Atlanta is poised for a historic moment this fall: it has LGBT candidates running for City Council, City Council president and mayor.
“We have an exciting slate of people running for office,” said Kirk Rich, an Atlanta realtor running for the District 6 council seat. “Almost half of city council will be new members. You’ll have a new mayor, and that new mayor doesn’t have a lot of loyalties to past mayors. That’s a great opportunity for the city, that hopefully everybody comes in with the right priorities.”
Rich is one of four LGBT candidates running for spots on the council. Lock Whiteside, a teacher at Inman Middle School, is running against him for District 6. Business owner Liliana Bakhtiari, who identifies as queer, is in the race for District 5, and former District 6 councilman Alex Wan looks to be council president.
The role of the city council is akin to that of Congress, and mayor that of President. The council sets laws and policies of the city, and the council president assigns committee roles and votes when needed, Rich said. Some of the biggest projects for the new city government are in the infrastructure arena — things like the new Falcons stadium and its surrounding neighborhoods, not to mention roadways.
“We want to change, but we don’t want to change at the cost of the people who are Atlanta,” Bakhtiari said. “We’re seeing a growth of couples and families who want to move to the city, and Atlanta is a beacon of hope for a lot of those queer youth because we are right in the middle of the Bible Belt.”
Campaign fundraising is a vital part of running for elected office, and early fundraising means a candidate’s name and message hits the populace sooner. Several candidates already raised more than $100,000, and others are just beginning to get the word out.
Funding the path to office
Rich said his budget is in the market of $200,000, most of which will be spent on data collection and advertising.
“A lot of what we spend money on gets down to as simple as printing. Those are things that really cost the money, and you want to make sure you have plenty to be competitive,” he said. “We are also doing things that are not dollar-centric, which are me putting on my comfy shoes and doing door-knocking.”
Charles Bulloch, Richard Russell professor of political science at the University of Georgia said there’s not a baseline amount of money a municipal candidate needs to run a successful campaign, but more is better than less.
“It depends upon what competition they’re facing, so that if one candidate goes up on television, you better be prepared to go up on television,” he said.
For an Atlanta market, to ensure each viewer saw the ad 10 times, Bulloch heard that could cost upwards of $350,000.
Bulloch remembers discovering in 2014 that his 20-student political science class hadn’t seen a televised attack ad that took over news channels during the election season.
“If you were watching news shows you were going to see it, but the fact that they didn’t [see it] underscored the fact that they didn’t watch TV. If you want to reach the millennial voters, you’ll probably have to go to social media,” he said.
Though having a campaign office and manager can be important parts of running for office, Bulloch said candidates must not “spend too heavily” in that regard.
“Inexperienced campaigns, that’s how they dig themselves into a hole,” he said. “It comes time to get the message out, and [the money] has all been sunk into amenities.”
Wan wouldn’t reveal his campaign budget to Georgia Voice, but did say he plans to stick to a fairly traditional strategy. In a lot of ways, this race will be similar to ones he’s won before, just on a grander scale.
“Now, beyond talking about one district, we’re talking about the city as a whole and talking to people city-wide,” Wan said. “I think the cost of a city-wide campaign is very different and a lot larger.”
Wan also has an active contributions report for District 6, but said those funds can only be used in the district and cannot be used for the council president campaign.
“I have been using those to make donations, event tickets and other minor expenses,” he said.
Growing Atlanta further
One of his main motivations for running this year is that he’s still got a lot to give, and feels he can make broader progress on his ideas and improvements from the presidency than a council seat. Giving is also a reason Rich wants his name on the ballot.
“I’ve done well in my life and Atlanta’s the reason I’ve done well. It’s been a city that gave back more than I could be given,” Rich said. “I saw firsthand that there just aren’t people within the city’s structure that really do completely understand how to speak to a developer and to understand kind of the complexities of what they do.”
According to his campaign literature, Whiteside’s priorities include protecting the LGBT community’s rights, ending the much-discussed corruption at City Hall and HIV prevention. Bakhtiari plans to fight for the developing Eastside community and economic equality for all of her constituents, as well as improved infrastructure. She is also a big proponent of affordable, mixed-income housing.
“I really love my city. The residents here know how great Atlanta is. Atlanta is a city that doesn’t always love you back, and you have to be very resilient to live here, but I absolutely believe we can create a city that has the ability to love its residents back,” she said.
Being an educator influenced a number of Whiteside’s campaign priorities, including improvements to the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
“My job is to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s real. I see it every day,” he said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about running for office and making change, and coming from a different perspective than your typical cookie-cutter politician.”
LGBT issues also take center stage in Whiteside’s plans for the city, if elected. He wants to make the rainbow crosswalks at 10th and Piedmont permanent and increase education about HIV prevention and pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, treatments.
Wan said though it’s a turning point moment to have the LGBT community well-represented in municipal elections, he can’t wait for the day when it’s not a novel occurrence.
“I think it speaks volumes that we have so many candidates running this year. [Atlanta mayoral candidate] Cathy Woolard was the first to be elected in Georgia and she was the only one. And now you have candidate up and down the ballot seeking office,” he said. “I think that shows a lot of progress.”