The Atlanta Mayoral Race - Differentiate Through Storytelling...and Other Musings

When I was twelve years old, the grandfather of a dear friend entrusted us to apply some sort of wood finish on the back deck of his house. For about an hour, we drenched the rags with oil, scrubbed, brushed, and smoothed. Afterwards we took the used rags, balled them up, and threw them into a corner on the deck and ran off to play in the woods.

This week, Atlanta’s mayoral election rounds the final corner of a Formula One track. Twist and turns, flips and spin outs have been part of this race since the announcement of Mayor Bottoms’ decision to not seek a second term. Shocking results excluded former two term mayor Kasim Reed in this race’s run-off leaving Felicia Moore and Andre Dickens in a battle on November 30th. 

Both times an administration has changed hands in the last twelve years, (Reed in 09’ and Bottoms in 17’), I’ve been actively involved in each race. This year, I am that distant, skim-the-headlines, know-who-the-candidates-are-but-not-empassioned voter. According to polls, 20% of voters are still undecided.

Every Vote…Truly Counts

On November 2nd, 96,158 voters swiped their voter card in the general election. 40.8% (39,202) voted for Felicia Moore and 23% (22,153) voted for Andre Dickens, leaving 34,803 voters looking for a new candidate come Tuesday. According to GeorgiaVotes, 11.1% more people have voted at this point in the process compared to the general election. In comparison, the Bulldawgs played the Yellow Jackets in Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday. If that entire stadium, filled to capacity with eligible voters, all voted for one candidate, that candidate would win by a landslide come Tuesday. Every vote truly counts. And for that 20% who is undecided, which is anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people depending on Tuesday’s turnout, four weeks is the time frame to learn the candidates and make a decision.  

What Are People Voting For?

The issue, wrapped around a looming political crisis, is crime. Crime is up approximately 30% depending how once slices the data from 2019. One hand of the city is waving goodbye to long time residents moving north to the suburbs — even North Georgia, Oconee, Charleston, or completely taking the tax incentive and setting up shop in Florida full time — or at least 51% of the time. Simultaneously the other hand of Atlanta is welcoming droves of individuals relocating post-Covid. New Yorkers, Californians, and Illinoisans are moving to Atlanta and the South in general. Sprinkle across the marinade Buckhead’s groundswell of support forming a tide to secede from the city which would alter its identity, soul, and financing of Atlanta. Yet, shooting after shooting whether near Phipps, Pharr, or Skyview Lofts, and the residents of Buckhead have more than a prerogative to fix what is not being addressed. People moving out; people moving in. Secession looming. Crime soaring. And here I am, the weekend before a city-defining election, scrolling through Andre Dickens Youtube Channel and following Felicia Moore on Instagram in hopes I can get that one anecdote that pushes my emotions over the edge to make the commitment. 

If every vote counts, 20% are still undecided days before the election, and the geographical makeup of the city is at hands, how does a constituent decide?  

Absorbing the Media

Every political race is like an individual ecosphere or terrarium. Each campaign is living day to day in the tug of war for voters resulting in a thousand different messages and stories spawning all sorts of “greenery” in this terrarium. If you’re in the campaign, you see, feel, and touch all of these stories and want to shout from the mountaintop each one. However there are too many for all of the city to care about and not enough attention available. From those thousand of stories, several make it to their websites and social media outlets, and even fewer make it to “mainstream media.” Mainstream media being WSB, AJC, Fox 5, Channel 11, etc. When the mainstream media picks up a story, the equivalent is the terrarium opens up, and the media reaches in and plucks out some of that greenery — this is the closest a campaign will get to shouting it from the mountaintop. Sometimes that greenery is a perfect rose, sometimes it’s a wilted leaf (or something in between) — depending on the news for the candidate. A campaign’s job is to make sure when that terrarium opens, the best piece of greenery is picked out by the media illuminating their candidate in the optimal light. People who watch the local news, and there are hundreds of thousands of them, absorb these narratives in a reactive way. They are letting the story, and several others, come to them through the local news. This is traditional media and the most popular reactive way to educate through media. I miss Jovita Moore dearly when writing this paragraph.

What about the proactive ways to absorb the media?

When I’ve asked dozens of voters in the past two months how they will decide to vote, the answer is some variation of, “Go to Google, read their website, click on a few recent articles, learn their positions, and figure it out from there.” 

Since we are now in the cramming phase for voter education and preparation, here are some of the efficient ways to research. 

Watch one debate. These candidates debate so often, and they’ve been reciting their lines for the last 12 months, one debate is all you need. Here is a debate specifically for the run-off from Nov. 17th

Listen to AJC’s Politically Georgia Podcast, especially the Nov, 24th episode. Greg Bluestein and team take insightful sound bites and apply it to the overall context of the race.   

Each candidate’s website, LinkedIn, Social Media posts, and YouTube help show their style, but there’s nothing truly differentiating. Side tangent. I’m still amazed at how little viewership a years’ worth of campaigning produces on Youtube. Perhaps it has to do with Atlanta city proper being the 38th most populous city in the country with just under 500,000 people, yet the Atlanta metropolitan area is the ninth largest in the country with approximately 6.1 million people, but I digress. 

My favorite: ask trusted sources and seek real anecdotes. These small stories of people who have worked with each candidate lead to tidbits of how they will lead and execute. 

The Most Important Mayoral Skill this Race 

If the policies are not substantially different and their experience equals out, what else matters? The most paramount factor: honorable efficacy. How many times have we heard it over the years: “My experiences prove I can get the job done?” or “I’m the right person for the job because I can make it happen?” How can any distanced voter know the efficacy of a candidate? Imagine if each politician had a player efficiency rating.

For example: let’s look at both Felicia Moore’s and Andre Dickens’ plan on crime and public safety. 

Dickens S.A.F.E. plan has a compelling and creative framework. How does a voter know what part of the plan can actually be accomplished? Dickens leans on technology for his plan. Which cameras will he use? What is the budget? Who has he already talked to locally or nationally that says this is feasible and impactful? 

Moore’s 5 C’s plan is not too dissimilar to Dickens, however a good example of a differential idea is Moore’s idea to recruit retired APD officers to come back for a 1-2 years while she fills the hundreds of opens spots. Sounds good. Do we know if cops would do this? Where would the budget come from?   

Another great example is how each candidate wants to build affordable housing on city owned land. Which candidate can actually get it done? Who has the relationships, political savviness, and deal making ability to execute? 

The web of politics makes it very difficult and almost impossible to guarantee any concrete plan…which is why so many folks get disgruntled with politics. Great campaigners can say just enough to be inspirational and believable. Great governors get done what they said they can accomplish. Derek Sivers ideas and execution framework carry over from startups to politics well. 

The Mayoral Product

Three components make up the product: the candidate themselves, their platform, and their words. The candidate includes all the “checkboxes:” schools, experience, accomplishments, and pedigree. The second is the platform. What policies does one candidate have over another that sway a voter. In the Atlanta election, we’re not talking Republican vs. Democrat. The issues are clear. Crime number one and 2-7 are all in the same range but swap out the order of priority for each voter. The third part of the product is words. How does a candidate deliver a cogent message around the public sentiment of today that harps on the emotional strings for each voter? Words of course encompasses delivery, tone, style which goes back to the candidate. Topics they focus on depend on platform, but the art of it comes out in the words. Most political candidates miss regular opportunities to differentiate themselves through storytelling.

“Word, Words, Words” – Shakespeare 

Candidates not just in this election, but in general miss the mark to tell compelling stories about their experience. Showing versus telling is critical in this day and age of muddled messages. An example for each candidate includes the following. 

Andre Dickens’ background as a Georgia Tech graduate, entrepreneur, and Chief Development officer is the perfect setting to storytell around how technology can transform lives. On his Issues page that leads into Diversity and Inclusion, Andre created a program at TechBridge which provides free IT training to nearly 300 low income people where they get certified in technology skills, allowing them to get jobs averaging $56,000 a year. This is truly transformational. However, constituents don’t regurgitate facts and figures, they relay stories. Who was one person that made the transformation against all odds? Where did they start and where are they now? Stories like these harp at the emotional strings. 

Felicia is another good example. She has been in City Hall for 20+ years. Her list of decisions and actions is laid out in bullet point after bullet point on her site, but it is still hard for constituents to understand the context at the time. The first bullet point on spearheading pension reform. Imagine if there was a link to a 300-500 word post that sets the stage and tells a real story. 

“In 2011, Atlanta and along with the American economy were coming off the heels of the greatest economic recession a generation had seen. Crime was at X% and the option to lose loyal, well-trained cops was non-negotiable, however the city’s finances couldn’t afford to keep department levels steady. Councilwoman Moore, met with Mayor Reed, did X, Y, and Z to transform the pension, save jobs, and millions.   

Instead of a bullet point, a 30-60 second story for each issue will travel much farther. 

The Gathering Storm

Tuesday’s vote may not seem like Atlanta’s fate is on the ballot box, but the storm is gathering. Bill White, the leader of the Buckhead City secession movement, will pose a grave hurdle in the first year of Felicia’s or Andre’s administration. The entire movement stems from the proliferation of crime. Whoever one votes for knows the gauntlet will be thrown early, and Atlanta’s future is at stake.  

After an hour playing out in the woods, my friend and I ran back to the house. The patio looked like it went through a car wash and we felt accomplished. What we didn’t immediately notice was the balled up rags in the corner were steaming. Literal smoke came from it. We were confused and walked back inside to ask my friend’s grandfather and quickly learned the concept of spontaneous combustion. 

Atlanta and the looming Buckhead succession is like a balled up rag drenched in linseed oil. Smoke will start first with the passing of the bill for Buckhead’s secession, afterwards, my only hope is we have the leadership in place to face the crisis brewing. 

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