ATLANTA (AP) — Andre Dickens, who rolled to victory Tuesday in the Atlanta mayor's race, was told he was aiming too high once before.
In 2013, he was an administrator at Georgia Tech when he jumped into a race for a citywide seat on the Atlanta City Council.
Dickens was targeting a council member who had been disbarred after depositing funds intended for a client into his own bank account. Dickens had an outgoing manner, a dynamic speaking style and one other major advantage — his campaign was being steered by his friend Cabral Franklin, the now-deceased son of former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.
Still, the odds were long for a neophyte, but in his victory speech Tuesday, Dickens recounted his thinking when critics said he should aim lower for his first office.
“I told them, you know, I got my sights set on a citywide seat, because I got citywide ambitions and citywide relationships, and I want to make sure that we get this dream to come true,” Dickens said.
Dickens won that council race and then proved the doubters wrong again on Nov. 2 when he came from back in the pack to finish second and deny former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed a spot in Tuesday's runoff. Then he blew past City Council President Felicia Moore, who had been the front-runner on Nov. 2, scoring a nearly 2-to-1 victory that stunned longtime observers of Atlanta politics.
“I kind of thought in the initial stages of the campaign, that maybe the message ought to be privately communicated that ‘You know, we love you, but it might not be your turn yet,'" said Harvey Newman, an emeritus professor of urban policy at Georgia State University. "He surprised me by his showing in the general by just stepping up and beating Kasim soundly. That was remarkable. He did it with south side of Atlanta votes, which used to be Kasim’s stronghold. And then he built on that coalition.”
The son a single mother, Dickens made the jump to an engineering degree at the elite Georgia Tech and later earned a master’s degree in public administration at Georgia State University. Dickens is a Baptist deacon at church he helped found and has one daughter with his former wife.
The 47-year-old Dickens has long had his sights set on the city's top office, recounting Tuesday a dispute between him and his mother Sylvia about when he first announced his ambition.
“I said it was when I was 16, she said it was when I was 12 years old, that I wanted to be mayor of the city of Atlanta one day," Dickens said. "And look at us now.”
Dickens currently works for TechBridge, a nonprofit that tries to use technology to aid other charitable groups. Dickens also founded a program to train people for technology work, trying to broaden access to high-paying jobs in Atlanta. He earlier ran a family-owned furniture store chain that collapsed in bankruptcy a decade ago, something that Dickens blamed on the effects of the Great Recession.
Although fears about rising crime dominated the mayoral race, Dickens focused more in his victory speech on trying to promote equity in Atlanta, where there is a sharp chasm between richer, whiter residents and poorer, Blacker residents. He said he wanted to restore the city as a beacon of opportunity for all residents.
“The city is facing multigenerational poverty. We’re facing the highest income inequality in the nation. And yes, we are fighting a crime spike right now in this city,” Dickens said, observing that his opponents were never the 13 other candidates who ran for mayor. “My opponent is homelessness, hopelessness, joblessness, racism, poverty, violence.”
That message resonated with Black residents, with Dickens winning some heavily Black precincts with more than 80% of the vote. But it also reached more liberal white residents, especially in gentrified neighborhoods east of downtown. There, Dickens may have been aided by a swarm of endorsements.
Nan Orrock, a longtime Democratic state senator in that area who backed Dickens, said she grew impressed with the council member while working on a series of projects to honor congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis.
“I thought of him as an innovator, as somebody who brought new ideas, and also as a collaborator,” Orrock said.
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.
This story has corrected errors that said Andre Dickens’ mother did not graduate from high school and how long he has been attending his church.