On a recent Saturday afternoon in Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood, Vincent Fort was out working the voters. As the populist wing of the Democratic Party has surged in recent months, it has created an unusual problem for a politician like Fort. Accustomed to being on the outer edge of the party, he now sounds like pretty much everybody else.
Or, as he puts it to one voter, everybody else now sounds like him.
“They want to deal with gentrification and all that,” he says of his opponents, “but they haven’t done it until the epiphany of the last six months.”
Fort, who served as the Democratic whip in Georgia’s state Senate until he resigned to run for mayor, has been a fixture of populist politics in the state for two decades. While politics in Georgia have swung from left to right, Fort served as the rare example of a politician who stuck by his guns, in good times and bad.
Ben Speight, the organizing director of Teamsters Local 728, says endorsing Fort’s bid was a no-brainer for the union. “This is about a guy literally walking the walk, viewing his role as a state senator as a way of amplifying movements,” he observes.
For years, that form of movement politics made Fort a lone voice in the wilderness. But, with radical municipal politics rising in neighboring Jackson, Mississippi and Birmingham, Alabama, there’s a chance that his moment has finally arrived.
Among cities in the South, Atlanta has a reputation as a rising metropolis. In 2016, Metro Atlanta “gained the fourth-most residents in the nation,” as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes.
It houses the headquarters of Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and UPS. Its airport, Hartsfield-Jackson International, is the busiest in the world — topping its rivals in Beijing and Dubai. Following the introduction of a state tax credit, it has become a hub for Hollywood filming (“Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Baby Driver” were both filmed there).
Atlanta’s incumbent mayor, term-limited Kasim Reed, is known as a steady hand who has had a friendly relationship with Georgia’s right-wing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and the business community.
While populist mayors across the country have pushed policy designed to lift wages, expand affordable housing, open up government to participatory budgeting, and protect the environment, Reed shied away from national progressive priorities.
At an event earlier this year, U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue shared the stage with both Deal and Reed, praising Georgia’s business-friendly politics. “I’m very excited about what you’ve done in the state,” he said. “You guys are all about growth. I’m very impressed with what I’ve learned, beyond what I knew.”
Reed and his allies have long clashed with Fort. The incumbent mayor, channeling much of the political establishment, told reporters in April that Fort would be a “disaster as mayor,” implying that his politics are quixotic. “What has he accomplished?” he asked. “Don’t sit out here throwing stones at Atlanta running around talking about as if you’re holier-than-thou when you’re just a politician, guy. You’re not any holier-than-thou person.”
Reed has reason to be sensitive to criticism. In the shadow of Atlanta’s rapid growth is some of the worst inequality in the country. A 2015 Brookings Institute report found that Atlanta was the most unequal major city in the U.S., with the top income households in the city (those at the 95th income percentile) earning almost 20 times as much as those in the lowest income bracket (those in the 20th income percentile).
Like many other cities, rising housing prices are a concern for low-income residents.
Georgia Advancing Communities Together, a nonprofit that works on housing issues, is pressing the mayoral candidates to work on affordability.
In literature handed out before the housing forum it hosted at St. Luke’s, the organization notes that Fulton County, which houses Atlanta, has a sky-high eviction rate: 22 percent of all rental households in the county received an eviction notice in 2015, three times the rate of Chicago.
Fort is an academic by training, having taught at many of Atlanta’s universities. He has studied black politics, history, and inequality.
But some of his best education about the power of elites came from the time he angered every major bank on Wall Street.
In 2002, years before the subprime mortgage meltdown, Fort teamed up with Georgia’s last Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes to pass one of the toughest anti-predatory lending laws in the country. As the local press noted, he was one of the “prime movers” of the bill, which prohibited pre-payment penalties and loan flipping, and required lenders to provide counseling to people who take out certain high-cost loans.
Bill Brennan, now retired and living in North Carolina, was a lawyer with Atlanta Legal Aid who worked closely with Fort and Barnes on the legislation. He recalls running into Fort in a hallway and explaining the crisis of predatory lending in Georgia to him.
As Gary Rivlin notes in his book, “Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.—How the Working Poor Became Big Business,” Atlanta was one of the cities targeted earliest by the subprime swindle. “The foreclosure rate between 1996 and 1999 fell by 7 percent for those who held a conventional home loan but soared by 232 percent among those holding subprime loans,” he writes.
Fort attended a hearing held in Atlanta about the issue by then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, and was moved to action. “He was great, he spoke up, and that became his cause, dealing with predatory lending,” Brennan says. “Senator Fort was the energy, and he was the force behind getting it signed.”
But 2002 was also the year the Democrats finally lost the governor’s mansion, leading to the first GOP statewide government since Reconstruction. Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue made repealing the law’s toughest provisions a priority when he took office the following year.
The lending industry, which had angrily protested the law, saw its shot. One trade publication warned that it “will result in the drying up of credit in the subprime market. … The law could result in fewer Georgia loans making their way into securitized pools in the months ahead.” A number of top subprime lenders announced that they would stop lending to the state; George W. Bush’s U.S. comptroller of the currency announced that some national banks would be exempted from the law.
Then the industry’s lobbyists targeted the new Republican Senate majority and governor.
“The entire mortgage industry and banks descended on Georgia to get that law weakened,” Brennan says.
By March 2003, the lobbyists and Perdue succeeded in repealing Fort’s protections, which the Associated Press noted was the “first major bill” the governor signed. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that a pair of lawmakers who did the heavy lifting on the bill, Democrat and Republican bankers, literally walked into a crowd of industry lobbyists and received a hug for their efforts.
More than a decade later, Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines looked back at the Fort legislation, noting that its protections “might have forestalled the foreclosure crisis” had they been adopted and enforced across the country.
Brennan agrees with their assessment. “Had it gone into effect and been replicated in other states, there’s a good chance that [we could have stopped] the financial collapse,” he concludes.
Years later, when the financial meltdown began, one of the lobbyists who led the effort to gut Fort’s law, Wright Andrews Jr. of the National Home Equity Mortgage Association, offered a sort of mea culpa to the Wall Street Journal. “I certainly was not aware of the degree to which many in the industry clearly failed to follow proper underwriting standards — the standards which they represented they were following to us lobbying,” he told the paper in 2007.
Without a law to shield Georgians from the depredations of subprime lending, Fort took to the streets. He called up CEOs, including Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo and Bank of America’s Ken Lewis, threatening them with protests over individual clients who Brennan represented.
Doing so won settlements for a number of homeowners. In one such case in 2009, Fort assembled a crowd outside Wachovia Bank (later bought by Wells Fargo) to call attention to the case of Avonia Carson, one of Brennan’s clients.
Carson was a 68-year-old African-American woman, who was spending 99 percent of her fixed income (a $1,233 Social Security check) to pay for two bank loans.
The bank settled Carson’s case.
“He did this a lot, he would write letters, he’d make phone calls to the CEOs of these companies,” Brennan recalls. “And it helped. It helped a lot.”
“They figure it’s better to work things out than face a picket line,” Fort told Rivlin of his many interventions against bank CEOs.
Fort’s platform represents a sort of culmination of his life’s work on various issues: reducing inequality and defending civil rights.
He is calling on the city to decriminalize marijuana, a shot across the bow at Atlanta’s Fulton County, which, in 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union found to be one of the most racially biased counties in the entire country when it comes to marijuana arrests.
“It’s more than ironic that in a city dominated by African-American elected officials at the city level and the county level that you have that disparity,” Fort says.
The stance on marijuana, combined with his activist background, earned Fort the backing of Michael Render, the Atlanta-area rapper who goes by Killer Mike.
To promote the economic mobility that Atlanta lacks, Fort is proposing two years of tuition-free college for all high school graduates. He also wants to expand the city’s meager public transit system, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
He also has vowed to make Atlanta a “sanctuary city,” a step that Reed has declined, saying instead that Atlanta is a “welcoming city.”
Communication Workers of America Local 3204 political director Rita Scott, like many others interviewed by The Intercept, pointed to Fort’s consistent support for populist causes as the reason for its endorsement.
“He’s always fought those issues with us,” she says. “For CWA, it was a no-brainer.”
She contrasted Fort’s record with that of another mayoral candidate, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who recently came out in support for $15 for Atlanta’s city workers. “[He] did not support raising the minimum wage and the Fight for 15 until he started running for mayor,” she notes. (Fort has attended rallies for the movement for years.)
She also points to the effort by Georgia’s progressive community that defeated a ballot measure last year that would have allowed the state to take over local school districts, noting Mitchell refused to come out publicly against it, despite prodding by the union.
That’s among both the benefits of and challenges for Fort’s campaign: All the other candidates are starting to sound like him.
Five members of the Atlanta City Council are running for mayor, and many are harping on themes of inequality and housing affordability that Fort has talked about for decades.
But that means they are running against a status quo they helped shape.
It’s probably no coincidence that it wasn’t until June 2017, months into Fort’s campaign, that Atlanta City Hall voted to raise city workers’ wages to $15 an hour.
“I think I set the tone of the debate … but that’s not what I want. I want to win,” Fort says. “This is not just about making a statement. Although, when you change the debate, you change people.”
If Fort reminds you of someone — say, a 76-year-old senator from Vermont who polls as America’s most popular sitting politician and also has the backing of Killer Mike — don’t worry, he sees the similarities, too.
Bernie Sanders has endorsed Fort’s run for mayor. In an email sent to his campaign list, Sanders praised Fort as “unapologetically standing up for middle-class and working-class families, for blacks, whites, and Latinos, for women and the gay community.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that of the $250,000 that Fort raised in the first six weeks since announcing his mayoral bid, $100,000 came in the weeks after Sanders authored a fundraising email for him. Fort also enlisted Revolution Messaging, the firm that powered Sanders’s email fundraising campaign.
In one sense, Sanders is returning a favor. Fort was the highest-ranking African-American lawmaker in the South who endorsed his run for president, drawing ire from the state’s Democratic establishment.
Reed lashed out at the endorsement, calling it “nothing but a publicity stunt to help him run for mayor. He will lose that race also.”
(Reed coordinated closely with Team Clinton during the primary. An open records request filed by The Intercept revealed that his CNN op-ed attacking Bernie Sanders was actually authored by a pro-Clinton super PAC.)
Tim Franzen has worked for the Quaker-founded American Friends Service Committee — a social action group that has worked for peace and social justice since its founding in 1917 — for the last decade. He spent much of the past few years working on issues, such as stopping foreclosures. At one point, he worked with a group of organizers to save the home of a retired police detective, making national headlines.
He typically avoids electoral campaigns, but like many young people who donned clipboards to canvas for Sanders, he was inspired by Fort to get involved. He has taken what he calls an “unprecedented leave of absence” from AFSC to spending his days at Fort’s field office, dialing for dollars and recruiting volunteers.
“I was in the meeting when Fort decided, ‘I have to do this because my conscience won’t let me do anything else,'” Franzen says of Fort’s decision to switch his endorsement from Hillary Clinton to Sanders.
Asked about endorsing Sanders, Fort cites an incident that occurred early in the primary, where a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in Atlanta interrupted Clinton during a speech at Clark Atlanta University in October 2015. They were quickly ejected.
“I was very disappointed when Hillary came to Clark Atlanta University and they manhandled some Black Lives Matter students,” he says. “That created a lot of unease with me. Matter of fact I … followed the students out, made sure they weren’t mistreated. That created a lot of unease in my spirit.”
He started to look at Sanders’s record and positions on issues, and in the Vermont senator’s targeting of Wall Street, he found a kindred spirit. He decided to change his endorsement.
The Sanders endorsement is an example of one of many times Fort has shown he is willing to break with his party’s establishment when he thinks it’s wrong.
When a group of students was ejected from a committee meeting for protesting the cuts, Fort walked outside and counseled them on how to be more effective advocates. “They don’t fear you,” he told them. “They fear what you represent. Because you represent what? Justice. You represent something more than they fear anything else, regular folks standing up, speaking for themselves. That’s what they fear.”
“That is probably Exhibit A,” Fort says of the deal Abrams cut with Republicans to gut HOPE, “in what I talk about as far as Democrats not adhering to an economic populist agenda.”
With a smile, he alludes to the gubernatorial race, where Abrams is facing off with another Democrat who opposed the HOPE cuts. “It’s just ironic that some people are positioning themselves as these progressive candidates for statewide office at the same time that they undercut the most important Democratic [achievement],” he says. “But we’re not talking about people running for statewide office.”
To Fort’s activist backers, the difference between his approach and that of many other Democrats is that he genuinely believes the same things they do.
“It was like endorsing one of our own,” Speight says, noting that sometimes Fort comes to organizing meetings just to observe — unlike most politicians, he sometimes doesn’t even speak. “We don’t feel like we’re going to have to call and ask Senator Fort for things, we feel like Senator Fort is already with us.”
Fort’s defiance goes all the way up to the national Democratic Party.
During the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, The Intercept asked a long slew of Democratic elites — representatives of the DNC, the Clinton campaign, several members of Congress — about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s primetime speaking role at the event.
Bloomberg administered mass surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers during his time as mayor — something that President Donald Trump cited as a model. We asked Democrats if Bloomberg should use his speaking time to apologize for spying on innocent Muslims. Not a single one agreed that he should — except for Fort.
“He should apologize for that, just like he should apologize for stop and frisk,” he said. “He should apologize for singling out Muslims, Muslim Americans for surveillance. Very important. The same mindset that spies on Muslim Americans is the same mindset that says … we gotta stop and frisk people. I’m not a fan of Michael Bloomberg.”
But he does have one establishment backer in his corner. Barnes hosted a fundraiser for Fort’s mayoral run in January; he personally ponied up $4,000 — a sort of welcome-home present to the senator who helped him pass landmark predatory lending legislation 15 years ago before a GOP wave defanged it.
For Fort, getting arrested for acts of civil disobedience at protests is a routine occupational hazard — talk to any prominent Atlanta-area activist, and they are likely to know the senator well.
In October 2011, Fort was hauled away by Atlanta police after Reed lost patience with Occupy Atlanta and ordered its overnight encampment in Woodruff Park to be dismantled, citing safety concerns.
“This is the most peaceful place in Georgia,” Fort declared at the time of Reed’s move. “At the urging of the business community, he’s moving people out. Shame on him.”
Franzen was among those swept up in arrests with Fort.
“I remember Fort showed up in the park and he said something like, ‘I’ve been waiting here for years for ya’ll,” he recalls. “He wasn’t showing up with ‘Here’s two cases of water, good luck, ya’ll’; he was digging in, like an organizer. My relationship with Fort is like a relationship with a fellow community organizer who cares about issues.”
Franzen was also one of several activists arrested alongside Fort in 2014, when protesters staged a sit-in at the governor’s office to demand that Deal expand Medicaid. The governor’s blockade has kept health care out of the hands of 600,000 Georgians.
Then-Deal spokesperson Brian Robinson mocked Fort’s arrest, equating the act of civil disobedience with a lack of work ethic:
— Brian C. Robinson (@LordTinsdale) January 27, 2014
In contrast to Reed’s chummy attitude with Deal, Fort was livid about the governor’s Medicaid blockade.
“People are dying,” Fort replied at the time, “and that’s the level of discourse we’re getting from the governor’s office on this issue.”
Atlanta’s mayoral race is technically a nonpartisan contest. But the list of 12 candidates is topped by Councilperson Mary Norwood, who has consistently been leading polls with a plurality because she is the most conservative candidate in the race. If you’re a Republican in Atlanta, you already have your candidate.
Because the rules dictate that no candidate can win Atlanta’s mayoral race without a majority, that means that the November general election will likely lead to a December runoff. Thus the other 11 candidates are more or less vying to be her challenger, and most are bunched in the high single-digits or low double-digits. Norwood has shown that she is viable — she narrowly lost to Reed in 2009 by only about 700 votes.
Bryan Long, who leads the Progress Now chapter in the state called Better Georgia, worries more about the threat of Norwood than the differences between the other 11 candidates.
“I’m very concerned that she slips into a runoff and becomes mayor of Atlanta, and I think that would be as big of a shock for this city as Trump was for the nation,” Long says. “If Mary Norwood ends up in the mayor’s office, we have no barrier at all between us and the Trump administration.”
That puts Fort’s campaign on the spot — he has to convince Atlantans that they should turn the page on Kasim Reed’s neoliberalism and that he can prevent a genuine conservative from running Atlanta’s traditional Democratic stronghold.
To tackle this task, Fort has a grassroots army — stacked with volunteers, labor unions, and national organizations — behind him.
In late June, the campaign announced a slew of Atlanta-area union endorsements, including locals from the aforementioned CWA and Teamsters, as well as the United Auto Workers and Georgia Federation of Teachers. In all, 28 union locals are backing the candidate.
He also has the backing of the Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America — an organization Fort worked with years before the Sanders campaign made it to the mainstream left. Among national organizations, Our Revolution and the Working Families Party have endorsed and are planning to step up their operations in support of his campaign.
“Fort is an inspiring leader who is running to transform Atlanta into a city that truly works for all its working families, not just a handful of wealthy and well-connected insiders,” Joe Dinkin, WFP national communications director tells The Intercept. “Those are the values he’s been fighting for his entire career. He was on the forefront of a movement to defend consumers from the unfair practices of big banks before the Wall Street collapse by leading the fight against subprime lending as a state senator. Change always comes from the grassroots up, and we’re excited to help elect Atlanta’s next mayor.”
Correction: September 18, 2017, 12:52 p.m.
An earlier version of the article misnamed the nonprofit Georgia Advancing Communities Together.