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.
Ceasar Mitchell was born and raised in Atlanta and has deep roots in working-class Black communities here. He wants to provide opportunities for young people in Atlanta that match his own, and talks a lot about education and tax allocation districts as keys to broadening both educational and economic expansion. In addition, his background as an attorney, his civic engagement work and years on the City Council (the last eight as president) give him the pedigree to be the next mayor. He has all the bases covered, except Mitchell is pursuing office in a political climate where voters are demanding change. He may not see himself as a status-quo candidate, but will voters reward him for the work he has accomplished or see him as part of a machine that has presided over a changing Atlanta where many feel left out?
Mitchell answers these questions with verve and a determination to not let people view the city as divided but to see the progress the city has made as unfinished business. He wants them to see him as the person who can reach into all areas of the city and bring healing and change. He also believes he is the candidate who can best pivot the city government away from high-end development and have a new focus on an inclusive economic order that includes affordable housing. To find out more about the candidate, visit his website at Ceasarformayor.
Below is an edited version of the interview with mayoral candidate Ceasar Mitchell held on April 14, 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.
Neil Nelson: So, as a candidate and someone who’s been in city politics for over a decade or so, what do you believe are the primary issues that folks who are voting should care about?
Ceasar Mitchell: [Atlanta] in many ways [is] the last castle. It’s a place you can come because of its history and know that you have an opportunity. I call Atlanta “the Mosaic” because there’s something here for everybody and that’s something that we have developed over time based upon our willingness to at least collaborate and pivot toward collaboration and cooperation vs. complete disintegration as a community. It is also because we made a decision before I was born, all of us were born, to say this city is going to have what I would call this co-lead leadership model.
To your question, what do I see as the critical issues? The critical issues facing our city right now, given the fact that the Atlanta train is moving down the tracks, is, No. 1, how are we going to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to be on the Atlanta train? How are we going to address this issue of economic opportunity, education and quality of life?
When we look back, are we going to be able to say that we were an environment that believed in economic inclusivity and we held true to that for more than just a generation or two? Such that … there’s opportunity that not only comes from the top down but from the ground up? No city becomes global from just the top down. It becomes global because you have small businesses grow into large businesses, a strong economic infrastructure and ecosystem from business to business, and relationships.
It’s going to be about quality education, economic opportunity and quality of life. Those are the critical issues that I see facing us right now in this city. As mayor, I’m going to be working on those everyday and it won’t be me just starting to work on those things, it will be a continuation of the work I’ve been doing thus far, just taking it to the next level.
Nelson: Can you talk more about education, please? Because we know that the mayor doesn’t really control that apparatus but can help in some ways. Are there changes we need to make in the current system?
Mitchell: My wife is a public-school teacher here in APS. My mom was an APS schoolteacher, my cousin, my aunt, all APS schoolteachers. I’m part of the Atlantic public school system myself. During my time on council, I had been very involved in creating partnerships with APS to help advance the educational opportunities of our young people, mainly a college prep series. I’ve been doing it for 10 years. It’s been in place because I understand how important it is for young people and their parents to be ready for that next step to college. We’ve got it every semester in partnership, kind of this trifecta thing, this four-way thing with nonprofit organizations that help as a part of this, the school system, my office and a private company called Preston Review that provides test-prep.
I’m spending time on this to give you a sense that when it comes to education, No. 1, it’s something that’s extremely important to me. No. 2, it’s something that I have a track record with, and it’s not just a track record of work but a track record of partnership. No. 3, I am not going to sit on the sidelines as mayor and use it as an excuse that we don’t as a city have any connection or control over the school system because I think that is a cop-out and an excuse. We’re going to dig in, we’re going to have a relationship that is practical, programmatic and structural, and invested in. This will start from something as simple as creating a joint economic development education plan, so whenever we do economic develop plans in the city, APS and this leadership is not going to be outside the room. They’re going to be in the room.
Kamau Franklin: You’ve been on the City Council for over a decade. You’ve been the president for over eight years. So, you’re considered an insider, you’ve been there as part of the structure of city government for a long time. We seem to be in a changed environment, both left and right. How do you not get pigeonholed or why shouldn’t people pigeonhole you as an insider who’s responsible for both good and bad that’s happened over the past decade, if they’re looking for change? Why should they look to you for change?
Mitchell: We’re always looking for change, everyone, every four years, every open season is about change, No. 1. No. 2, people are going to tell you they’re going to be about change, questions who can get the job done? For as much as people want to say that City Hall has lost its way or people want to say that City Hall is broken, its actually not true. But, can we be better? Yes, we can. What I think citizens will want in their mayor is someone who is different from what was before, someone who knows and has experience to take us in what I would call a pivot, more-focused direction toward the things that are important right now.
When I show my leadership combine that with the experience I have, and my experience is not just completely and insider experience, I’m not a career politician, I practice law, that’s what I do everyday and I’m not just a lawyer and an elected leader, I have actually been involved civically in the community in a very profound way. I don’t just operate as some insider, that’s not how I operate and I think there’s an understanding of that. People know that I’m very different from the current administration and the current mayor, people know that. It will probably become even more apparent over the next several months.
I am wiling to partner, No. 1. I’m willing to take resources and use those resources to create good outcomes. I’ll give an example, the mayor and I — nothing against the current mayor, obviously, he’s done a good job as mayor — but we had a disagreement around the relationship between APS and the City of Atlanta, around the Beltline, he and I had a very unfortunately public disagreement about that. I believe we need to honor our responsibility to APS, to pay them what we owe them. At the same time, I believe we actually need to reform the agreement that the Beltline had with APS. My approach was to say, “Let’s do that.” My approach was not to fight and to demean the school system but work together with them and build on the relationships that were already had.
Some people say this whole idea of compromise is a bad thing and I don’t use the word “compromise,” I use the term “community building.” We have a responsibility to build a community, No. 1. No. 2, I think, right now, we see the administration currently selling a lot of real estate, getting out of, quote unquote, the real estate business. When I’m mayor, we’re going to get back into the real estate business a different way. I’m not saying that just because I’m a real estate attorney. I’m saying that because I’ve done community development both as a lawyer and as a policy maker and I understand the power of affordable housing and community development on the ground as it impacts quality of life in our communities, the experiences of young people, senior citizens and families in between.
Tanasia Kenney: So, on the issue of gentrification, as mayor, what policies would you enact to incentivize the reversal of Black people leaving the city of Atlanta or being pushed out of the city of Atlanta?
Mitchell: Absolutely first thing is the blight to light [program], that’s about [creating] affordable housing in neighborhoods where I live. No. 2, inclusionary zoning…I go and meet with the council of equality growth, whenever I go to that group and the group of developers and builders…I sit down with them in a room with about 25 people, I tell them “We’re going to have to do inclusionary only, and I’m going to need you all to lean in with us to get it done. And the response [largely], is, “We want to help with that. We understand.”
What has happened in our economy is we had a great pruning, a recession. And when that pruning occurred, we backed away or we just stopped talking about affordable housing…[when housing prices came] back fiercely, that was the good thing but the bad thing is we didn’t catch up quickly with affordable housing policies.The city has 10 tax allocation districts — I’m the author and creator for them — that benefit west and southwest Atlanta and south Atlanta. Essentially, the community is still kind of considered “the Black community.”
The Beltline, I was one of the sponsors of the legislation as chair of the committee. I assure [you] that [the] legislation was outwardly facing, involved community input and had principals in it like community benefits [and] affordable housing…the issues [of] gentrification that really in many ways are brought on by a project like the belt line, which is a good project on one end, but has an incredible destructive qualities as it relates to gentrification on the other hands. We’ve got to be honest about that.Inclusionary zoning, pushing for more affordable housing, production through my blight delight program, and being a very staunch advocate finally of anti-displacement policies.
Nelson: So, lets look at gentrification. I live in Buckhead and when I drive around Buckhead, I see new apartments, new condos going up in every single square foot of the north side of the city. When I go down to the south side, it’s the opposite, it’s run-down houses, buildings empty. Empty opportunities that are not being optimized. Does the city need a different cadre of developers that are going to create those opportunities or are you talking about those same folks that are building apartments for $2500 for a two-bedroom apartment to also build affordable housing? And is that something [building affordable housing] we’re going to do at a rate or clip that really corrects the problem of Black gentrification? Because that’s [the] real issue for our readership.
Mitchell: So, you asked a question that really is a very complex one, the answer is really kind of, it is a tough question with a complex answer. Really kind of a take-your-medicine kind of answer.
You talked about developers coming from that part of town to this part of town. Well, really, what you’re talking about is the capital markets being willing to invest. There’s this notion that the city controls investment. That’s just not true. However, we can influence it.
[One example of how we can influence it] Camp Creek marketplace is, in some ways, a miracle because the problem is that the capital markets tend to invest into areas that they’re familiar with. Communities that are largely middle class to working class to poor, don’t even get past the analysis. We had to make the case with Camp Creek that this was an investment that you should make in this part of town and it would work. When they went to the capital markets where the money is to make investments in this retail development, commercial development, guess what they did? They put pictures of the houses in the actual perspectives. You don’t do that when you’re going to get money from the capital market. You just give spreadsheets. They said we want to make sure you understand what’s really down here and they showed the pictures and that was a part of making the case [that] if you make an investment in this community with your money, it’s going to return for you.
Technically, if you don’t get past this idea of capital going where it knows, you don’t get the investment. Even if as a city you create what we call the gap funding and the incentives, a lot of which I’ve done through my creation of tax allocation districts, being very supportive of affordable housing…Capital market basically…took a chance but they made I think a sound investment, because if you look at the Target there, if you look at the Long Horns down there, if you look at some of the other big boxes down there, they’re the highest performers in the country.
The city…made the argument that you can make an investment here…so as mayor you’re going to see me making the argument, and I’m going to know how to make the argument. I’m a transactional lawyer who understands this stuff and I’ve done work in it. I’m also going to make the argument because I grew up in this community and I know who’s there. I know what’s there. We’re going to make the argument around why it’s good to invest here…we’re going to be supportive through our incentive framework, tax allocation districts, other funding we provide through invest Atlanta, we’re going to provide incentives for not just the existing development community, but emerging developers…The last thing which is really the first thing from the government perspective is that we got to do those basic fundamental things that kind of get you ready for “Sunday dinner.” That is we got to make sure we got clean streets, safe communities, a built environment that is aesthetically pleasing. Imagine how you can actually put yourself in a better position, we can all collectively, if we just put on a good face. As mayor I’m going to make sure we’re delivering services that tend to make these communities more attractive where I live for this kind of thing.
Franklin: I’m interested in the paradigm of development as it comes to Atlanta, specifically [the way in which] Black elected officials [and] white moneyed interests partnered to avoided major disruption during a civil rights era. I think Maynard Jackson was the fountainhead of that paradigm, a well-respected mayor who did that successfully. Post-Maynard Jackson, there seems to be more of a feeling that the larger Black community is not prospering from [it anymore], i.e., the city that used to be close to 65 percent to 70 percent Black during a time of Black leadership is now about to be, if not already, majority white. Part of that is the dismantling of public housing spaces [and] not enough building of affordable housing. [How] is this vision that you’re offering going to change that, should that be changed [and] is there a way to change it?
Mitchell: You have some folks who are going to suggest it’s time for some sort of civil war and that’s not right. That’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is having a leader who knows and understands this city. There’s nobody in this race that understands it like I do and understands that in a three-dimensional fashion, in a 360-degree fashion, who understands how things work at the 50th floor or the Bank of America tower and how things work right down here in the corner of Simpson and Ashby, you follow me?
Nobody else is going to bring it like that. The reason I don’t say that in arrogance [is] because I’m a fortunate and blessed product of this city. I’m a product of a city that said that a young Black kid who grew up [with] working-class parents who are civil servants could grow up and go to college and go to law school, start practicing law, be in a transactional field and now be with a big law firm and have a tremendous track record that can take me anywhere around this city and have serious in-depth conversations. You’re not going to get me in a room where I got to go do this or not going to be able to say something, let me look at the translation, and then you’re going to have something to say to me and I’m going to have to try and figure out what you’re talking about.
There ain’t nothing somebody up here in Buckhead where you live going to be able to say to me about something that made the business when I’m not going to be able to understand what you’re talking about, take me right down over here in the “trap” you’re not going to say something that I don’t know, you follow what I’m saying?
We had a moment in time where we’ve got to have leadership that’s not talking but understands how to move throughout this entire community and bring people together and make the argument for this pivot that we’ve got to take, this refocus and investment in the community that’s got to happen and not be afraid to do it.
The two books that I keep is why I’m really doing this conversation and it’s an important one, I don’t care if you all, I do want your endorsement, but I’m not going to turn my back on you in the street if you don’t because this is important, the two books that are, that I keep, close to me in my bedroom on the nightstand, a biography on Maynard Jackson that was done by Bob Holmes and “Making A Modern Atlanta” that was done by Andrew Young talking about this city through the eyes of Andy Young. Now, why are these two books important? They’re work books, they’re not just reading and “Oh, I read a really nice one.” These are work books. These books talk about, in the case of Maynard Jackson, the construction of this city and the standpoint of how the Black community and the white community worked together, even in moments of strife and un-surety, to create opportunity and how Mayor Jackson took that to the next level as Maynard Jackson and created a policy of inclusive economics. That’s his book. The second book, “Making A Modern Atlanta” is about, again, the making of a city that really understood how white people and Black people could work together and whatever the grand bargain is — leadership, sharing power, sharing — to create what is a very special place and take advantage of economic opportunity but to do it understanding that there is a bigger world out there.
You go on my Facebook page [and] you’ll see me do this hashtag global roundup to global. Cities don’t become global because some kind of dust gets sprinkled down on it. They become global from the ground up. We’ve got to have that focus, quite frankly, this whole modicum we have 40 years of Black mayors and nothing’s happened and that’s a very interesting statement because in the last 40 years, what has happened in this city? We’ve seen some good times and some bad times, but this city is built under the leadership of Maynard, carried on by mayors after him. The world’s busiest airport. This city has been able to get a centennial Olympic Games. This city is a place where people come from all over the world for opportunity, even if they’re not in the city of Atlanta proper.
I’m going to bring every resource I have to bear. I’m not going to change my tune, I’m not going to kowtow, I’m going to say it like it is. You’re not going to find me saying one thing here and another thing here. I’m not going to say something just ’cause I think you want to hear it. I’m going to say it because it’s what I believe, and I believe I bring a level of credibility, I think in a way that makes me different from many is that I bring a level of what people consider approachability and then I think the ability to grasp the issues in a way I think that I can make the case and you’re just going to tell me no, we’re not with it, then we just got to go another way, but I live in a neighborhood and I don’t keep it, you asked the wrong question for a short answer, I live in a neighborhood where I’m not going to be mayor and it stays like that, and while I’ve done some things already, there’s so much more you can do with the power of the mayors office and make things happen.
Nelson: Why should we recommend to our readers that they should vote for you or endorse you in particular? We’re not asking them to just oppose the leading candidates in the race currently, I think the last report I saw was that [Norwood] was pretty close to the top of the race. What fundamental difference between yourself and her do you think our readers should think about as a content to regulate for?
Mitchell: You can do this as opposed to her or anybody else in this race. No. 1, I love this city. I was born and raised in this city, it made me who I am. No. 2, I understand and know this city and my experiences have been brought in deep in this city. I’m not a career politician, but I’m a very committed public servant born out of what I’ve seen my mother and father do in this city. No. 3, I’m going to bring leadership to this role and the leadership that I’m going to bring will be based upon the experiences that I’ve had, the experience and know how that I bring to the table and my ability to work with people and build community and common ground around issues that are important and bring people together when it’s time to bring together to get things done.
The other thing that’s going to distinguish me from the other candidates is that I don’t lead alone. I know how to get people together, No. 1. No. 2, I’m going to be able to get things done Day One because I know where the water fountain is and I also know where the, in some ways, where the bodies are buried, but, in some ways, also know where the opportunities are that we have not tapped. So, I’m going to bring that.
The last thing I think I’m going to bring to the table is the spirit of entrepreneurship. When I see something, I do something. I don’t just go find a camera, a recorder or a podium to stand behind to talk about what the problem is, I go find a solution. So, when you ride around the city and you see these orange signs that say “Slow Down” on them, you ever seen those? You don’t know who did that, do you? That’s my program. I don’t make a big to-do about it. I didn’t even want to make it a campaign sign. Take my name off of it. I [just] wanted to be responsive to a community need, and that’s people whizzing through the community. A grandmother and her grandchildren were killed this month [because somebody was] speeding through the community. Little girl killed over here by [the] park ’cause somebody hit her. I see something, I do something.
As mayor, moreso than any other person, I’m going to be an entrepreneur. When I see something, we got to get something done. We’re going to do it in partnership and we’re going to be ready to roll Day One.
Nelson: Thank you.
Mitchell: Thank you very much. Thanks for your time, I appreciate it.