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Room at the top

Four very different hopefuls eye City Council president's job

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Five million bucks is going to buy tons of sound and plenty of fury. So chances are, by November, you're not going to be able to ignore Atlanta's mayoral race no matter how hard you try. Shirley Clarke Franklin, Robb Pitts and Gloria Bromell-Tinubu -- Atlanta's top three candidates for mayor -- will seem like your kid brother pulling at your pants leg.

But there's another race shaping up that may prove even more intriguing, if quieter, than the mayoral battle. Four formidable candidates are squaring off on a smaller stage: Atlanta City Councilmembers Michael Bond, Julia Emmons, "Able" Mable Thomas and Cathy Woolard have all declared their intent to run for Council president.

So you've got three candidates who've run as reformers and a relatively mild-mannered fourth (Bond) with a pedigreed past. At the outset, the race seems better suited for de Tocqueville's living room than Atlanta streets -- a refreshing change considering how down and dirty politics has been in City Hall for the last, well, 30 years.

But if you ask Atlanta politicos who will leap from this group to light a fire under city voters, you get ifs and buts instead of names.

While the position doesn't generate newspaper ink the way the mayor can, the $37,885-per-year gig is the city's top legislative spot. The council prez appoints committee members, shapes the debate on the Council and casts the deciding vote in the case of a tie. He or she can also set the tone for council relations with the mayor (a decidedly off-key tone during the tenure of the last two presidents).

Each of the four hopefuls is also possessed of a distinctive style.

There's Bond, 35, son of famed civil rights activist Julian Bond, who has obvious ties to the city's black political aristocracy even though his personal background is more blue-collar than blue-blooded. Bond, a former corrections officer, represents District 3, one of the city's poorest sections.

Woolard, 44, a public policy consultant, is Atlanta's first openly gay city councilwoman; she represents District 6, which includes some of the city's most affluent and fast-growing neighborhoods. So far, she's the top money raiser in the president's race.

Thomas, 43, who currently holds citywide Post 1, is a forceful former state representative who took her longtime campaign slogan and officially added it to her name. She bills herself as a populist, someone who wants to change the rules so running doesn't take the kind of money Woolard and the others must raise to win an election.

Then there's the deliberate, articulate Emmons, 59, who has a Ph.D. in history and entered local politics after building a name as the woman behind Atlanta's Peachtree Road Race. She currently holds Post 2.

"It should be something," says Clark Atlanta University political science professor William Boone. "There's the juxtaposition of a lot of different styles and approaches. Contrast Able Mable versus Councilwoman Emmons' style. Emmons is more of a behind-the-scenes kind of person while Able Mable is up-front and aggressive."

Not surprisingly, the candidates see eye-to-eye on many non-controversial issues: more cops on the street with better pay and benefits, affordable housing, dependable services and so on. But they differ on how to solve some of those problems.

Take affordable housing, for instance.

The Atlanta Development Authority made headlines two weeks ago by adding an 11th hour restriction to a Houston developer's plan to build a $44 million apartment high rise near Centennial Olympic Park, a tax-break-friendly area of the city. But when the ADA demanded that the developer, Hanover Co., set aside 15 percent of the units for low- and moderate-income housing renters, Hanover pulled out.

Bond thinks the ADA was right. "It should be understood that if you're getting something, the city should get something in return," Bond says. Still, he says, the ADA should have given the developer a heads-up much earlier.

Woolard agrees. "We're still experimenting as a city in finding a balance in the demands we can make, and it's going to be a while before we get it right," she says.

Emmons, however, thinks the ADA simply doomed the project. Atlanta badly needs the tax money such developments create, she argues, and every project -- especially one at a prestige address -- can't be held to the same standard.

Still, she says, the city must work to protect the most vulnerable of its citizens. What has been so difficult about gentrification is its speed.

"My point is that you can't let rapid change happen in such a way that it engenders the kind of fears we felt in that room last week," Emmons says, recalling a racially-charged redistricting meeting April 30.

Thomas, who sponsored a gentrification task force, says density bonuses -- basically letting developers build more units if they agree to offer some of them to lower- and middle-income tenants -- is one way to go.

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