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.
Peter Aman has a team in place, has raised a significant amount of money and, according to his own internal polling, is moving up the charts. This veteran of city politics, who has served both Shirley Franklin and Kasim Reed in top posts, also is ready with detailed plans and is willing to mix it up and call out the competition. When asked a follow-up question to name one of the other candidates who he thought was not thinking deeply about important issues, he wasted no time in naming Mary Norwood.
With a quick wit and strong experience, Aman next will have to show the electorate that he is not just an insider but a man who can lead the city of Atlanta as its public face. Potentially becoming the first white mayor of Atlanta in almost half a century, Aman’s passion comes through. But does he have enough time to convince voters that he can protect the established residents while making way for the great growth in population underway that may change the very fabric that built the city? To find out more about the candidate, visit his website at Peter Aman 2017.
Below is an edited version of the interview with mayoral candidate Peter Aman held on May 12, 2017, at the offices of Atlanta Black Star. [The full transcript is attached.]
Present from Atlanta Black Star: Jelani Nelson, co-founder and chairman; Tanasia Kenney, staff writer; Kamau Franklin, political and social editor.
Jelani Nelson: What do you see as the top five issues that voters should be thinking about for Atlanta looking forward five years from now?
Peter Aman: These are the five that come across from a lot of different conversations. The first one, for me as a candidate, is public safety. We have to have a City of Atlanta where, wherever you are in the city, you feel and are safe. You have both the perception of safety and you are, in fact, safe.
That requires a number of things. That requires that we have the appropriate staffing in the police department. It requires that we retain good police officers, and to do that, we’ve got to pay them fairly. It also requires that we have a police department that is fully imbued with community-oriented policing. I think we have, and, of course, I was chief operating officer of the city for two years. In that capacity, the police chief reported to me and the fire chief reported to me, general manager of the airport, and so forth. I would spend a lot of time on public safety issues.
Community-oriented policing is an approach that every officer should use. That goes to public safety as well, because you have to have a bond of trust between the officers and the community.
For me, the second one is mobility. I think of mobility in two ways. There’s economic mobility and then there’s physical mobility. Underneath economic mobility, we need a City of Atlanta that works for everyone. That means that we have affordable housing. It means we have affordable housing at various different levels. You’re familiar probably with the way we do it. Most cities in the U.S. just look at the percent of area median income. People usually talk about 80 percent or 60 percent. We need to also look at 40 percent. We need to look at how you afford housing if you’re making minimum wage.
We need a city that allows for everybody to live here comfortably. Beyond that, and I’ll come to this on one of my other priority points, we need a city that supports people as they move economically. You’ve probably read that … we have the greatest difference between rich and poor in Atlanta and we have the least economic mobility in the City of Atlanta from the bottom up. We need to solve those problems.
In the other meaning of the word mobility, physical mobility, you need to be able to get from point A to point B with a minimum of hassles and discomfort. What that requires changes over time, but right now, it’s got to be top of mind for us, particularly as the city is projected to either double or triple in population. If you think it’s bad now, if we don’t do something, it’s really going to suck. That includes all of the different ways people travel — walking, biking, cars and then mass transit. We have to look across all those.
Specifically, we need to look at mass transit. We need to have more buses. Then, we need to do experiments with buses. Some cities have started using small circulator buses, 20-person buses to get into the neighborhoods that you summon with an app on your phone to your block. We need to look at those. We need to look at expansion of the bus frequency and bus routes. We need to look at light rail on the BeltLine down to Emory and then across, connecting town. We do need to work on the roads we can within the city to de-bottleneck intersections and centrally control traffic lights, which is something that’s very important. It’s one step beyond synchronizing and we need to centralize them. A number of other cities have done that and allows you to respond. That’s the secondary that I focus on is mobility.
The third one for me is education. I believe that the City of Atlanta, while it has made efforts on education, has a long way to go. This is not to take anything away from the school board or Meria Carstarphen, our superintendent. I think the next mayor needs to be the education mayor. That’s certainly what I want to do.
Jobs and economic development. Clearly, Atlanta is on an upswing now, but there’s no guarantee that will continue. What we need to do, though, is, we need to have more balance in job growth. We have parts of town where there are very few jobs. English Avenue and Vine City. We do not have large centers of employment there. There are areas in Southwest Atlanta where we have not seen economic development the way we’ve seen it in Midtown or Buckhead. We need to have more equity and evenness around both investment and job growth.
There’s a series of things associated with that, including workforce training. Obviously, it links back to education. There’s other programs that we can talk about to focus on job growth. The other thing I’d say about economic development that it also very much includes what makes a city vibrant. That’s arts and green space and community and parks. I mean, there’s a series of things that make a city have a feel and a culture to it that all, for me, fall under that heading of economic development.
Then, the fifth thing that I hear about everywhere in the city is basic city services. Is my street clean? Does my garbage get picked up on time? Is my water bill accurate? Can I get a building permit? If any of those things aren’t working, who do I call and will they get back to me? Then, will they fix the issue and tell me it’s been fixed? We’ve done a better job as a city on some of these areas than others and we’ve made improvements, but we still have a long way to go.
Nelson: Poll numbers came out, I think, it was a few months ago? What was the plan at least to move your position up that ladder? Right now, you look at the numbers. You got Mary who, I think, is No. 1. Then, Fort at No. 2. If you want to be in the run-off, how do you plan to move up to the top two positions?
Aman: Absolutely right. I point to a couple of things. First, the overall plan is at its simplest, become known right? This is the first time I’ve run for office, so it’s natural that people need to know I exist before they support me. That seems reasonable. To that end, we’ve had a TV commercial up for three or four weeks introducing me to the citizens of Atlanta. After you’re introduced, defining the issues and your relative strengths vs. the other candidates will be part of the next phase without getting into specifics. As part of that comparison, holding other candidates accountable for their votes, for their actions, for their words through the campaign process. I’ll tell you that we’ve already moved up in our internal polling several positions. That process is underway and we believe there’s a very strong path.
Mary Norwood is currently the most recognized and six months out, polls are dubious at best, of course. She’s actually polling relatively weakly vs. her position in 2009 when she got 49 percent of the vote. The winner of the poll was actually undecided, the WSB poll. Then, you have Mary coming in with about half the support she had last time. Then you have, after her, you basically have a clump of loss ranging from nine or ten points down to two or three points. Most of us are in the other’s margin for error. This is a path of becoming introduced and then highlighting the differences.
Tanasia Kenney: In 1990, this city was 67 percent black and now it’s about 50 percent. What policies do you plan to enact to incentivize a reversal of Black Americans leaving Atlanta?
Peter Aman: We need a city that works for everybody, as I said before. We need a city that everybody can afford to live in. It starts with economic development and jobs and having jobs in the city that are attractive to all types of people at all income levels, all educational backgrounds. To have affordable housing that works for everybody, regardless of income. If we have a city with diverse housing, diverse jobs, we’ll have a city with a diverse population.
One of the things that’s affecting Atlanta right now is everything is getting more and more expensive. Regardless of your race, that is creating problems. Affordable housing is something we need to work on and there’s several things we can do in that area. Community land trusts are one tool that promote and develop affordable housing. Another is working with developers to set aside affordable housing units in their projects by negotiating with zoning and other requirements around the projects. That’s a version of inclusionary zoning.
There are other things like the housing opportunity bonds that will drive affordable housing where you effectively provide developers with subsidies to create affordable units. It’s a lot of things that need to be done around affordable housing. We then also emphasized what I talked about before, which is transit and transportation. If you’re going to have a city that works for everybody, not everybody is going to own a car. We need to have a transit system that works for everybody. There’s a series of policies that we need to make that will make Atlanta work for everybody.
Kamau Franklin: There seems to be an emphasis on [high-income housing development in Atlanta]. The city has not put the brakes on that. It seems like it’s a pattern, not just something we ignored, but also part of a development plan around Atlanta. At least it feels like that to the people [being] pushed out of the city, right?
Aman: Yeah, I think that what we haven’t done in Atlanta is ask enough of developers and plan, and haven’t been intentional enough. I think some of that comes because of the history of Atlanta where we lost population, right? You had a city that dropped from roughly 500,000 to roughly 400,000 from the late ’60s through the ’70s and ’80s. They were not spanning many mayor’s terms here, but the leadership either was or felt like it was in a position where it couldn’t either intentionally plan or couldn’t demand certain things, whether those were design standards or affordability standards or other things. Especially when you’re faced with a 20-percent drop in population. That’s really dramatic.
I think that, to your point, the first thing you have to do is not displace people, right? You have to keep communities intact. To do that, you do have to think about what incentives you’re providing. At the same time, if you go to English Avenue and Vine City where 52 percent of the homes are vacant and abandoned, that’s not a great situation either, for all the obvious reasons. It’s not a great environment for kids to live in or adults to live in.
As mayor, I don’t want to have lots of vacant and abandoned houses around. We need to figure out how to make the neighborhood safe enough and clean enough and have good education so that people want to invest in those areas. Let’s build more single-family units. Let’s have the land owned by community land trusts so it’s durable affordable housing into perpetuity so that it doesn’t become a flip to market-rate someday in the future. The big advantage of the growth of the city right now is that we shouldn’t feel desperate. We should feel like we can take a stand and we can protect communities and we can protect people without damage. That’s how I think about it.
Nelson: One thing that you talked about on your website is the staff in policing and doing community policing model. You talked specifically about what does that look like on the community policing model. How would your policy be different in particular from what’s happening today on the ground?
Aman: There’s a couple of things. First, we need the staff because, right now, we have budget and authorization for 2,000 officers. We’ve fallen below that. Several hundred below that because the officers are leaving. We do not pay them fairly at every level. The city has started to adjust pay rates. I understand in the next budget they’re going to do some more. We have to keep the officers. We want people to stay. To do that, we have to pay them fairly. That’s the first thing we have to do.
The reason staffing is important is, a couple of things. One, response times. Right now, if there’s a shooting, if there’s a major crime, we have very good response times. If your car is broken into, it’s not such good response times, right? If there’s a suspicious person in your neighborhood, it may or may not be good response times. What that gives is a system where everybody is running from one 911 high-priority call to the other.
When you’re in that mode and in that situation running from one emergency to the other, you don’t have time or inclination to get out of your car or talk to a homeowner or a business owner. That’s the other reason why staffing is important. It’s not only to have the police to respond quickly but to have the police having enough time to do community-oriented policing.
Franklin: Implicit in the community-policing motto is the idea that there’s over-policing, right? [The idea that] the “broken windows” approach to policing needs to change, right? In your formulation of your new policing, do you think things like decriminalization of marijuana or minor street offenses should be [de-emphasized] by the police or do you think the police should [go after] minor offenses in order to stop “the bigger crimes”? What’s your thinking on that?
Aman: A couple of things. First, let me just observe that Michael Eric Dyson had an interesting point at a forum at The Carter Center about race that even the term, an approach like “community-oriented policing” has implicit bias in it, which is the folks in Buckhead aren’t calling for community-oriented policing because they don’t see the problems because they’re not affected by implicit bias in the same way as you just articulated. I just want to note that because I think it’s important that we think pretty deeply about these issues. Frankly, some of my opponents don’t think deeply about them at all.
Franklin: Would you name any of those opponents?
Aman: Yes. I think Mary Norwood does not think deeply about these issues whatsoever, if that’s a clear enough answer. I think when you look at the community-oriented policing model, yes, there is a sense that there is a different way to do things that would be better. I think in Atlanta, we’re better than a lot of cities, other cities on this. The city police force matches the population to the closest degree of any major city, from the latest data I saw. I think we’re better than a lot of those cities, but we still need to improve. Yes, there’s an inherent flaw.
I do think that to your point about de-prioritization, I do think we should de-prioritize certain crimes. In fact, Chief Shields has already said in the reporting that I’ve seen that they do de-prioritize marijuana and other offenses. I think that is important. We’ve seen the statistic of 93 percent or 94 percent of the arrests are of African-Americans for marijuana possession or use. We know from other resources that the incidents of usage is similar across races. That clearly is a case of something askew in the system.
Kenney: On your website you speak about jobs and businesses. What are some specific plans do you have to support the growth and create further opportunities for growth for Black businesses in Atlanta?
Aman: There’s several things. First, I would say that I very much — and I think I use this language on my website — I very much believe in both maintaining and improving the disadvantaged business enterprise, the equal business opportunity programs, the female- and minority-owned business programs that the City of Atlanta has. We have a long history in Atlanta of innovation and, obviously under Mayor Jackson, establishing and making these programs a success in Atlanta.
We absolutely need to continue those programs. I manage them or at least I manage the contract compliance department as chief operating officer, and I happen to think that we can make them better on several fronts. I think that there are specific things we can do to give more access to minority-owned businesses. For example, right now, because many of them are small businesses or mid-sized businesses, they can’t afford to bid on the city contract because they need a performance bond. Or they need a certain scale of a legal team to read through these massively thick requests for proposal or the contracts, which are even thicker. I mean, they’re just unmanageable for many small and mid-sized businesses.
I think we need to enhance the powers of the city to have a simplified [process]. Think about your 1040 form EZ in the U.S. It’s a very short, simple form. We need to figure out how to do that for small businesses, minority-owned businesses so that we can lower the cost of doing business with the city. We’re too hard to do business with as a city. That’s one thing I think we can do.
The other thing we need to do is, we’ve had in the City of Atlanta this approach where, if we get business to minority contractors, they will then get capital, expertise, head count. Minority businesses are more likely to hire minority employees and promote minority employees. That they will then branch out from there into work for the private sector, right? Because the government is just a small slice of overall spending. I’ve talked to a lot of minority-owned businesses [and]that has not happened in Atlanta. There’s still very much a sense that they’re shut out from what is, by far, a much larger stream of revenue, which is in the private sector.
Franklin: What is your position on a $15 or standard minimum wage in Atlanta? Are you for or against it? Do you see a middle ground?
Aman: For. I think that this is something we need to look at for the City of Atlanta employees. We need to look at a living wage. In fact, the city has a living wage. I don’t know if it’s an ordinance or executive order. I think it started as an executive order by Mayor Franklin or the equivalent. It may be that it has been put in an ordinance. I think we need to look at that. We need to look at having a living wage for city employees first. We have to get our own house in order. We have to figure out how we’re going to pay for that.
I think the $15 number for City of Atlanta employees is probably the right number, but I want to look at, again, the cost. If you look at what The Economist says about living wage, it can get awfully complicated. I want to look at the City of Atlanta statistics and cost of living.
Nelson: Final question. Atlanta Black Star [has] about 5,000,000 to 6,000,000 unique visitors per month. In the City of Atlanta alone, it’s about 150,000 people. That’s a really big deal ,I think, in the city. The question we’ll be asking others who have sat in that chair is, why should we endorse you and ask our folks to vote for you?
Aman: I have the best hair. No, just kidding! … I’m the only candidate running who’s actually managed the City of Atlanta government as chief operating officer. I also have 25 years’ experience in the private sector helping some of the world’s largest and most complex organizations become more successful. I have deep experience in those areas. Plus, I have spent over the past 15 years, many years, helping the City of Atlanta but also the nonprofit sector.
I helped fund the Police Foundation board. I helped a couple of years ago as the standing board chair of Partners for HOME, which helps the homeless, helps coordinate the homeless services provision in the city. I’ve been on the board of the Woodruff Art Center. I have a deep appreciation for arts. There is nobody that has the level of experience that I have, either with organizations and operations or with city government and city philanthropic. There just is nobody. You look through everybody’s records and I have more experience in that area and more familiarity with policies and operations and having a vision and making it come to life.
The second thing I would mention is ethics. I have a long track record, not just in government, of holding people accountable. When I was COO, I held people accountable for ethics violations. People were fired in some cases when we found that to be necessary. In the private sector, I did the same thing. I have a long track record of ethics and holding people to high ethical standards.
Then, third, leadership. Being mayor is not just about running the city of government. It’s about setting a vision. As I said, a city that works for everybody and then making that vision a reality. Some people are good at talking a good game about vision. Some people are good at executing them. I’m good at both. I’ve demonstrated that leadership in a variety of ways by bringing Atlanta together across government, private sector, nonprofits and the community. Some people leave the community out in that listing of attributes. It’s really a four-legged stool, not a three-legged stool. Whether it’s helping the government or helping the nonprofit sector or working with the private sector, I’ve just done that in a variety of areas.
Nelson: Thank you. Thank you for coming.
Aman: Thank you for having me.