The Bible Belt isn’t generally considered a hotbed of progressive politics. But the recent mayoral elections of Chokwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, Miss. and Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Ala. show a shift to the left may be underway in cities across the South.
Vincent Fort is hoping to become the latest left challenger to join this Southern progressive upswing, running for mayor of Atlanta. Fort, a Georgia state senator, first made a name for himself in 2002 by helping to pass legislation cracking down on predatory sub-prime lending practices. At the time, the law was one of the most progressive of its kind in the United States.
Fort’s platform aims to defend workers’ rights, reduce wealth inequality, protect the environment, decriminalize marijuana and crack down on predatory practices in the housing market. His run for Atlanta mayor has been backed by a host of labor unions and progressive organizations, including Our Revolution, the Working Families Party and the Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America.
In January, Bernie Sanders endorsed Fort, saying, “We need Vincent Fort’s leadership in the Atlanta Mayor’s office. Winning this campaign will send a strong message to the establishment that the struggle continues to create a government, at the local, state and federal level, that works for all of us, not just the 1%.”
Fort has also been a longtime ally of the labor movement in Georgia. Ben Speight, a member of the Teamsters Local 728 who volunteers for Fort’s campaign, tells In These Times that Fort has “distinguished himself by putting forth policies that go far beyond just a union membership. It’s about lifting up working people as a whole in this city and putting us on the map as a progressive city, versus a neoliberal one that pushes a corporate agenda.”
On November 7, Fort will go up against a crowded field of mayoral challengers in the general election. Polls show Councilperson Mary Norwood, the most conservative candidate in the race, in the lead. If no candidate earns a majority of the vote, the race will move to a runoff in December between the top two finishers.
In These Times recently spoke with Vincent Fort about his campaign, his background as a historian and what he hopes to change in Atlanta.
Elalouf: What inspired you to run for mayor?
Fort: I’ve become disgusted with City Hall. I think City Hall has lost its way by virtue of its focusing on the needs of millionaires and billionaires as opposed to regular people in the neighborhoods of Atlanta. I think folks down at City Hall forgot what makes this city great. It’s not skyscrapers and stadiums, but neighborhoods and people.
Atlanta has become number one in income inequality. But beyond that, the city has also become number one in income immobility, which means a child born into poverty has only a four percent chance of moving into the middle class. That’s not an Atlanta I want to live in, and I don’t think that’s the Atlanta most Atlantans want to live in. We’ve seen the decline of so many great neighborhoods in Atlanta, and these neighborhoods are predominantly African-American. That neglect of the city’s neighborhoods will not continue when I am mayor.
Elalouf: You have received support from a lot of unions and progressive groups. Are you happy you have been able to build such a progressive base?
Fort: Well, I am really gratified that I have been able to get this kind of progressive support. Almost 30 labor organizations, locals, regional, and retiree organizations are supporting me. I think their endorsement and the endorsements of other progressive groups is based on my long-time collaboration with them. You know, this is not just, “oh let’s go through an endorsement process.” I’ve been, over the last 30 years, working with many of these labor organizations and progressive groups.
Elalouf: Do you identify as a “progressive”?
Fort: I believe in political, social, and economic democracy. I use the term progressive to describe my politics. Years ago, the media termed Atlanta mayors “urban populists.” That might have been an adequate description, but I’ll just go with “progressive.”
Elalouf: One of the things that stands out about you is your background and training as a historian. Is there anything you think is important to connect between the history of struggle in Atlanta and the upcoming race?
Fort: I came to Atlanta roughly 40 years ago as a graduate student, to do research on the civil rights movement in the city. So, it’s been really interesting to study some of these people, these activists and elected officials in Atlanta. Many years later, I began working with some of these same people. So it’s an interesting opportunity for the academic and political aspects of my career to come together.
I have a background not only as a historian but also in political science and the sociology of decision-making. So, I bring that kind of academic background to the table. I know the history and the structural elements of the Atlanta way of doing things. I think that’s helped me understand how decisions are made by the economic elite in Atlanta. I consider myself an academic by training, an elected official by vote, and an activist by heart and soul.
Elalouf: Thank you, Senator Fort. Anything else?
Fort: It’s been good talking to you. I’m glad you’re with In These Times. You know, in Atlanta, gentrification is rapidly accelerating. If there’s not a mayor in office who will do the things necessary to slow down gentrification, it will only continue to grow. That’s what’s at stake here on November 7. Well, there will be more stories to write, hopefully about how we turn this around.