When Doug Shipman announced his plan to run for Atlanta City Council president a week ago, his life leapt into hyperdrive after several months of quiet sabbatical that followed his departure as leader of the Woodruff Arts Center.
“It’s been hectic,” Shipman says. “I’ve had a lot of people reaching out to me wanting to help. I’ve been reaching out to people. I’ve connected with some very old friends; a friend from high school I haven’t talked to in years got in touch.”
Shipman says the decision to enter politics wasn’t in place when he announced in July that he’d step down after three years as CEO and president of the Woodruff, the hub of the high arts in Atlanta and the third-largest arts center in the nation. He was in no rush to set a course as he took a breather from the fast pace of the Woodruff. “I had a little time to sit back and reflect,” he says.
All he knew when he left the Woodruff was that he felt called by the wave of social change inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. “I’ve had on my heart a lot of issues that are happening now in terms of social justice and community,” he says. “I’ve really contemplated several ways to engage and weighed an array of possibilities.”
There were rumors and conjecture that Shipman planned to run for mayor, which quieted down after Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms declined a spot in the Biden White House and decided to run for re-election. When the current council president, Felicia A. Moore, made it known that she’ll step aside in order to challenge Bottoms, the opening intrigued him.
“Coming out of COVID will be a unique time,” he says. “I asked myself how I can contribute to the rebuild. I decided this was the way I could have substantial impact.”
In addition to Shipman, former Atlanta Board of Education Chair Courtney English has announced his candidacy, as has District 5 City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, a lawyer first elected to the council in 2001.
Shipman is attracted by the council president’s role in building coalitions and consensus, and in helping define policy and initiatives. “I’ve been fortunate to lead two large nonprofit organizations and one for-profit,” says Shipman, who was the founding CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. “Being the leader of those kinds of organizations teaches you a lot on how to make changes and engage your stakeholders. Those roles have given me a comprehensive view that’s really helpful in terms of elected office.”
He worked with the administrations of former Mayors Shirley Franklin and Kasim Reed when he helped found the Center for Civil and Human Rights, and he says that experience was instructive on how local government works.
Shipman sees this as an important moment in the city’s history, one that will define Atlanta’s direction for years to come. “We will have some big changes and unique opportunities as we come out of COVID,” he says. “There’s also a broad reckoning involving equity and inclusion.”
If elected, he says he’ll be a strong advocate for the arts in a state that ranks next to last in annual public funding, a meager 14 cents per person. “Having led two arts and culture organizations, I deeply believe in the importance the arts have in a city’s economy and culture,” Shipman says. “It’s important that we support the arts.”
He’ll reveal his platform and priorities when his campaign launches formally in the coming weeks. He says he wants to bring fresh ideas to the table.
Shipman, an Arkansas native, came to Atlanta to attend Emory University, graduating magna cum laude in 1995 with B.A. degrees in economics and political science. He received a Master’s of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School and a Master’s of Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, both in 2001.
“I feel fortunate,” he says. “Like a lot of people, I came to Atlanta to go to college and stayed here. I’ve been able to uniquely be a part of this city and to tap into the legacy of it. It’s humbling to have the opportunity to do this. I love Atlanta and the thought of continuing to help the city really excites me.”