Atlanta Black Star’s editorial staff is conducting a series of interviews with Atlanta mayoral candidates for the upcoming 2017 November election. After interviewing each candidate, we will endorse one based on how their policy ideas will impact our readership.
Michael Sterling, among other things, has been a problem solver. He is credited with turning around the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency after being appointed by current Mayor Kasim Reed. He has been a federal prosecutor and close adviser to Reed. But, at 34, will he invoke the needed gravitas to convince competing forces that he can bring them together? Will he also be slowed down by a lack of name recognition?
Sterling is critical of what he calls the “culture of corruption” in Atlanta and ongoing corruption charges facing Atlanta city officials, but he is careful not to lay the blame directly on Reed’s doorstep.
Sterling addresses these issues in the interview. His earnest and direct approach is refreshing. Sterling knows what he knows and is willing to say that he will ask or rely on others to fill in on policy. More-experienced politicians may see that as an opening if a candidate does not have a ready answer. Time will tell if the electorate finds that refreshing or troublesome for someone new to the spotlight of a mayor’s race. Find out more about the candidate at his website Michael for Atlanta.
Below is an edited version of the interview with mayoral candidate Michael Sterling held March 10, 2017, at the offices of Atlanta Black Star. [The full transcript is attached.]
Present from Atlanta Black Star: Neil Nelson, co-founder and chairman; Andre Moore, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at ABSCliff Albright, contributing writer; Tanasia Kenney, staff writer; Kamau Franklin, political and social editor.
Neil Nelson: I’ve got the first question. In every election, there’s always a number of issues and different community priorities. As a mayoral candidate, I imagine you’re looking at the entire picture, you’re seeing more than most constituents are looking at. And so, from that perspective, the bird’s-eye view, what do you see as the top five issues that people in Atlanta should be voting on in the coming mayoral election?
Michael Sterling: I think the top five issues … First, I’ll start with ending the culture of corruption. I start there because I think that, when you have a government that people don’t trust, when you have political leaders that people don’t trust or people who are working in government that people don’t trust, it actually undermines everything else you do. So, everything else you do gets compromised because, “Now, I’ve got to question everything you do because I don’t know what your intentions are.” Right? If I say, “I think we need to go down, build some new streets in this area,” [you’re thinking] “Is he just doing that to benefit his contractor buddy? Is he just doing that to benefit some people who contributed to his campaign?” You know, what is the intent? And then that slows down the entire process.
Everybody has to feel safe. And we can do that in the city if we’re more strategic about how we address a growing criminal enterprises, if we’re more strategic about how we address the complex nature of crime, if we’re more strategic about how we address the growing sophistication of some crimes. So, I think we’ve got to do a better job of making sure that everybody in the city of Atlanta feels safe in their neighborhoods, in their homes. Think public safety, certainly, and the safety of every resident certainly has to be the top concern of a mayor.
I think we’ve got to do a better job with economic equality. I’ve always talked about the moments that led me up to wanting to run for mayor, but one of those pivotal moments for me was, I was in my office and Kweku from the Center for Working Families came into my office with their report. I think it’s called “The Race for Equality” or “The Race for Justice” by the Casey Family Foundation. I remember they had these single sheets … and I remember they handed me a sheet that said 80 percent of African-American children in our city live in neighborhoods that have high concentrations of poverty. And, I looked at the sheet and said, “This number is wrong, that’s not possible” and they said, “Mike, that’s the number.” Eighty percent of African-American children live in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty.
And what started going on in my head was, that means that there are no resources going to the schools in their neighborhoods, because if you live in a neighborhood that’s concentrated in poverty and your taxes are allocated based on what neighborhood you live in, they’re not getting the same resources. Then, you look at Atlanta’s economic mobility rate, which is only 4.5 percent, that means if I’m born in poverty in the city of Atlanta, I’ve got a 4.5 percent chance of climbing the economic ladder. We’re last in that. First in income inequality, the top 5 percent of earners in our city make over $200,000 a year, the bottom 20 percent make less than $16,000 a year. That’s a problem. You can’t be a great city leaving people behind.
I think our educational system is something that absolutely has to be in the top 5 issues. You cannot be a great city without a great public education system. We cannot keep having our kids go to schools where we’re letting our best talent rot in under performing schools. I don’t know how else to say it. But, there is this incredible amount of talent that is wasted, because … I’ve worked with these kids, I ran the summer programs, the summer jobs program for the city of Atlanta for three consecutive summers. I know these kids, they’re smart and they’re bright and they want to achieve. In many instances, some of them are already so far behind that it makes it difficult for them to catch up.
And, then fifth … I don’t know if this is an issue as much as it is something that I think is important to be a world-class city. I think we’ve got to keep cultivating our arts and culture community. I think we often think of them as an afterthought, as something that’s fun, but I think it’s a critical part to being a world-class city is having a thriving art community, having a thriving culture. And, Atlanta is known for its music culture, it’s becoming more known for our family entertainment culture. We’ve got to do a better job of empowering artists throughout the city. They create a culture that is unmatched, that makes people want to come to your city. It attracts people and it makes your population more intelligent. There’s so much to be found in having a thriving art scene. I actually think it’s a good economic generator for the city as well. Research has shown that, when you invest in art, you get more on your return investment than you put in. So, I think those are the five things that are sort of at the top of my mind.
Kamau Franklin: You mentioned a culture of corruption a couple of times and you started off with some of your main … at least the No. 1 thing that needs to be changed. The city’s been run for the past eight years by Kasim Reed, who you work for. How do you think he’s dealt with the culture of corruption in his administration?
Sterling: I think overall, the mayor has done a pretty good job. He brought me on as a federal prosecutor from an office that prosecuted two consecutive governors. Wasn’t afraid to let me look at the books. Everyone who’s worked with me would tell you that, when it comes to corruption, that is not something I play footsies with. I don’t fool around with it.
He was never afraid to let me take on the challenges. I took over the workforce development agency, it was under two federal investigations, one was civil and one was criminal. There’s been an indictment to come out of that one, it hasn’t gotten as much media attention but there was an indictment to come out of that. The executive director has to resign. I took over that agency, there was no “Don’t look at this, don’t look at that.” I looked at everything. I cleaned everything up systematically to make sure that things got back on the right footing, that we change the culture of corruption.
You have to honestly feel this sense of … when I saw everything coming out, I certainly felt a sense of “This isn’t right.” That wasn’t the type of operation we ran. Rouge individuals will do things in an administration … I don’t think it may have been complicit, I don’t think the mayor’s enabled anyone. I don’t think that he participated at all. It certainly would be a total shock to me based on the things that I saw, and I sat two office doors down from the mayor.
We cannot blame the mayor for that or even their superintendent. You don’t know who’s on the take sometimes and who’s getting paid underneath the tables.
Andre Moore: I’m going to bring it back to education. You mentioned about the resource on disparity that occurred because of taxes. Are there any ideas that you might have or the idea floating around about how to close the resource gap? Are children born in more impoverished neighborhoods going to continue to be doomed to a worse-education scenario?
Sterling: There are ideas I have, ideas about eliminating barriers to employment. I’ve had discussion like the Atlanta Women’s Foundation about. What are some of the toughest challenges you see? We see so many women who want to get a job who don’t have access to quality child care. If you can do something to address that issues, that would be critical. That’s something we can do. We can certainly provide more people with the ladder to economic stability through additional workforce training. We’ve got many jobs in the city, little skilled jobs that pay great living wages that are unfilled because people simply don’t have the skills to fill those jobs. There are people who want those skills, who are willing and ready to get those skills. We can do a better job of investing in workforce development solutions, so that people can get the skills they need for the jobs we have available in the city.
We can do a better job of holding people accountable who get tax incentives. If you’re getting incentives through the City of Atlanta through Invest Atlanta; you’re building something new, you’re getting a $20-million tax break, we should have some teeth, something that holds you accountable for hiring local residences who need those opportunities and for helping us pay for some of the training for those residents.
Franklin: It’s been suggested you don’t have name recognition. How do you fight through that perception to make people believe that you have a chance to win the mayorship?
Sterling: I’m not going to pretend like folks in Atlanta know roundly who I am. The way you fight through it is you have to go and introduce yourself to people. I think that name recognition is good, but record is better. I feel like I’ve done … I feel like the more I’m able to share my personal story and professional successes and commitment and dedication to helping people in the city of Atlanta with people, the better I’m going to do.
Cliff Albright: In 1990, the city was 60 percent-70 percent Black and now it’s about 50 percent. What policies do you plan to enact to incentivize the reversal of the trend of Black people leaving the city. And you live in Summerville, the community has gone through some transitions.
Sterling: Well, for one, you’ve got to make the city affordable. One of the reasons that … I’ve got buddies who are good friends of mine who wanted badly to live in the city of Atlanta, but there are two reasons that I know … I know this is anecdotal, but the two reasons that I know of personally of people who have decided they’re not going to live in the city … One was, they couldn’t afford it, they could go and find a more reasonably priced house or apartment location in Smyrna or Cobb County, south Cobb or Clayton County, Riverdale … They could find something that was a little more reasonable and that they could afford. Or they had children and they didn’t think that those kids were going to get the great public education that every child deserves. They had the money, so they decided they were going to live in Alpharetta or Decatur.
I think that those are two things that we have to absolutely address — we have to make in-town living more affordable. These developers who keep making so much money building all of these terrific properties in the city have to do a better job of working with us to make housing more affordable. There are a lot of … and I will reveal some of the things that I’d potentially be willing to do, but there are a lot of sticks and carrots that the mayor and city can do to bring developers to the table to make them partners and make them a participant in the affordable-housing process. I’m willing to work with developers, but they have to be a participant. You cannot keep benefiting so much from the city of Atlanta and everything that we’re doing while displacing people over and over again and then not coming to the table and being a part of the solution. They’ve got to work with us.
Nelson: So, you can’t share one of those sticks and carrots? … Nothing? (laughter).
Sterling: I mean … Let me try to give a hypothetical. If I’m mayor and I woke up tomorrow and I said, “We’re not doing anything else on the Beltline until you come to the table to talk about affordable housing, I’m not doing anything. We’re not going to have a meeting, we’re not going to have a conversation, we’re not going to do nothing. I’m not going to do nothing on the Beltline until you all come and have a conversation with us about affordable housing,” developers would go crazy! They would … my point is that there is a power … that’s not to say that’s something I would do, but there’s a power in the position, right? To say that, “Look, y’all, there are these … having people displaced is as much of an urgent issue as it is having more development and more neighborhoods built. These this aren’t separate, they are together.”
Albright: I think the issue you just touched on is the elephant in the room, right? It kind of goes back to the earlier question about name recognition and flexibility and all that. At the end … and just to give a little context, because you mentioned changing, revisiting the definition of affordable, that very issue is debated heavily at the time the Beltline was being composed. The push back comes from the real estate developer community, which also is a heavy contributor to all of these elections.
Sterling: I can tell you, I don’t get any money from developers (not yet right) (laughter). The people who get in my campaign, I give them a nickname — they are true believers. There’s no reason to support me unless you really just believe that I’m the best person for the job, that I’m the right candidate. That you’ve known me long enough to know that I’m going to go out and fight for things that are right.
When you look at my campaign contribution list, you see a community of people who are just pouring their support. People that I’ve encountered throughout my life who are willing to invest in my campaign. You don’t see city vendors (not yet). Maybe when they believe I have a chance of winning. People who are invested in my campaign weren’t invested in it for any superficial reasons, they’re not invested in it because I’m a frontrunner or because I raised the most money. They’re invested in it because they’ve looked in my eyes and they know that I will do the right thing if I become mayor.
Tanasia Kenney: On your website you you will draw on your years as a federal prosecutor to work with law enforcement on smarter ways to tackle crime, developing a larger public safety team that includes essential services and programs that have proven to reduce crime and increase neighborhood safety. Can you tell us specifically what policies you would put in place to reduce crime?
Sterling: One of the things that I want to increase and invest more money in is our community-oriented policing section. The city of Atlanta has a community-oriented policing section, which works with various communities, particularly communities that could oftentimes be targets of crime, to work with neighborhood organizations. I think we’ve got to invest more money in it. One of the polices that I’m absolutely going to promote is that cops that are going to the academy or trainees who are going through the academy, before you start to work a beat in our city, you’re going to have to attend a certain number of neighborhood meetings for every neighborhood organization NPU within that particular area.
I want us to have a much more integrated community-oriented policing section and I want our police officers, before they work a beat, to know the fabric of the neighborhood they’re working with. That is going to become a requirement in our academy. You’ve got to go to neighborhood and community meetings and work with different organizations before you step foot in a patrol car or patrol a neighborhood. You need to know who’s in that neighborhood, who the neighbors are. That will certainly be something that I will promote.
The Weed and Seed program, which was eliminated by the federal government a few years ago, is something that we may be able to implement at a local level. You target those high repeat offenders, which has been a problem for this city. There were cases that I looked at where somebody had committed a crime 45 times in our county and a lot of those repeat offenders were responsible for the majority of crimes that were happening in our city. We can do something to specifically target those repeat offenders, but, at the same time, do more integrated work in the community as it relates to …
I mentioned, everything I talk about is integrated, so I think that you’ve got to go in and have that workforce development training program. We’ve got to do more of providing an economic ladder, that includes a reentry program that gives people the opportunity after they’ve been incarcerated to be able to go and find that good job. One of the studies I’ve looked at is the Manhattan Institute, which says that a rapid attachment to work is the quickest way to stop recidivism from happening. I think that’s got to be a part of our program.
Franklin: A hotly debated topic right now is decriminalization of marijuana and the idea of over-policing happening not just in Atlanta but in a lot of large cities. What is your position on decriminalization?
Sterling: I don’t [think it’s] extraordinarily progressive now. It was progressive 10 years ago saying marijuana should be decriminalized. You’ve got 24 states that have now legalized it in one form or the other. Georgia is conservative Republicans, where constitutional majority of conservative Republicans have decriminalized, have legalized marijuana at least in one form. I don’t think it’s incredibly progressive or bold to say that I support decriminalization.
Franklin: You want to go further, you want to say something about heroin? (laughter).
Sterling: I’m not ready to go there! (laughter). Ten years ago, when I was a student in law school or 15 years ago when I was a student at Morehouse, when we were looking for legislators and folks to be progressive, my friends were [crosstalk 01:16:07] (laughter) folks to be progressive on marijuana issues, nobody was there. Now, it’s like everybody is jumping on, it’s not just me. Clarkson County has decriminalized it, it’s not like we would be some sort of extraordinary leader. I support the decriminalization, I don’t think that we should be wasting our resources and time going after people for petty marijuana cases. I think there’s a much more efficient use of police officers. So, yes, I support decriminalization.
Nelson: A key part of [revitalizing a city] is business. So, I want you to understand that we’re not picking on business when we talk about investors and so forth, but clearly this is essential to the growth of anything. I think you said that you would invest in small business start-ups to invest Atlanta and you will develop a venture capital fund utilizing the city’s economic development arm that provides access to capital, necessary resources to protect start-ups and small businesses. How much do you expect to invest and what are your other ideas to nurture and attract small business opportunities for Black businesses in Atlanta in particular?
Sterling: That’s good question. I don’t know if I’ve arrived at a number specifically, it certainly depends on the economic environment and there are a lot of variables that go into what’s feasible and not feasible. The two biggest barriers that small businesses face, or entrepreneurs face, is access to capital. To the extent that we can eliminate that barrier for somebody who has a great idea, great business plan, we can eliminate that barrier … particularly true of women entrepreneurs and minority entrepreneurs.
You see that we have a much more difficult time accessing capital and I think the city can play a critical role. I always give the example of, there was the small business back in the ’60s that the city decided to invest in and it became Delta. That was just a small business with an idea about the future. If you look at the integral role that’s played in what Atlanta is, you never know what their next idea is. You never know when someone is going to have that next idea that leads us into the future as a city. I think if we’ve got a culture as a city of investing in small business, we will be ready for the future.
Albright: Would you support the establishment of a minimum wage in Atlanta higher than … or a living wage higher than the federal minimum wage? And, if so, how much should it be and why?
Sterling: I’ll tell you my position on minimum wage. It’s interesting because I grew, my parents are both union workers, I’m giving you some context for what I’m about to tell you. My parents were both union workers, my dad’s United Steel worker, my mom is AFSCME. We’ve had these conversations about minimum wage, particularly federal minimum wage. I believe, and I’ve had these conversations with union workers for the $15/hr. My response has been to them and the conversations that we’ve had is, I believe that the minimum wage should be directly a livable wage.
Albright: So, would it be fair to say, you mentioned the $12.50 in Georgia.
Sterling: Oh I would support the increase up to at least livable wage standard, whatever that may be. I would make exceptions for temporary employment like summer employment for youths, but I think the … everybody says you shouldn’t work 40 hours a week, especially people who care, say you shouldn’t work 40 hours a week and not be able to provide for your basic needs. That answers that — livable wage for everybody who works 40 hours a week.
Nelson: It’s been an hour and a half of great conversation. I’m about to wrap it here, but I have one more question to close it out. Kamau mentioned at the intro part of this interview that, eventually, we’ll endorse one of the candidates. The final question is, we reach about six million people per month. In Atlanta, it’s about 300,000 people we reach per month that read our online publication. What are the five reasons, if you could talk to one of our readers today, to give them a plea of why we should endorse you?
Sterling: Okay. I think that I am the only candidate in this race with a unique set of personal and professional experience to tackle every single challenge I’ve laid out to you that is important to the city of Atlanta. From corruption, as a federal prosecutor, having tackled it. Having personally indicted people who broke the public trust. To public safety, working to solve complex and tough crimes, bringing that experience in the mayor’s office. To economic equality and opportunity, working at the workforce development agency hand in hand with people every day and trying to help them find that ladder of opportunity. Education, working with my educational partners in APS, when I was at the workforce agency to help students find summer employment and provide mentorship to them.
Every issue that we had a conversation about today and all of the toughest challenges that our city faces, I’m the only person with a unique and diverse set of experience to tackle every single challenge. A demonstrated commitment, compassion for those issues that people are dealing with every day. That would be my reason.
Franklin: Thank you for coming in, coming out. We appreciate your time.
Sterling: No problem. Y’all are tough. (laughter)