LGBT entrepreneurs gathered at the Four Seasons in Midtown on June 23 to hear from eight of Atlanta’s mayoral candidates, who presented as part of the “Rise of the Rainbow Economy” business summit.
“There has never been a mayoral forum for the LGBT community that has focused on business,” said Glen Paul Freedman, a government affairs board member for the Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. “We wanted to have an opportunity to be able to incorporate the LGBT community in a business kind of setting, also throwing in a few community questions with that.”
Questions focused on the candidates’ vision for Atlanta and how they planned to incorporate and represent the LGBT community.
“We want to make sure that they heard loud and clear that the LGBT community has a lot of very talented people who are business and community activists, and it’s important that they see that,” Freedman said.
Present at the forum were Cathy Woolard, the first out Atlanta City Council president; Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms; Peter Aman, former chief operating officer for the city of Atlanta; Mary Norwood, Atlanta City councilwoman; Ceasar Mitchell, sitting Atlanta City Council president; Kwanza Hall, Atlanta City councilman; former state Sen. Vincent Fort; and John Eaves, sitting Fulton County Commission chairman.
When forum moderator Maria Saporta of the SaportaReport asked candidates how they planned to ensure LGBT businesses would be able to take part in city contracts and bids, Woolard had something to say.
“This is a critical issue. This is the No. 1 issue for this group and they deserve to understand from the people who are up here whether we’re going to move forward with this or not,” Woolard said. “If y’all have certification as minority businesses from the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, I will accept that as mayor and make sure that you’re included in our bidding and contracting.”
Woolard added that she would ensure businesses that scored high on the Corporate Equality Index, a measure of inclusivity offered by the Human Rights Campaign, would also receive due consideration for city contracts.
Better for business
Woolard also revealed that if elected, she plans to have a small business liaison council: small business collectives like AGLCC would then have a direct line to the mayor and City Hall. Norwood has similar plans, and Hall added the mayor should not only have LGBT liaisons and business councils, but should also make sure to be a visible patron.
“The way you can be engaged as a mayor is to go visit and support those businesses. If they don’t know you and you don’t show up and have a presence, it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind,” he said.
Eaves promised to offer educational pre-bidding workshops for businesses, and Aman said he has a specific plan to address the problems faced by small businesses in the city.
“We are hard to do business with as a city,” he said. “What I’m committed to doing is creating simplified contracting processes for small businesses so you don’t have to spend $50,000 on an attorney to submit a bid.”
When it came to talking about just where LGBT individuals will fit into the new mayor’s team, Aman made a point that in order to get diverse voices, diverse people must be at the table in the first place.
“I think the leadership of our city should reflect our city,” Bottoms said, echoing Aman’s comments. “As we transition into a new administration … then you make that known so as you can cast the net for the best and brightest talent, you make sure that you also cast a net for a diverse group of candidates to choose from.”
Fort, Hall, Norwood and Woolard made it a point to share that they have LGBT staff members, and Woolard said it was the mayor’s duty to ensure this community is represented in city leadership.
“There’s a phrase out there in the world called ‘you can’t be what you can’t see,’” she said. “For young people … we owe it to them to see a city that is staffed by people who represent the diversity of our world so that they can look at that group of people and see a place for themselves. … I didn’t get elected to be the gay person in the place, but I got elected knowing I had the responsibility to do things.”
Eaves said one of the biggest inclusivity challenges the next mayor must address are the racial and socioeconomic “fault lines” dividing the city. Aman agreed, saying those divisions must be brought to light.
“My belief is that to represent everybody, you have to spend time with people. You have to listen to them. You have to put yourself in their shoes to the best possible ability you can,” Aman said. “You also have to recognize the limits to your ability to do so. I cannot fully understand what it’s like to be discriminated against because of the color of my skin. That is not something I am able to fully internalize. I am, however, able to listen and understand the challenges and have a team that works on those challenges with me.”
The candidates seemed to be excited at the prospect of leading a city known for being inclusive, given that it has the state’s only comprehensive civil rights bill that includes gender identity and sexual orientation.
Atlanta’s first out police chief
A major community-related question arose about one of the city’s appointed public safety officials. All eight candidates spoke highly of Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, who is the first openly LGBT police chief the city’s ever had. It will be up to Atlanta’s next mayor to decide if Shields keeps her position, which she was appointed to by Mayor Kasim Reed in December 2016, or if a new chief will be chosen.
Most of the candidates would not commit one way or the other.
“I think Erika Shields is an excellent choice. I think she seems to be off to a great start, but I don’t make promises that anybody gets to keep a job six months before I get the position,” Woolard said.
Hall, however, said he is “100 percent in support of keeping her,” and Bottoms said Shields would be her top pick as well — both comments Fort alluded to as “presumptuous.”