ATLANTA ― The drab white-brick office space sits some 30 feet from Campbellton Road on an island of its own, with a chicken restaurant on one side and a fenced-off auto body shop on the other. When Vincent Fort arrived in town, in 1978, Campbellton Road was thriving. Mr. V’s Figure 8 disco was there, and in those days, if you were young and black, Mr. V’s was the place to be. Golden horse statues, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, that “earthquake sound.”
“You would see these commercials for Mr. V’s Figure 8 in Atlanta and you would say, ‘Damn, they got it goin’ on over there! When I go to Atlanta, I’m going to Mr. V’s Figure 8,’” Fort recalled, laughing. “That’s exactly what people did.”
Decades later, Mr. V’s is gone, and the Westgate Shopping Center that housed it, Fort said, “looks like it has fallen on very serious, hard times.”
It was at the Westgate that Fort, a longtime activist-legislator, launched his campaign for mayor a year ago. He chose the spot for a reason: He believes it represents the decline of the poor and predominantly working-class parts of Atlanta ― a decline he has made it his mission to stop.
“Campbellton Road reflects the neglect of City Hall” better than any almost any other neighborhood, he said.
We were sitting in a side room at his spare campaign headquarters a mile from the Westgate Shopping Center, on the southwest side of Atlanta. If not for the red “Fort for Atlanta mayor” placards in the windows, there would be little to inform a passerby that this is where Fort ― who mere months ago was the no. 2 Democrat in the Georgia state Senate ― is vying, with the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for the mayoralty of a city of nearly half a million people.
An air conditioning unit above the front doorway drips on anyone walking inside. An enormous yellow “Occupy Homes” banner hangs from the wall. The office furniture consists of nothing more than several tables, some folding chairs and three black couches that Fort notes with a chuckle are pleather. The whole campaign is a lean operation. Fort does not have a campaign manager. He handles his own media requests and manages his own Twitter account.
It’s the man himself who fills the room. Fort is a mustachioed 61-year-old with a stout build and black-frame glasses held together at the bridge. He is given to impassioned, even angry arguments about policy. The oratory doesn’t soar so much as brawl. His tirades generally center on the failures of City Hall to look out for working-class people. Now, on a stretch of Campbelltown Road that had seen better days, Fort was jabbing a finger on the table, mid-exhortation.
“That’s what’s at stake here,” he said. “This is serious business, because we’ve gone from 20 percent gentrified to 70 percent gentrified at something like 5 percent a year. And if the wrong person gets elected on Nov. 7, guess what? By 2021, the end of the next administration, it could very well be impossible to revert.”
Fort is locked in a tight race ahead of Atlanta’s nonpartisan primary on Nov. 7. Assuming none of the 10 contenders gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates would proceed to a Dec. 5 runoff. City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has the endorsement of Mayor Kasim Reed (D), leads the field with 25.4 percent of the vote, followed by City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, the most conservative candidate in the race, who has 23.4 percent support, according to the latest WSB-TV poll.
Fort is in a distant fifth place with 7.9 percent, according to the survey, with 5.6 percent of voters still undecided. (His campaign maintains that media polls that rely on landline calls undercount young voters. They say internal polling shows Fort in a competitive bid for second place.)
Fort’s run has received limited national attention, but it is difficult to overstate the implications of a hypothetical Fort upset for Democratic Party politics across the country.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election, a fierce debate has erupted within Democratic ranks about how the party should orient itself to take back power.
Many left-leaning Democrats have argued that the only path forward for the party is a brand of genuine economic populism to contrast the faux populism of the commander in chief. The answer to the disappointing performance of Hillary Clinton is more of the renegade politics of Sanders, according to these activists, who note that Sanders is the most popular politician in the country.
The trouble is that Sanders’ critics were able to paint him, often unfairly, as a class warrior with a blind spot for racial and sexual injustice.
As a result, those skeptical of a populist pivot invariably raise concerns that remaking the Democratic Party in Sanders’ image would mean downplaying the particular types of oppression experienced by black people and other marginalized groups.
Fort, a Sanders supporter who has spent his career fighting for the rights and well-being of his black constituents, offers a populist model for Democrats eager to avoid a false choice between universal progressive policies and solutions tailored to the needs of specific communities.
During his two decades in the Georgia state Senate, where he rose to the rank of Democratic whip, Fort spearheaded the passage of a landmark hate crime law and what was once the country’s strongest anti-predatory lending law. As recently as 2015, he played a lead role in a fight to ensure that $3 billion in new state transportation funding would include the participation of minority-owned businesses and workers in underserved communities.
Fort’s “sense of being civic-minded is with an eye toward first and foremost addressing the challenges and systems that lead to massive inequalities, and massive inequalities that clearly are racialized, but also, of course, intersect with class,” said Michael Leo Owens, an expert in African-American politics at Emory University.
And unlike Sanders, who sometimes had trouble convincing black voters that he understood their particular concerns, Fort has a record of winning black voters’ trust and representing their interests in the state legislature, according to Owens.
“It almost ends up sounding like Fort’s the ‘black Bernie,’” he said. “But another way to do it is to flip it around and say, ‘No, Bernie is the white Vincent Fort’ ― Vincent Fort being superior in some ways.”
The Problem With Universal Strategies
John powell likes to put his students through a little exercise. A civil rights expert and political theorist at the University of California, Berkeley, powell (who styles his name without capital letters) asks his students with glasses to take them off and try to read a projector slide. Then he asks the students who don’t wear glasses to put on a classmate’s specs and try reading the slide. Needless to say, neither group can do it.
The point is to show that insisting on a one-size-fits-all method for achieving a common goal ― in this case viewing a projector slide ― does not work.
“The universal goal is to see the slide,” said powell, whose work has appeared on HuffPost. “The way you do that is different.”
The same lessons apply in policymaking, according to powell.
“Universal strategies don’t work because people are not situated the same ways in terms of structures and in terms of culture,” he said.
Powell is the forefather of a school of thought he has dubbed “targeted universalism.” Targeted universalism dictates that in order to achieve universal goals ― like a dignified standard of living ― society must address the particular circumstances that shape the lives of people in specific groups.
This puts him at odds, a bit, with some of the more energetic segments of the Democratic base. Buoyed by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, they have rallied around bold, universal economic policies like single-payer health care, free college tuition and a trillion-dollar infrastructure program. Universal programs of this sort, their advocates would argue, are less vulnerable to political attack than targeted programs, which conservatives have used racially coded rhetoric to smear as handouts.
For a contingent of leftists, this is a matter of first principles. People’s material conditions are the driver of historical change, they maintain, and organizing white and black working people under the banner of class solidarity is the only real route to eradicating racism. For these reasons they tend to eschew solutions that are narrowly tailored to the specific disparities in living standards experienced by marginalized communities.
But race-blind, universalist solutions can’t address the unique challenges of marginalized communities, according to powell. His list of “structures,” or axes along which different people can be privileged or oppressed, includes race, gender, sexual orientation and immigration status. He also considers largely white communities with pervasive, multigenerational poverty, such as those in Appalachia, to be marginalized groups in need of customized policy solutions.
Universal programs “don’t address inequality and in some sense, squander resources,” powell said. “Targeted universalism can avoid some of that. Actually it can avoid a lot of it.”
Race and class in America have been intimately intertwined, and things that affect class disproportionately affect African-Americans. Vincent Fort
Fort isn’t allergic to universalist approaches, but he is sensitive to the racialized arrangements and outcomes of American life in ways that make him unique in the Democratic Party. Consider the 2016 primary, which pitted Sanders, who was an imperfect spokesman for an intersectional social and economic justice movement, against Hillary Clinton, who seemed to see racism primarily as a matter of bad individual conduct, rather than a phenomenon embedded in the institutions that govern us. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will, if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?” Clinton asked supporters at a February 2016 rally. “No!” the crowd shouted.
Fort, who knows about Sanders’ college-era civil disobedience work with the Congress of Racial Equality, simply never bought the argument that the Vermont senator is insufficiently attuned to the concerns of black people. Perhaps more importantly, Fort also rejects the premise of Clinton’s call-and-response line. In his view, taking on Wall Street is an essential component of the fight for racial equality.
Fort will tell you he understands “the impacts of the big banks on regular people better than anyone in the country ― other than the lawyers who work this stuff.”
“I have had to sit in rooms with people and look at the loan documents and say, ‘Ma’am, you need to get a lawyer, because you’re about to lose this house,’” he said. “So can’t anyone ― Hillary Clinton or anyone else ― tell me a damn thing about how Wall Street affects people, particularly because most of the people whose front rooms I have sat in to tell them they’re gonna lose their house have been black women.”
For Fort, the interconnected nature of the struggles for economic and racial justice has been intuitive since his upbringing in a working-class black household in New Britain, Connecticut.
“Race and class in America have been intimately intertwined, and things that affect class disproportionately affect African-Americans,” Fort said.
Powell would go further. Take the myriad ways that race can shape policy outcomes ― even when controlling for class. Class populists often argue that the primary significance of race lies with the fact that black Americans have a disproportionately high rate of poverty.
But even middle-class African-Americans are subject to disadvantages that do not afflict their white peers. Black families earning $100,000 a year or more are still four times more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, which are tied to lower-performing schools and lower social mobility opportunities for children later in life.
And black infants are more than twice as likely as white infants to die in their first year of life, regardless of the education and income levels of the women who give birth to them.
Those racial disparities, powell emphasizes, are not because of some intrinsic property of skin color, but because of historical injustices against black Americans that have not been remedied, and in some cases continue unabated. For example, the higher rates of affluent black families in impoverished neighborhoods are a feature of racial housing segregation. This segregation persists due to the lending restrictions, or “redlining” practices and subsequent abusive lending policies that have disproportionately targeted black families of all income levels.
“That’s inherited discrimination,” powell said.
And while the reasons for higher black infant mortality are still something of a mystery, scholars have posited that the elevated stress levels associated with ordinary discrimination and feelings of marginalization likely play a role.
As a result, a universal health insurance policy unaccompanied by targeted solutions might actually amplify racial disparities, by increasing demand for health care without also increasing the supply of health care providers in segregated black neighborhoods.
Indeed, in Massachusetts between 2004 and 2009 ― which includes the period following the late 2006 passage of a universal state health care law under then-Gov. Mitt Romney ― the rate of preventable hospital admissions went up 1.8 percent for black residents, according to a Harvard study that appears to support powell’s point. By contrast, the rate of preventable hospital admissions declined by 2.1 percent among the overall population.
“If you take a universal strategy, because people are unevenly situated, oftentimes you reproduce the unevenness,” powell said.
A hybrid approach, one that coupled universal coverage with new dedicated health care resources for Massachusetts’ often segregated black community, might have yielded different results, powell theorized.
Powell is aware that targeted universalism is vulnerable to being interpreted as favoritism for minority groups. But, he says, that can be addressed by making it clear the targeted approach is merely a tool in the pursuit of a universal goal.
“You can focus on groups... where you actually build a common and inclusive ‘we,’” he said. “Or you can focus on groups in such a way that some groups seem like you’re just focusing on them narrowly, and other groups that are not being focused on, they’re resentful.”
Learning From The Unsanitized Martin Luther King
Fort’s first memories of activism are not of black civil rights marches, but of his father’s work with the United Auto Workers union. The elder Fort was a lathe operator who worked the night shift at a steel ball bearings plant.
“My father was very clear about how important unions were, and how important unions were for black people,” Fort said.
His father had severe arthritis, making it painful for him to walk the picket line during strikes. But he always showed up and never complained, Fort recalled.
“It inspires me to this very hour,” he said.
Yet more than any other moment in his childhood, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King played a pivotal role in Fort’s development as a progressive organizer.
As a 12-year-old, Fort remembered watching King’s April 1968 speech in Memphis, Tennessee, on television with his mother. In the speech that would be King’s last, he reassured his fellow black Americans that even with the challenges facing the movement, he was at peace because he had “been to the mountaintop” and seen the “promised land” ― a future of freedom and justice.
Fort’s mother expressed concern that King would soon be murdered.
“I remember being vexed by that ― even the specter of danger being raised bothering me,” Fort said.
A day later, King was shot dead at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The shock of King’s death never left Fort. As an adult, he moved to Atlanta to pursue graduate studies in the history of the civil rights movement, and quickly became active in efforts to improve the lives of working-class and impoverished black Atlantans through community organizing.
He was captivated not by the sanitized version of King immortalized in popular culture, but by the more radical, late-stage King whom Fort said is “often ignored or played down” by mainstream writers and politicians.
In the last few years of his life, King became an outspoken critic of global capitalism and U.S. foreign policy, including, most notably, the Vietnam War. His vision of a multiracial movement for peace and economic justice inspired him to launch the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign to lift up impoverished people of all races. Fatefully, the initiative took King to Memphis to help striking sanitation workers.
“I have been, as an academic and an activist, interested in that scenario. Can we create a multiracial working-class movement in this country?” Fort said. “So I studied it. I organized around it, and my best efforts as an elected official have been organized around that.”
If we could resurrect King and ask him, ‘Of these candidates, who do you think most speaks to the concerns that were on your mind at the time of your assassination?’ I suspect that his ghost would say, ‘Vincent Fort.’ Michael Leo Owens, Emory University
After moving to Atlanta in 1978, Fort completed a master’s degree in African-American history and made a living teaching at historically black colleges like Morehouse. He put down roots in the city, fathering three children, and finding a spiritual home at New Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.
But Fort could not resist the call of community organizing. He took on Bank of America for shutting down branches in predominantly black neighborhoods across the city, and joined the push to remove Confederate symbols from the Georgia state flag. By 1996, he was ready to take his activism to the state Capitol. He ran for state Senate and won.
Owens, of Emory University, says that Fort channels the same “leftist black prophetic voice” embodied by King and his deputy leader, Hosea Williams, as well as contemporary leaders like Rev. William Barber in North Carolina and Rainbow PUSH Coalition founder Jesse Jackson.
“They’re all sort of in this same clearly leftist, clearly Christian [figures] steeped in the practice and the movement of civil rights in the United States,” Owens said. “All of them would be leaning on a social gospel guiding much of their public presence, so there are these very, very strong parallels and connections among those folks.”
“If we could resurrect King and ask him, ‘Of these candidates, who do you think most speaks to the concerns that were on your mind at the time of your assassination?’” he added. “I suspect that his ghost would say, ‘Vincent Fort.’”
Targeted Universalism In Practice
In two decades as a state senator and more than a decade as an academic-cum-community organizer before that, Fort compiled a record of political accomplishments that embodied the techniques of targeted universalism ― of aiming for a universal goal with policies tailored to the particular needs of different groups.
Fort never disavowed class-based universalism. It was a staple of his worldview, rhetoric and priorities. He simply viewed targeted policies as an indispensable complement to his fight.
If Democrats “want to adopt economic populism, go for it ― but also recognize people are not situated the same and you do need things to address people who are sort of at the margins, who are different,” powell said. “And that, in a pernicious way, shouldn’t be referred to as identity politics.”
Fort’s biggest legislative accomplishments ― a law allowing enhanced sentences for hate crimes, and anti-predatory lending regulations that were the strongest in the country at the time ― are models of this approach.
Fort’s stewardship of the hate crimes law, which would pass in 2000, began, as much of his activism has, with an emotional experience that brought him in touch with the oppression a particular community faces. In this case, it was the LGBTQ community.
In February 1997, an anti-gay extremist bombed the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian bar in Atlanta, injuring five people. It was the fourth apparent terror attack in a period of seven months. All of the incidents, it would emerge, were the work of Christian right-wing terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph.
The event shook Fort, moving him to fight for the passage of a hate crimes bill creating harsher penalties for acts of violence directed at minority groups, including members of the LGBT community.
Although Fort is a practicing Baptist, he says he never really entertained religious objections to providing gay and lesbian state residents with specific legal protections.
In fact, Fort was an early proponent of gay rights, convincing an Atlanta city council candidate whose 1989 campaign he was running to back legalizing same-sex domestic partnerships, a goal that put the candidate at the progressive avant-garde of LGBTQ policy at the time.
Fort saw the issue of LGBT discrimination as an open-and-shut case of solidarity with groups that faced the kind of discrimination he was familiar with as a black man, according to Larry Pellegrini, a board member of Georgia Stonewall Democrats, who has worked with Fort for decades and now backs his mayoral bid.
“That’s how Vincent does everything. He sees people who need something and he understands,” said Pellegrini, who is also executive director of the Georgia Rural-Urban Summit, a state-level progressive group.
Picking up where other Democratic lawmakers had left off in previous failed attempts, Fort developed what would become the “Anti-domestic Terrorism Act” in 1999 in close coordination with the Anti-Defamation League, a group dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and racism, which already had model legislation from successful campaigns in other states.
The bill would allow for “enhanced sentences” in cases where a judge determined “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the victim of a crime had been targeted based on their race, religion, skin color, nationality, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
Fort spearheaded the bill’s passage in the state Senate in 2000, after a failed first attempt in 1999. The battle still proved far more challenging in the state House.
In order to get it passed, House Democratic leaders took out key terms defining the categories of protected people, replacing them with a blanket description of crimes motivated by “bias or prejudice.”
The law proved effective, enabling the state to seek higher penalties in several assault cases. For example, a man convicted of hitting a lesbian woman in the head at a bar in 2001 ended up doing jail time for a simple battery charge that would have previously only required probation.
Unfortunately for the bill’s proponents, however, the vaguer language adopted by the Georgia House made it vulnerable to legal challenge. Defendants argued that the measure’s definition of a hate crime was too broad to isolate crimes aimed at people because of their membership in a specific group. The Georgia Supreme Court invalidated the law in October 2004, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”
Fort has periodically reintroduced new hate crimes bills in the state Senate, with no success thus far. Georgia is now one of just five states without a law of some kind allowing for tougher sentences on hate crimes.
Fort believes the original law’s enactment, though fleeting, was not a complete loss.
“We changed the conversation,” he said. “This idea, this discussion and debate over hate crimes, educated the community.”
Nothing’s a utopia. But Atlanta’s special. Michael Render, aka Killer Mike
Fort’s next major legislative achievement ― the passage of the country’s toughest predatory lending law ― was to regulate a practice that itself targeted vulnerable groups. From Fort’s perspective it was as formidable a blow for the rights of his black constituents as any in his career.
In 1998, Fort attended a predatory lending hearing in Atlanta convened by then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo. The stories, from elderly women facing foreclosure after banks had suckered them into high-interest, high-fee loans, struck a nerve with Fort.
“They were almost all black women who had been ripped off by banks and mortgage companies,” Fort said. “When I heard these stories of such great, menacing theft... I announced at that meeting that I was going to introduce a bill like the one that had been introduced in North Carolina.” (In 1999, North Carolina became the first state to pass a state-level anti-predatory lending law.)
Thus commenced a monthslong immersion in the issue. Fort learned that Wall Street banks like Bank of America had gobbled up shady subprime lenders, and that they were using these companies to market refinancing deals to working-class homeowners that provided short-term cash in exchange for hidden, exorbitant fees and the equity in their homes.
The loans trapped people in cycles of debt that frequently cost them their homes. Worse still, abusive lenders were much more likely to target black borrowers, regardless of their income levels, according to a 1998 study conducted by HUD.
“Atlanta and Decatur County were ground zero for this predatory lending, and you had lots of homes, particularly in communities of color, targeted for these loans,” said Michael Calhoun, who, as an expert at the nonprofit group Self-Help, spent several months helping Fort write the legislation.
With the riskier new loans came a dramatic surge in foreclosures that hit Atlanta particularly hard. In Atlanta, the foreclosure rate for subprime loans skyrocketed by 232 percent from 1996 to 1999, while the rate of conventional home loans rose just 7 percent over the same period, according to Federal Reserve data cited by Gary Rivlin in his 2010 book Broke, USA.
Fort was “dogged” in his organizing efforts on behalf of the legislation, according to Calhoun, who is now president of the Center for Responsible Lending.
When Fort introduced the first iteration of the law in 2001, the banking lobby was able to weaken it in committee, prompting Fort to drop the bill and start anew in the 2002 legislative session.
With the help of then-Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, the state’s most recent Democratic chief executive and now a top backer of Fort’s mayoral bid, Fort was able to pass a law with teeth the following year.
The 2002 legislation had two key features. It severely restricted the issuance of the types of high-fee loans designed to entrap vulnerable borrowers. And it allowed borrowers who believe they were wronged to sue anyone who had possession of the loan, rather than merely the original lender.
With the financial industry devising ever-more exotic tools to offload the risk of the bad loans onto feckless investors, the latter provision proved essential, Calhoun said.
“The Georgia law was used as a substantial model, along with other state laws, that became the [Dodd-Frank] reform law in 2010,” he said.
Had the Georgia law been in place nationwide prior to the 2008 financial crisis, Calhoun said, a lot of the worst practices “wouldn’t have happened.”
But not only would the country fail to adopt such a law in time to avoid economic catastrophe, Georgia would gut its own reform measure. Barnes lost his re-election bid in 2002 largely due to a backlash over his successful removal of the “Southern Cross” of the Confederate battle flag from the Georgia state flag.
The new Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, quickly moved to gut the predatory lending bill, beginning by preventing borrowers from suing beyond the original lender.
Still, Fort played a crucial role in raising awareness of the ways that predatory lending exploits all people ― and, disproportionately, black people.
“He helped lift it up as an issue,” Calhoun said. “He was one of the early people warning of the threat on these issues before people saw it for the threat for that it was.”
Fort’s fight against abusive lending also laid the seeds for his activism since then. His commitment to housing justice made him a natural critic of the rapid gentrification of Atlanta in the past decade. He has become one of the loudest opponents of measures that threaten Atlanta’s overwhelmingly black working-class and poor residents with dislocation.
Rental properties in Atlanta with rents of $750 a month or less have declined by 4.4 percent annually from 2006 to 2013, according to a 2015 analysis by Dan Immergluck, an urban planning expert then at Georgia Tech. At the same time, 95 percent of rental units built in the city between 2012 and 2014 were luxury units, according to real estate industry data cited by Immergluck.
The development of Atlanta for the benefit of high-earning young professionals, students and suburban families rediscovering the city has sparked what the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta calls an “eviction crisis” in the Greater Atlanta area as rising prices push out low- and moderate-income renters.
In Fulton County, where all but a sliver of Atlanta is located, 22 percent of renters were evicted in 2015, according to the Atlanta Fed ― twice the eviction rate of Cleveland. (The county, which has a population more than twice the size of the city, includes many suburbs north and south of Atlanta.)
Fort has made affordable housing the centerpiece of his campaign. He has proposed increasing city funding for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund that subsidizes low-income housing by as much as is “needed,” claiming he is open to an injection of $350 million or more. Unlike his rivals, Fort says he would exclusively prioritize subsidies, preservation funds and inclusionary zoning for households with annual incomes of $24,300 or less.
As a mayoral candidate, Fort has pushed idealistic policy goals as eagerly as he did as an activist or legislator. He is open about his support for single-payer health care at the national level ― a position he claims to have held since he was a teenager. And if elected mayor, he has promised the city would provide public school graduates with a two-year community college or vocational school degree.
Michael Render ― better known as Killer Mike, one half of the rap duo Run the Jewels, and a top Sanders booster ― is backing Fort’s mayoral bid, because he sees in Fort an opportunity to elect an authentic progressive at the local level. Without bold policies like free college or free trade school to provide a ladder out of poverty, Render fears that his own success story will not be available to future generations of Atlantans.
“Nothing’s a utopia. But Atlanta’s special,” Render said. “And if we don’t preserve that special, we go the way of Detroit, we go the way of Watts, we go the way of Compton, we go the way of Harlem, and we start being a city that’s playing black from defense and we don’t have to.”
Vincent is a pragmatic intellectual. He understands the economic theories that underpin [policies], but he also understands that politics is the art of the possible. Janice Mathis, former Rainbow PUSH vice president
For obvious reasons, Fort has had fewer opportunities to pursue ambitious legislation since Democrats lost the governorship and then the state Senate in 2003.
But when openings present themselves to exploit Republican divisions for Democratic gain, Fort has taken advantage. His work often ensures that Republican state policies address the specific needs of his working-class black constituents.
One such deal took place in 2015, when Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and Republican leadership sought to enact a gas tax that would generate $3 billion in transportation funding.
Although Georgia’s influential business community backed the tax, the legislature’s sizable contingent of ultra-conservative tea party lawmakers firmly opposed any tax hike. That meant Republican leaders needed Democratic votes to pass the measure.
In conjunction with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and other civil rights groups, Fort and the legislature’s black caucus insisted that the new transportation funding include clauses to ensure that minority-owned businesses would receive some portion of the contracts.
The legislature’s Democrats fell short of their goal, but succeeded in securing the creation of a state Disadvantaged Business Enterprises program aimed at aligning the new funding with past minority employment goals set by the Georgia Department of Transportation. The state DOT also committed to conducting a study of the racial disparity in the contracts it awards.
“Vincent is a pragmatic intellectual,” said Janice Mathis, a former Rainbow PUSH vice president. “He understands the economic theories that underpin [policies], but he also understands that politics is the art of the possible.”
An Uphill Battle In A Corporate Town
Fort and his campaign staff were well into the whiskey hours on the night of the first televised mayoral debate, in October, at the Georgia Tech campus. They were unwinding at Noni’s, a hip Italian restaurant in the Edgewood neighborhood. Fort’s red tie lay folded on the table as he finished the first of several glasses of Old Overholt.
This was the most relaxed he’d been all day. On stage during the debate, he seemed particularly irked at the Johnny-come-lately progressivism of his opponents, many of whom clamored to show their displeasure with gentrification despite having served on the city council during a period of mass gentrification. City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, whom the current mayor has endorsed, promised to create “displacement-free zones” as part of her city development policy.
At the debate, Fort mocked Lance Bottoms and other competitors as faux populists who’d presided over the same policies they now derided.
“People can talk about displacement-free zones all they want,” Fort said. “But when they vote to displace people, they ought to be held accountable. What we have here is people talking about gentrification and keeping people in their homes, but the fact of the matter is they have worked to displace Atlantans.”
Fort never had any illusions about what he was up against. Atlanta’s history and its economy have shaped the politics of the region in such a way that true populism can be co-opted but never seems to prevail. Atlanta, as Mayor Kasim Reed likes to boast, has the third most Fortune 500 corporations of any U.S. city. Some of Atlanta’s companies, like Coca-Cola and Home Depot, are homegrown. Others, like Delta Air Lines, moved there before World War II.
In the Southeastern region in general, and Atlanta in particular, the strategy for attracting and keeping companies continues to be limiting government regulation of business as much as possible.
“Real estate is cheaper, taxes are lower, unions are weaker,” said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University in the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw. “All of those things make it a very potent business climate.”
Atlanta is known as a progressive town because it remains majority-black and solidly Democratic. Thanks to native son Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he led, Atlanta was the de facto headquarters of the civil rights movement.
The city is also an epicenter of contemporary black political power. Every mayor of Atlanta since 1973 has been black.
But rather than take on the city’s business elite and overhaul its historically laissez-faire development strategy, the new black political class that developed in Atlanta in the 1970s was by and large satisfied as long as enough black people were welcomed into the existing elite, according to Ronald Bayor, a professor of history at Georgia Tech and author of Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta.
“It’s still a pro-business town,” Bayor said.
The only difference between the present era and the pre-civil rights period, he argued, is that now, “blacks and whites, the elites, work together to push business interests here, which is one of the reasons why other neighborhoods, poorer neighborhoods were neglected.”
Atlanta is what a multiracial capitalist society looks like. Eric Robertson, Teamsters Local 728
Eric Robertson, political director of Teamsters Local 728, which has endorsed Fort, offered a similar assessment.
“Atlanta is what a multiracial capitalist society looks like,” said Robertson, who is also an active member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
The result is a series of contradictions. Atlanta regularly tops lists of the best places to be a black business owner or entrepreneur, and it has one of the largest black middle classes of any metropolitan area in the country.
At the same time, Atlanta had the highest income inequality of any U.S. city in 2015, according to a Brookings Institution study. Nearly one-quarter of city residents live in poverty. The vast majority of them are black, according to Bayor.
In 1986, The New York Times shined a light on the income disparity within the city’s black community, in a story titled “Atlanta, Mecca for Middle-Class Blacks, Also Harbors Poverty.”
“That article could have been written today,” Bayor said.
Fort diagnosed the problem succinctly himself, arguing that electing pro-business or “neoliberal” black politicians, simply to ensure black representation in the halls of power, is “becoming, increasingly, an invalid approach.”
“People are saying we don’t just need an African-American in leadership, we need someone who watches out for us,” he said.
One person saying it was Eva Dickerson, a 20-year-old student at Spelman College who plans to vote for Fort.
“All of our resources have traditionally flown into getting as many Barack Obamas as possible,” she said earlier this month while sitting on the steps of Atlanta’s City Hall, where she had attended a rally for affordable housing. “And we’re starting to realize that black faces in high places do not change the material reality of a lot of working-class black folk, of a lot of trans and queer black folk.”
To win, by Fort’s own account, he will need to pick up “some black folks and some Bernie folks.” More specifically, Fort must turn out the working-class and poor black Atlantans whose causes he has championed for decades, and the diehard young Sanders backers instinctively sympathetic to Fort’s agenda.
At Noni’s, two examples of the latter group materialized just moments after Fort moved out to the patio, the band inside having gotten too loud for conversation. Jonathan Rosenberg, 30, and Nikoo Razavi, 32, had spotted Fort and wanted to say hello.
Rosenberg, wearing a backward baseball hat, blue polo shirt and khaki shorts, and Razavi, bearded and balding with black-framed glasses, were more than a bit tipsy. They are pals from their work as public defenders in low-income suburbs, and both of them were ardent Sanders supporters ― Berniecrats, as they are sometimes known.
Rosenberg had been evangelizing Fort’s candidacy to Razavi for weeks.
“He’s a huge fanboy,” Razavi said of his friend.
Fort acknowledged them with a smile ― “Thank you, man” ― and made sure they knew that Sanders had come down to stump for him. He shifted in his seat to address the guys, talking up his accomplishments, asking if they knew about his predatory lending law and the fact that he had supported single payer since he was a teenager ― “I know it’s weird,” he said with a chuckle. Then the conversation turned wonkish, and the candidate was back on the hustings, breaking down in layman’s terms his plans for affordable housing, including renovating seniors’ homes; implementing community policing and creating a civilian review board with real power; using the city contracting process to boost worker pay; and making sure big business contributes its fair share to the city.
Fort was most in his element when discussing his great political nemesis, Mayor Kasim Reed. Fort endorsed Reed when he first ran in 2009, but he has since publicly criticized the mayor for policies that he believes put Atlanta business interests above the needs of working people. Reed, for his part, has lit into Fort more than once with notable vitriol.
“I can’t point out one specific thing that Kasim Reed did to make my family or my life better. And I think he sold that dream to me and his voters,” Razavi said.
“It ain’t worked out quite that way, has it?” Fort said.
“No, it has not,” Rosenberg replied. “Kasim Reed is a great idea. He’s the Hillary Clinton of Atlanta, to be honest with you. He represents a Democratic Party that may or may not speak to the ideals that you believe in, but will never actually act on them.”
He went on: “Kasim Reed is the stereotypical neoliberal that speaks in a language of economic equality but never actually means it.”
Rosenberg had said one of Fort’s magic words: neoliberal. Fort nodded knowingly.
“Neoliberal” has many meanings in the progressive lexicon. But it always refers to some version of a Democrat who has sold out the left. Rosenberg was simply using it to mean “inauthentic.” Part of Fort’s authenticity, surely, is that there is none of the usual tension in his politics that you find in so many Democrats, who see racial justice and economic justice as distinct and often mutually exclusive pursuits.
Fort bridges the two animating ideas of the Democratic Party. He is known among the single black moms living in the city’s Section 8 housing developments as the man who shows up with TV cameras and lawyers when they are facing eviction. He fought for a law to shield Georgia’s borrowers from abusive practices, because he knew that predatory lending is as much a tool for white supremacy as the more overt redlining and segregation that preceded it.
Meanwhile, he can bond with two young lawyers at a bar about their shared disdain for the pro-business policies of the black mayor. “Mr. Fort, I hope this isn’t inappropriate,” Razavi said, nodding to his friend, “but he’s your number one fan. Would it be OK if we got a picture with you?”
Fort smiled. “Absolutely.”