta could have with Trump and/or the Trump administration in which you would you would want to work on? Do you see any openings, basically in any policy that Trump has, that you think would be beneficial to the city of Atlanta?
Vincent Fort: Yeah. One, yes, I do, but I think we need to keep in mind, and not just with the federal government, but with the state government, we need to understand that oftentimes if we go to the state or federal government, that we should not be disappointed when the answers that we get are not to our liking. Any program strategy we have should envision a process where we’re going to have to depend on ourselves, because legitimately it’s really … I have relationships at the State Capitol. Some are good. I’ll be able to use those to help the city of Atlanta, I believe.
As far as a project or a program that Trump is putting forward, the most obvious one of course is the infrastructure stuff, the infrastructure program that he’s talking about. It’s going to be interesting to see whether his party’s going to let him do that, because that’s anathema to his own party. The most obvious thing that he’s doing where I would agree and want to avail ourselves of is the infrastructure program, particularly in training young people who need job training and jobs. I am very, very interested how that’s going to be implemented.
It would be my hope, and one of the things that we have to be concerned is whether it’s going to be local governments who are going to be able to implement programs or is it going to be a program where just like when the Obama money came down, it passed through the State, and the State put restrictions on it that hindered the City implementing programs. That would be my only concern. That would be the specific thing. This is the same person that said he was for letting Medicaid and Medicare alone, letting it, and that proved not to be true, so you have to take all of this with a grain of salt.
Neil Nelson: Really the final question for us really is about our readership. As Kamau mentioned earlier, at the end of this process we will endorse one of the candidates, and for us, if you think about this, the question really is obviously why should we endorse you versus other candidates? As I mentioned before, we are about getting our people better positioning in communities where they live, locally, nationally, internationally.
Vincent 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 a 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.
Honestly, I guess I’m supposed to say it, but I just don’t see where any of … I bring something that’s unique to the table, a unique history, a unique perspective, and a unique way of looking at the future. I have an academic. I’m trained as an academic. I’m an elected official by vote, but I’m a community organizer at heart. What any community organizer does is make sure they understand what the people they’re organizing want for themselves. I think I’m going to be able to do that, to work with the community.
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, if 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.
Vincent Fort: Thank you for having me.
Kamau Franklin: Yes, sir.
Vincent Fort: For raking me over the coal.