A Socialist Perspective on Atlanta’s Mayoral Election

The following article includes and expands on passages from the 2021 Voter Guide written by Atlanta DSA’s Electoral committee. For a comprehensive perspective on all city council elections, we recommend reading the guide in its entirety at www.atldsa.org/21guide

What should Socialists make of the upcoming election for Atlanta mayor? Many working people are skeptical of elections in the United States. Voting in this country is needlessly complicated. Difficult voting restrictions disenfranchise large numbers of working-class people, while campaign finance laws have rendered our political system an effective oligarchy. Still, if we want to transform our society into a real democracy, we must understand the current system, corruption and all.

Over the past year, Atlanta DSA has campaigned on a number of issues regarding Atlanta city policy. These include defunding the city’s brutal police force, closing the Atlanta City Detention Center, reinvesting in public services and infrastructure, launching a green new deal with millions of good-paying union jobs, and providing housing as a human right for all. Most recently, we took part in the struggle against Cop City, an $80 million proposal that would hand over public, forested land to the city’s most powerful corporate elite to build a massive, militarized police training facility.

While our work helped sway some members of the city council to oppose this project, in the end, corporate interests prevailed and passed Cop City. This is because the capitalist forces in Atlanta have an entrenched layer of support within the city government, who maintain power by leveraging a political machine built up over decades. The relationship between corporate interests and elected officials is clearest in the city’s Mayoral campaign, which is dominated by some of the city’s most corrupt political figures.

Antonio Brown is the only candidate for Mayor who opposed Cop City, and he has stated he would reverse the ordinance if elected. Brown was first elected to City Council District 3 with just 670 votes to fill a vacancy in a 2019 special election. While in office, he has been less accountable to capitalist forces and more responsive to grassroots pressure than any other Councilmember. As of his mayoral campaign’s July campaign finance report, he had fundraised $300k, of which $200k came from small dollar donations of under $100. However, he lacks meaningful support from grassroots movements, community organizations, or labor unions. As a result, he has been a very unpredictable vote on City Council. For example, he introduced the Rayshard Brooks and other police reform bills, but he also voted in favor of the final FY22 budget which included a 7% increase for policing. It is unclear to us how he would govern if elected.

Meanwhile, Andre Dickens and Felicia Moore have positioned themselves as “progressive” alternatives to Kasim Reed. However, both of these candidates worked to undermine grassroots opposition to Cop City and the closure of ACDC, and they both rely overwhelmingly on large donations for fundraising. Felicia Moore attended a #StopCopCity People’s Town Hall organized by Atlanta DSA and allied community organizations, but dodged questions and refused to oppose the proposal despite overwhelming opposition from residents. We anticipate that Dickens and Moore would be eager champions for big business interests if elected.

Finally, Kasim Reed may be the worst candidate of the race. Reed was Mayor of Atlanta before Keisha Lance-Bottoms and held office for eight years from 2010-2018, overseeing extensive corruption, privatization, and gentrification in Atlanta. To this day, the Federal Justice Department continues investigating the extensive bribery allegations involving city projects with private contractors that occurred throughout his mayoral administration. Although he could flip on the location, Reed supports building Cop City, plans to keep the city jail open, and received an endorsement from the Atlanta Police Union.

As the election currently stands, progressive forces in Atlanta aren’t significantly united behind any candidate for Mayor. As such, we have no recommendation in the Mayor’s race.

The state of the Mayoral race in Atlanta could easily lead the average person into disillusionment and despair. In fact, the low turnout rates for these elections (around 20% for Fulton County in 2017) suggest the vast majority of people have no interest or confidence in the local government whatsoever. It’s reasonable to conclude that the rich and powerful completely dominate electoral politics—because they do! The ruling class has billions of dollars at their disposal to intervene in every level of government. For example, over $800 million dollars were spent on Georgia’s elections for US Senate in 2020. With this money, capitalist candidates can pay career political staffers to manufacture support for their program and saturate the political process with a flood of political advertisements and mailers. Capitalists set the election rules, control the news media on radio, television, and the internet, and use donations—direct or indirect, legal or not—to manipulate politicians to serve their own big business interests.

But this isn’t the whole picture. The working class can fight back, and socialist candidates can run for office and win. Although Bernie Sanders wasn’t able to win the Presidency, he came dangerously close, winning votes from millions of working people nationwide. And over the past few years, DSA candidates have won local, state, and federal office in elections across the country. Ordinary people have been able to contest elections with grassroots working-class power—raising funds from small dollar donations, building support for a socialist political program through word of mouth and social media, and spreading our message through volunteer outreach programs. Across the country, we have seen democratic socialists defeat entrenched incumbents through the support of volunteers—making it clear that knocking doors, making phonecalls, and having meaningful face-to-face conversations can win more support from voters than excessive amounts of junk mail. Through this kind of mass organizing, we can build a worker’s alternative to the political establishment. 

This is why DSA is committed to building a working-class party—not just a different ballot line, but a mass democratic political organization capable of taking state power with a strategy for social transformation. Working people need our own organization to defeat the reactionary, anti-democratic right wing of capital represented in the Republican Party, while opposing the corporate, neoliberal Democratic establishment. We can use elections to win reforms that materially advance the interests of the working class while democratizing our economy and society. We can elect socialists who will act as organizers in office. Socialist officials can develop working-class self-organization and activity by organizing protests against unpopular legislation, supporting workers out on strike, and promoting calls for equality and justice as spokespeople for the working-class movement. 

So what does this look like right now? Atlanta DSA is supporting Rogelio Arcila’s campaign for city council. Largely driven by small-dollar donations, he has matched and even exceeded his corporate-backed rivals in fundraising. His working-class campaign seeks to make history in Atlanta elections to elect a democratic socialist to the city council. If you want to help, volunteer to Get Out the Vote at atldsa.org/rocanvass

Rogelio is the only candidate Atlanta DSA is endorsing. However, many people already plan on voting and want guidance from a socialist perspective. If you’re interested in assessments on the Atlanta City Council elections, check out the voter guide from our Electoral Committee at atldsa.org/21guide

The systemic change we need cannot come from voting for the lesser-evil. Only a mass movement of millions of working people can facilitate the transition to a truly democratic and socialist society, one in which the means of production are democratically and socially controlled. Our economy and society have been stolen from us by the ultra-rich, but we can take it back if we band together and fight. To join Atlanta DSA or get involved in our electoral work, visit atldsa.org/join or email our electoral committee at electoral@atldsa.org.