The below interview is one of five interviews done with the top five candidates, in terms of polling, in the race for the next mayor of Atlanta.
CBS46 anchor Karyn Greer sat down with each of them one-on-one to talk about the issues plaguing the city and what each of them would do if elected mayor.
This is the interview with Sharon Gay.
Why did you decide to run for mayor of Atlanta?
Gay: Well, as you know, I have been interested and involved in public service and public policy for really my entire career. That was my goal and sometimes I've done it working in government, sometimes I've done it working in the private sector. But I began to be concerned, really a couple of years ago, about our long-term problems that I didn't feel like we were addressing fast enough, our extreme income inequality, our lack of income mobility, the fact that the zip code in which a child is born has more to do with how they end up than anything else. And I was concerned that we, as a city, weren't addressing it fast enough and comprehensively enough. And so I started thinking about, how could I get back in the public arena in a way that I could have more of an impact.
And as I thought about it, I thought, we really have templates in Atlanta for how to do this. Centennial Place was an example, East Lake was an example. And what it takes is somebody who knows how to pull the business and civic sectors of our city together, and philanthropies, and colleges and universities, and neighborhood leaders, and faith leaders, and that's really what I've done my entire career. And I decided I actually do know how to do what needs to be done. And I started thinking about it and talking to people and nobody discouraged me. So I decided to make a run.
And what would be one of the first things you would tackle in your first 100 days?
Gay: Well, obviously now violent homicides have now become ascendant. And when I first started thinking about it, that wasn't an issue, but of course it now is. And it really does all ultimately relate back to the health of our neighborhoods and the opportunities that our children have. But in those first 100 days, I'd have to implement a real fast and furious effort to curb the violent crime we're seeing, because it's not crime overall that's up, as I'm sure you know. Crime overall in Atlanta, like most big cities, has been declining pretty steadily for the last 25, 30 years, but it's violent homicides and attacks, and they're violent, they're brazen, they're different from what we've seen before, and it requires different strategies than we've seen before. And so I've brought in Dr. Cedric Alexander who's a national expert on public safety as my advisor to help me think through how you immediately do things that will make a difference, but also focus on the longer term challenges of evolving police culture to what we expect in the 21st century.
So in those first few weeks, you really got to focus on supporting the police, letting them know you have their back, letting them know you're going to follow due process, being clear about what we want the police to do and make sure we hire the right people, give them the right training, give them the right equipment and hold them accountable for that type of policing. And then not ask them to do things that social service organizations or mental health professionals ought to do. And we've dabbled in that change a little bit in Atlanta, we would have to do it much more comprehensively. Second thing, and this is also an immediate effort, is working more closely with the county and with our state partners to make sure that we're processing people through the system. This was a problem even before COVID and it's been made worse because the courts were closed. So that people who ought to be diverted to something else, drug or alcohol treatment or mental health treatment, get that.
But people who are arrested for violent crimes and people who were arrested repeatedly need to stay in jail until their trials. And that would help a lot, but it's about four or five or 10 different things that need to be done better in coordination. Third thing that can be done immediately is focusing on problem properties, use that modern technology and the smart policing around hotspots and focus on hotspots because a lot of our crime is formed and occurs in a small number of places. And the neighborhoods know where they are, the community improvement districts know where they are. The laws are already in place, but what it takes is intentionality and focus and quite frankly some political will to get the mayor's office, and the city attorney, and the city solicitor, and the police, all organized around, here's how we're going to approach those properties and bringing them into compliance with the alcohol code or shutting them down. So those are the three things that you really need to do quickly.
Since you mentioned this, I'll jump into this as well. You mentioned jail, important to keep those in jail need to be accused of violent crimes. So what are your thoughts on Atlanta City Jail, Fulton County Jail?
Gay: Well, I have a short-term view and then the longer-term view may evolve, but in the short term I think everybody knows Fulton County Jail has been overcrowded for years, been under federal consent decrees for years. People are being housed in inhumane conditions and that's made worse, of course, because of the courts being closed and people not processing as fast, so we absolutely have a moral obligation to house people humanely. So in the short run, I absolutely would work with the county to make bed space available to relieve that overcrowding at Fulton County Jail. I just think that's a moral imperative for us to do as a city. We also, and there was even some discussions within the last week, about the county and the city partnering to have a more comprehensive approach to the diversion that I mentioned, the people who ought to be quickly processed into something else.
And I think that's an opportunity that the county and the city could work on, but working on a deal, I've worked out deals all my life that are way more complicated than that deal. But it requires a mayor to be intentional about it, and focused about it, and sit down with our partners and cut a deal. Now longer run, there may be different solutions. The county's talking about wanting a new jail. There may be different solutions over the long run, but in this immediate moment, that's what we need to.
Do you think Atlanta City Jail should be closed?
Gay: I don't know. Not now, certainly not now. Is there a better solution for the county and the city? Possibly. Now, one thing about having a city jail, there are things... The police arrest people for whatever crime, but things that are state crimes, of course, they're bound over to the county and the DA takes over. But there are times when you need to hold people for violations of city ordinances, and I'm not talking about things that are really criminalizing, homelessness. What I'm talking about is grotesque, repeated violations by slumlords of codes, or there are times when the violations of city ordinances are so egregious that you need to be able to hold people in the city jail, they might get a 30 day sentence or a 90 day sentence. And then also, if we again have the kind of street protests we had last year, protests and demonstrations, and people get arrested, it's good to have an option to have them housed in a city system so they don't get processed into state criminal systems and end up with records when they were really just young people trying to express themselves and things got a little out of hand. So those are a couple of reasons why having a city facility may need to be a long-term goal.
Let's talk about COVID. Definitely created issues for people that weren't working for a year more for many people, businesses shut down, restaurants shut down. What would be one of the things you would look at to try and keep the city moving again, help people get back to work?
Gay: Yeah, and I'm really concerned about that and I think we probably all are. I think it's important for a mayor to be very focused on encouraging people to get the vaccine, helping people get the information they need to make a decision they're comfortable with, but that's our way out. Not only does it protect you, but it protects the people around you. And it is essential to getting our economy working fully, is for people to have that protection. So I would be out there every day encouraging that, working with faith partners and healthcare partners to make sure that people, as I said, have the information they need to make a good decision, but to make that decision. I am concerned about evictions as the evictions moratorium is expiring. It's really easy in Georgia to evict people and there's resources available under the Federal Cares Act. It's been difficult to deploy, a little too much red tape, asking people for things, information they don't have. In Atlanta the United Way has done a good job of helping people work through that, but I would want to bring more resources to bear and call up our senators and congressional representatives to help us make this simpler so people can have access to those resources.
And then also we need to pay attention, there've been health disparities in the way COVID has hit us, and the racial disparities that we have in so many elements of our city have showed up in that as well. Morehouse School of Medicine, I think, is doing some good work around measuring that, researching that, figuring that out, I would really want to talk closely with them about what can we do in this moment to help reduce the racial disparities and health outcomes in our city.
You mentioned crime, violent crime, and how there are pockets of the city that are worse than others. One of those pockets seems to be Buckhead and the residents of Buckhead concerned and want to succeed from the City of Atlanta. Your thoughts on that? Is that something that should happen or will you work to do everything you can to keep everybody in tact?
Gay: My mother grew up in Buckhead, so the idea that my mother's childhood home would no longer be in the city of Atlanta, pains me. Buckhead is part of the city of Atlanta. We're all one city, we're all stronger when we're together, but I don't dismiss the concern. I think their concerns are valid, they deserve to be heard. What they're seeing is different from what they've seen before in Buckhead. It's not the highest crime in the city by any means, but it's vastly different than what they've experienced before. And then there are other top-down decisions the city's making or trying to make around things like zoning that caused them to feel very frustrated, feel like they're not heard.
So, first thing I would do is show up. I want to listen, I want to hear your concerns, I want address your concerns. But what I urge people who are interested in cityhood to do, is focus on electing new leadership this November and holding that new leadership accountable for the change you seek. And if I were elected, what I would tell the cityhood proponents and the state leadership is give me a chance to turn around the crime uptick, reform procurement, because a lot of the underlying concern is around corruption and that's a lot of where that has, and then get basic city services working again, because that's the other thing you hear a lot.
Most people say crime is their number one issue, but a lot of people bring up city services as their second one. Just coming here, 14th Street, is a mess. And we don't even expect our potholes to be filled anymore, we don't really expect our garbage to be picked up. And for people who have high property values and therefore paying high property taxes, that's particularly frustrating, and it's frustrating for all of us. Atlanta's a big city, we're an important city and we need to think like it and act like it, and we certainly ought to deliver services in an efficient, modern way.
Another issue with Atlanta is education, so let's talk a little bit about our schools. For years, numerous schools in the Atlanta public school system have been identified as underperforming. In 2019, 13 Atlanta schools were among the state's bottom 5 percent. What's your plan to help improve this number and get Atlanta Public Schools to a higher level of performance? We understand that's not a mayor's job, but is there anything that you could do to help?
Gay: It's critically important to our economy, to the future of our children. Three of the candidates appeared at a APS forum last night, where students ask the questions and they were all members of the student government association at various schools, and it was a fascinating evening because just to hear what was on their minds, and they ask very much those same kinds of questions. And I would go back to what originally motivated me to run, which was my concern about too many neighborhoods having been in distress for too long. We have been asking the schools to fix the neighborhoods and fix the kids. I think that's the backwards.
What we need to do is this comprehensive strategy to help make neighborhoods healthy, then the schools are going to be healthier. Because if a child comes to school and they haven't eaten regularly, the family's housing is disrupted, maybe they haven't slept well, don't have anybody who has time to read to them because their families are just trying to survive, they don't have good afterschool programs, maybe there's mental health services they need or that their families need that they're not getting. This can't be top down, you'd have to build in a community quarterback structure and help each neighborhood figure out what they needed and then bring all those resources of the city writ large, not just the government, to really trying to make a dent in making the neighborhoods healthier, which would make the schools healthier.
I also would absolutely be a partner with the school superintendent and the school board. I cannot understand why mayors fight, particularly with school superintendents, who are not even elected officials. There's no direct responsibility as you said, but a great sort of bully pulpit, but also can be a champion. And I absolutely would show up and say, "What can I do to help? How can we work together better?" I would have a cabinet, a sub cabinet that was the chief operating officer. And I would have the school superintendent be part of that and the head of the housing authority and the development authority and the planning director. And they would meet regularly to figure out how can we help one another better? Because it may be, "Oh, here's a school that has terrible sidewalks." Well, we might have some impact fee money we could spend for that. So they're big picture things, but also a lot of little things I think the city and the APS could partner together, better.
Housing, the other issue I wanted to talk about. Many lower to middle class Atlantans virtually have no shot at entering the housing market as prices, we did a story this morning, continue to skyrocket over the last year plus. What are you going to do to make sure there's affordable housing for all residents of the city?
Gay: Yeah, and that is another issue that's just below that top of public safety. Well, affordable housing is the second one. I've been involved in housing affordability for at least 20 years. I've served on and chaired boards of nonprofits that focus on advocating for and developing and financing affordable and mixed income housing. I co-chaired a task force for Urban Lands Institute that became the basis of the structure that the city and the nonprofits are working on right now, House ATL. I've also directly worked on projects that developed thousands of affordable housing units, so I actually know, understand that business quite well. The city can't take over all of it, but the city needs, again, to be a more active partner at the table, and where the city can make the most difference is number one, get the Atlanta Housing Authority back in the business of producing housing.
When I was working with the housing authority as an outside counsel, we worked on projects that created thousands of new homes that were healthy neighborhoods, and the fact that they haven't built a unit in 12 years is just astounding to me. So I would aggressively get the housing authority back in the business of providing deeply affordable housing because that's not something the private market can do. There's also a lot of vacant land owned by the city, but land along our thoroughfares and quarters and in our neighborhoods that could be used and hasn't been used. So I'd make sure the zoning policies were in place to make development of those for housing efficient, but also be really thoughtful about how we invest in public infrastructure. There's a lot of concern around the BeltLine, particularly the east side trail. We made the big investment in that public infrastructure, made it very attractive, but really didn't have a good plan in place for making sure we kept building housing because it's not just building affordable housing, you need more housing period. And that old supply and demand that you learned in economics. And so we need more housing for the people who live here, we need more housing for the people who are coming. The private market does some of it, nonprofits do some of it, the city can do some of it, but the city can implement policies and have thoughtful use of incentives to make it all happen faster and in a way that's more directly tied to where the changes are occurring.
All right, let's loosen things up a little bit and do a lightning round with some lighter topics. Just give me the first answer that comes to mind. What's your favorite restaurant in Atlanta?
Gay: Oh my goodness, I have lots. I love my restaurant tours. I guess I would have to say Miller Union.
Love Miller Union. We were just there.!
Gay: Well Neil, the owner... I live in Inman Park and Sotto is also one of my favorites, and of course Neil was the maitre D there for a number of years. And so we talked with them about it, he was starting his restaurant, so I've been a groupie from the beginning.
I love it. If you could pick one activity to do with your family, what would it be?
Gay: Walk on the BeltLine, just about any part of the BeltLine.
And this is a good one, probably not a sports fan, but which team will win a championship next? Your Braves? Your Falcons? Your Hawks? Your United? Or your Dream?
Gay: I wish they all would, the Braves are doing well right now. Oh they'll be swept. Well, no, they're actually doing well right now, so right now I'm hopeful for the Braves.
And we didn't even have UGA on that list, because man, number one, can you believe that first time in years? All right, what's the first thing that comes to mind for you when I say Atlanta?
Gay: Neighborhoods. We are a city of neighborhoods. We have all sorts of interesting neighborhoods, historic neighborhoods, new neighborhoods, lots of different character. And one of the things I always tell people who are thinking about moving to Atlanta is, Atlanta is a place where there are a lot of... concern that we may be about affordability, we're still more affordable than most large cities, and we have a lot of different types of neighborhoods where people can live with distinctive character and different types of restaurants and arts and culture and architecture. And I think that's part of what makes Atlanta interesting and possibly unique among larger cities.
Your last 30 seconds here, just tell me, give me your best pitch to voters, why they should elect you the next mayor.
Gay: We need a change in Atlanta. The direction we're in right now is not getting us where we need to be. We're a great city, we have a great history, we have a great culture, we have a great heritage, and we really need to choose leaders who can set us on that path for being the city we know we can be. And I believe I have the right combination of experience, of vision, of judgment, of track record without being encumbered by other things that have gone on in the past to bring all the sectors of our city together and create the change we need to be a safer, a more just, and a more equitable city that works for all Atlantans.