Queer community organizer tops Atlanta City Council race fundraising

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A queer Muslim community organizer raised the most money so far in a crowded race for the District 5 seat on the Atlanta City Council. 

Liliana Bakhtiari, 33, raised $193,000 and had $140,000 cash on hand in the District 5 race, according to the second-quarter fundraising report she filed with the city’s Office of the Municipal Clerk. Bakhtiari hopes to continue LGBTQ representation on the council.

“Atlanta is supposed to be the gay mecca of the South,” she told Project Q Atlanta. “If we don’t have representation on council – the very body that has the ability to affect the LGBTQIA population, that proposes the budget that goes into serving the LGBTQIA population – then we are failing as a city, and we’re failing as the leader of the South that we’ve always claimed to be.”

Bakhtiari is followed in fundraising by sustainability expert Mandy Mahoney ($158,000 raised with $147,000 on hand), civic activist Samuel Bacote ($129,000 with $129,000 on hand), neighborhood activist Katie Kissel ($39,000 with $18,000 on hand) and community organizer Doug Williams ($2,600 with $500 on hand).

Bakhtiari came within about 250 votes of unseating City Councilmember Natalyn Archibong in 2017. This year, Archibong is running for council president.

After the first campaign, Bakhtiari lobbied for Planned Parenthood and Pro Georgia, wrote policy for first-time political candidates and helped oversee food distribution to homeless shelters and encampments.

She’s now strategic director for the Blue Neighbors Project, a political action committee that supports progressive candidates for the Georgia Legislature.

Bakhtiari said she learned during her first campaign how easy it is to critique things from outside the political system.

“It’s a whole other beast to understand all the stakeholders involved,” she said. “It’s not so much advancing your own vision but taking in the perspectives of people who you disagree with personally.”

“I definitely learned that the real work was in finding solutions. Everyone can point out problems,” she added.

Bakhtiari was born in Atlanta and lives in Grant Park. She launched her campaign in October. District 5 includes Old Fourth Ward, Sweet Auburn, Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, East Atlanta, Lake Claire, East Lake, Ormewood Park and Grant Park.

The Victory Fund, a national organization that works to increase the number of openly LGBTQ elected officials, endorsed Bakhtiari in March. The group praised her commitment to social justice and highlighted the impact of her election.

“Less than five out LGBTQ Muslims have ever been elected in the United States and their voices and experiences are critical to ensuring smart and inclusive policy-making,” said Elliot Imse, Victory Fund’s vice president of communications. “A victory for Liliana would be a historic moment in our movement to build LGBTQ political power and would inspire more LGBTQ Muslims to consider a run for office.”

Bakhtiari hosting block party in Edgewood

Bakhtiari, if elected, wants to tackle affordable housing, public transit, public safety, workforce development, homelessness and infrastructure.

“We have no complete streets in our district, so we need to work toward complete street design – paving and repaving roads, providing lanes with sidewalks,” she said.

She would work with MARTA to expand bus routes and light-rail options; help city fire, police and 911 departments reach staffing minimums; and help create a diversion center for homeless people to connect with mental health, housing and other resources.

Bakhtiari also wants the council to play a more active role in reforming HOPWA, the city’s long-troubled federal housing program for low-income people with HIV.

“The argument being made is it’s always under the mayor’s purview,” she said. “But council also has a platform and connection to the community. We can hold town halls to put pressure on the mayor’s office or ask for a release of the funds the city is sitting on.”

“Council getting involved and engaging the public in what’s going on helps break down silos,” she added.

Bakhtiari’s campaign is partnering with several Edgewood Avenue businesses for a block party on Saturday. She speaks at Our Bar ATL and hosts dinner at LGBTQ-owned Noni’s Deli before a meet and greet at gay-owned Georgia Beer Garden.

She is at least the eighth openly LGBTQ candidate running for Atlanta City Council this year. The other LGBTQ candidates include teacher Kelly-Jeanne Lee in District 1, project manager Larry Carter in District 4, community organizer Devin Barrington-Ward in District 9, business consultant Jereme Sharpe and attorney Brandon Goldberg for Post 1 At-Large, former state Rep. Keisha Waites for Post 3 At-Large and Mike Russell, who is running for council president.

Qualifying for the races is in August. The election is in November.

Cathy Woolard became the first LGBTQ elected official in Georgia when she unseated a longtime incumbent on the Atlanta City Council in 1997. In 2002, she took office as the first woman and LGBTQ person to serve as City Council president. Anne Fauver, a lesbian, replaced Woolard in the District 6 council seat in 2002. Woolard resigned as council president in 2004 to launch a failed bid for Congress.

Fauver served two terms. Alex Wan continued LGBTQ representation on the council when he won the District 6 seat and took office in 2010. He served two terms before an unsuccessful run for council president in 2017. The council had no LGBTQ members for the first time in 20 years until Antonio Brown won a special election for the District 3 seat in 2019. He’s leaving the seat to run for mayor this year. 

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