Vincent Fort, a former Georgia state senator backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), fell short in his run for mayor of Atlanta on Tuesday, denying progressive activists a clean sweep in the Southeastern cities that have held mayoral elections in the past year.
City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms and City Councilwoman Mary Norwood will proceed to the runoff, having earned 26 percent and 21 percent of the vote, respectively.
Former City Councilwoman Cathy Woolard received 17 percent of the vote, followed by former city manager Peter Aman with 11 percent and Fort with 10 percent.
The outcome means that Atlantans likely will not have the opportunity to dramatically break with the substance and style of the city’s present leadership at a time when working-class and poor residents feel increasingly threatened by gentrification.
“Vince Fort’s election was always a huge uphill climb considering the huge amounts of money from developers and contractors some of his opponents are spending,” said Joe Dinkin, national communications director for the Working Families Party, a progressive organization campaigning for Fort. “No matter the outcome, no matter the ultimate mayor, Vincent Fort ensured that the issues of working-class people and poor people, people of color in Atlanta, were at the center of the debate, and all the candidates are gonna have to be responsive to those.”
Fort, a ball of passionate energy with a mustache and black-frame glasses, rose to the rank of Democratic whip over two decades in the state Senate. He’d promised an about-face in city development policies that, he argued, prioritize wealthy developers over the city’s working families.
Fort frequently pointed to his record as the author of Georgia’s landmark predatory lending law, and his decades of street activism in defense of families facing eviction, as evidence that he was the only mayoral contender who could be trusted to fight for ordinary people.
“This is serious business, because we’ve gone from 20 percent gentrified to 70 percent gentrified at something like 5 percent a year,” Fort told HuffPost in an extended interview at his Atlanta campaign offices. “And if the wrong person gets elected on Nov. 7, guess what? You’re going to have by 2021, the end of the next administration, it could very well be impossible to revert. That’s how high the stakes are.”
Liberal challengers have unseated mayoral incumbents in Jackson, Mississippi, and Birmingham, Alabama, this year. A progressive reformer is also favored to become mayor of New Orleans in a Nov. 18 runoff.
Left-leaning organizations like Sanders’ Our Revolution and the Working Families Party were hoping a Fort victory would add Atlanta to their Southern winning streak.
But Atlanta, a city of nearly half a million people that serves as the de facto commercial capital of the region, is notoriously impervious to populist politics.
Much was at stake in the Atlanta race ― and the city’s potent business community knew it. Fort promised to negotiate a better deal for Atlanta workers and end corrupt practices that reward crony contractors, including through the institution of an inspector general at City Hall. The city oversees contracting at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport on the planet.
Consequently, as Dinkin noted, Fort’s rivals raised far more money than he did. As of the start of the month, the field’s two leaders, City Councilwomen Norwood and Lance Bottoms, raised $1.5 million and $1.2 million, respectively.
Of Lance Bottoms’ total haul, $23,525 of it came from people associated with airport contractor Master ConcessionAir, who used fuzzy accounting to get around individual contribution limits.
Fort, by contrast, raised $506,000 ― much of it in small increments.
Fort also faced vocal opposition from Mayor Kasim Reed (D), a political rival of Fort’s who is backing Lance Bottoms. In February, Reed called Fort “one of the most disappointing human beings” he’d ever met, and subsequently went after Fort for his personal financial troubles at a press conference.
The insurgent nature of Fort’s campaign was apparent until the very end. On Tuesday afternoon, Atlanta police arrested Tim Franzen, Fort’s community outreach director and a longtime housing justice organizer in the city, just outside campaign headquarters.
A run of Franzen’s tag revealed that he was driving with a suspended license, city police told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Fort told HuffPost this might be the case -- but, he said, it still wasn't clear why police pulled Franzen over in the first place.
As a former leader of Occupy Atlanta and frequent participant in Atlanta’s civil disobedience actions, Franzen has alleged that the police routinely harass him and target him for unjustified arrests.
Tuesday’s arrest “reeks of politics,” Fort told HuffPost, calling it an example of the kind of injustice that inspired his mayoral run.
“The Bill of Rights unfortunately does not extend to all parts of the city and to all people,” Fort said. “If you’re an activist and you stand up against the establishment, you’ll be targeted.”
Carlos Campos, an Atlanta police spokesman, called Fort’s claim “patently false and absurd on its face.”
“Mr. Franzen was driving on a suspended license, which is illegal,” Campos told the Journal-Constitution. “It is the only reason his vehicle was stopped.”
The Atlanta Police Department did not respond to a request for comment for this article.