Georgia Today: How Keisha Lance Bottoms Changed Atlanta And What Her Successor Could Face
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms grabbed headlines with her announcement she won’t seek reelection. Her term has seen a host of crises, including a cyberattack, the coronavirus pandemic, weeks of racial unrest and a sharp rise in crime. Georgia Today host Steve Fennessy and guest Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Bill Torpy explore what led to Bottoms' decision, and how the city has changed on her watch.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. Last week, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced she will not seek a second term. For close observers of City Hall, it was a reminder of how quickly political fortunes there can rise and fall, especially when you consider that not even a year ago, Bottoms was seen as a possible running mate for President Joe Biden.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: In the same way that it was very clear to me almost five years ago that I should run for mayor of Atlanta, it is abundantly clear to me today that it is time to pass the baton on to someone else.
Steve Fennessy: Bottoms' first and now only term has been fraught. Not long after she took office, a cyberattack crippled the city. Then came the pandemic. The crisis also provided a tense backdrop to weeks of social justice protests roiling the city, including after the Atlanta Police Department's killing of Rayshard Brooks. Most recently, Bottoms has faced harsh criticism over her handling of the city's ongoing spike in crime. Joining me to discuss what led to Atlanta Mayor Bottoms' decision to bow out after one term and what we could see in the coming election year for the city is Bill Torpy. He's a longtime columnist from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
So, Bill, Keisha Lance Bottoms, this announcement felt like a shock to a lot of us because bowing out gracefully is not something most politicians do. What went through your mind when you heard the news that she was not going to seek a second term?
Bill Torpy: I was surprised, but not surprised. Obviously, she is a first-term mayor. You expect them to run for the second term. It's what they do. She had a fundraiser and raised a bunch of money — I think it was a half-a-million dollars — but it always seemed reticent, almost. And then last week, she had the press conference after the killing of the 15-year-old girl in a crossfire, in a shooting.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: We are here again on the heels of another child in our city being shot and killed. Despite the fact that APD has removed 2,000 guns from our streets and arrested more than 700 violent offenders, it's still not enough. I am so sad to say that this likely will not be the last time I stand here.
Bill Torpy: It just seems that she was frustrated, almost lost.
Steve Fennessy: Well, Bill, let’s talk a little bit about how we got here, because it's been like 100 years — and I think it was Maynard Jackson; he was the only mayor to not seek another term when he was allowed to. And Mayor Bottoms herself seemed poised to, if maybe not win in a landslide, she was at least well-positioned to take on any challengers. So, I mean, to understand the ending, you got to — you got to go to the beginning. Four years ago, most Atlantans didn't really know much about Keisha Lance Bottoms. Yeah, she was a sitting council member. Yes, she’d served as a magistrate judge, but she still didn't have a ton of citywide name recognition. What set her apart from the rest of the contenders? How did she emerge from that pack?
Bill Torpy: Two words: Kasim Reed.
News Tape NewsOne Now: All right, incumbent mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed has endorsed someone in the race: City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Kasim Reed: And I want folks to know that I'm going do everything I can between now and Nov. 7 and Dec. 5 to see the Keisha Lance Bottoms becomes my successor; that a woman becomes the 60th mayor of the city of Atlanta.
Bill Torpy: There was a dozen people running and there was maybe six of them, per se, that were legitimate contenders. You know, Mary Norwood who lost in 2009, Ceasar Mitchell, who was the city council president for long time. Kasim Reed then went and pushed hard for Keisha Lance Bottoms.
News Tape NewsOne Now: Bottoms released an ad yesterday featuring Reed, who is promising to make stops at 40 barber shops, nail shops and beauty salons over the weekend as early voting for the Nov. 7 election begins on Monday.
Bill Torpy: He got people that would give money, a lot of them have airport contracts, like a full year before the race. That is a good thing obviously. Keisha's stock just kept rising.
Kasim Reed: Ladies and gentlemen, please rise to your feet. As I present Keisha Lance Bottoms, my successor, the 60th mayor of the city of Atlanta.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: Well, good evening, everybody. This doesn't even feel real to me. And this is just a reminder of how God dreams dreams so much bigger than we can ever dream for ourselves.
Steve Fennessy: She came into office. You know, there was a significant contingent within the city that really took her as their own. You know, "We have a mayor named Keisha." We heard that a lot. One of the things that stuck out to me was how she appeared to be the exact opposite of Kasim Reed in so many ways. Kasim Reed, her predecessor — who was term-limited, he couldn't run again — he had this well-earned reputation as an autocrat, as a bully. What was it about her style, so different from her predecessor’s that had so much appeal?
Bill Torpy: It did have a lot of appeal. And I think she kind of seemed like a fresh face, a kinder person, although I would push back on your thought. Her election was pretty much like the 2009 election. I mean, it was an election in Black and white. And as much as Mary Norwood, you know, knew the southwest side and there was a lot of black residents that liked her. Ultimately, people voted for people that they looked like. You look at the precincts in Buckhead were going 80, 90 percent for Mary Norwood. Conversely, on the southwest side, they were going the same way, the opposite way, you know, and then the ones in the middle that were breaking even. So that is still a big part of it.
Steve Fennessy: Identity politics.
Bill Torpy: Identity politics. And she definitely had a different style. She was more hands off than Kasim. Kasim was basically micromanaging, too. And she was more of a kind of a person who had some people in places and let them do their jobs. She was just a totally different personality.
Steve Fennessy: Kasim Reed was somebody who had wanted to be mayor famously since he was like 12 years old. It was something that he had worked for his entire life. But with Keisha Lance Bottoms, you never really got the impression that being mayor of the city, Atlanta, was sort of a consuming dream or passion for her. Did you get that same impression?
Bill Torpy: Oh, yeah. Kasim had said that several times. You know, he wanted to be mayor. I think he told Andy Young he wanted to be mayor when he was a high school senior or maybe a college freshman. It's been that long. But when Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that she was running for mayor, you know, I kind of shrugged. I just thought, OK, that's one more person who wants to be mayor. But she didn't seem to have that burning desire that — it just didn't seem that way,
Steve Fennessy: To what degree did that ambivalence, or at least that perceived ambivalence about the role, play into the decision that we heard last week about not seeking a second term?
Keisha Lance Bottoms: If the race for mayor were held today, I would win this race without a runoff. That's not me making it up: I've seen the poll numbers. And even with all of those things that I know to be true and I know what I could do, just because you can do it doesn’t always necessarily mean that you should do it. I can be mayor again, but there is a reason that there are elections every four years and in the same way the people have the opportunity to make a decision every four years, candidates also have the opportunity to make a decision. And the decision that I have made after thoughtful prayer and consideration is not to seek another term as mayor of this city.
Bill Torpy: There had been, you know, criticisms that she has just not been present. She has pushed back saying, hey, you know, I've worked hard. You know, she's claimed that she has been there all along. There's just been a thought. I kept hearing that from — from city hall people and from other elected officials that there's just not been a presence there. And maybe that's a comparison to the former guy who, you know, I mean, he was just everywhere, all the place, blue lights flashing.
Steve Fennessy: One of the criticisms about her that was levied by her opponents was that she was going to be this puppet of Kasim, that she was it was just going to be an extension of the Reed years. And so that was kind of a shadow that she had the struggle to step out of. And then she had to deal with this federal corruption investigation that started in the Reed administration.
News Tape CBS46: Good afternoon. I'm Karen Greer. We're going to begin with that breaking news. Federal investigators demanding records on former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. It's the latest bombshell in development in the corruption scandal in Atlanta City Hall.
Steve Fennessy: Still today as we speak. There's no sign that it's wrapping up. So to what degree, I mean, is that shadow of Kasim Reed cast over her entire four years in office?
Bill Torpy: Actually, in her first maybe six months, there was just all sorts of different things that were popping up. You know, we had a couple or three reporters that were digging through a lot of the city records and the pull string after some subpoenas would come out.
News Tape CBS46: The feds want it all, all eight years of records, meaning they're looking at potential misspending and other wrongdoing dating back to Day 1 of the Reed administration — eight years of daily calendar information for Kasim Reed and all his employees, eight years of city credit card purchasing data. Finally, the mayor's office wants folks to know all the people involved in this new subpoena are no longer in the administration. Karen, back to you.
Bill Torpy: Keisha Lance Bottoms was trying to govern while all this stuff was still coming out. She gave the police a pretty good raise and — and they were happy. And that was obviously a contrast to the former administration. She also, at the city jail, stopped housing prisoners for ICE, which was a bone of contention with a lot of people. You know, in the city of Atlanta, the city was renting out space to ICE to hold immigrants for deportation. So these are all things she was doing.
Steve Fennessy: And she also ended — ended cash bond.
Bill Torpy: Right. Right. So the cash bond also is a thing that, you know, why hold people who for $200 for a couple of weeks for a $200 bond, for a minor infraction. If they don't have it, it punishes poor people.
Steve Fennessy: And the other thing that she talked about early on in her administration, and this is something we heard about in the waning days of Mayor Reed's administration, was the vast income inequality in Atlanta, this affordable housing crisis that was becoming more and more of an issue. And she said about wanting to raise something like a billion dollars for affordable housing in Atlanta. But initiatives like this, to what degree were they hobbled by that long shadow cast by the Reed administration?
Bill Torpy: The income equality and/or the affordable housing, that is something that is just kind of you have to play the long game. Those are just two huge issues that are just hard to do. And then there’s other things that she was pushing, like the jail, closing the jail and building, you know, an equity center. That's one of the, you know, quote, accomplishments that they've been pushing. I think that was all symbolic. I think she was trying to do that. So it would just sound good. You know, it was kind of like a symbolic thing of turning the swords into plowshares sort of thing. So anyway, so she's rolling along, you know, doing this, doing that and, you know, being fairly successful. And then the kitchen sink hit her.
News Tape 11Alive: In America, the virus is spreading faster than ever, including right here in Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: Next, why what happens in Atlanta matters so much to the rest of Georgia. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Bill Torpy, a columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Every mayor of a big city is going to face a crisis at some point, but the last four years have been exceptional in terms of of the challenges that Keisha Lance Bottoms has faced. What are some of the highlights there?
Bill Torpy: You know, the investigation was in the background, the cyberattack that shut everything down in the first quarter of her term. The pandemic, of course, started —everything got closed down. And then right in May, there was the George Floyd killing. And then there's protests here and are police cars are burning. And she gave a pretty impassioned, well-thought-out speech about, you know, this is not Atlanta. Please go home, people.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: You are disgracing our city. You are disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person who has been killed in this country. We are better than this, we're better than this as a city, we are better than this as a country. Go home. Go home.
Bill Torpy: She was seen widely as — as caring, strong, we are stepping in, and then there was the killing of Rayshard Brooks.
News Tape 11Alive: Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed in the parking lot of that Wendy's in June. The two Atlanta officers involved in his death are facing charges. One of them has already been fired from the department. The night after the shooting, someone set the Wendy's on fire. During the protests, it quickly became the place of sit-in protests with some community members worried about armed demonstrators blocking the road.
Bill Torpy: And, you know, the mayor and some of the people in the police department, I guess, figured that a hands-off thought would kind of cool the tensions down. That was the thought. It was the calculation. I went down there and was held at gunpoint, walked around the building looking at it with two 18-year-olds with guns at my back. It may have been one of the weirder things. It just showed of a breakdown of of law and order. The young girl, Secoriea, was killed there, then, a few days later.
News Tape WSB: Eight-year-old Secoriea Turner, shot and killed Saturday evening while sitting in a car across the street from the infamous Wendy's.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: You can't blame this on a police officer. You can't say that we this is about criminal justice reform. This is about some people carrying some weapons who shot up a car with an 8-year-old baby in the car.
News Tape WSB: Right now, police are searching for the shooters who are accused of blocking the road before firing into the car where Secoriea was sitting with her mother and family friend. Her mother today inconsolable as she talked about how her baby girl died in her arms. [unintelligible crying] City leaders say this has to stop
Bill Torpy: And then crime took off. It really mirrors when the protests and when the Rayshard Brooks thing happened.
Steve Fennessy: And murders are up again this year over last year. It's not even summer yet. Where is this headed? Whoever the next mayor is has huge challenges. But this isn't just an Atlanta problem. This violence is something that's, you know, virtually every major city is seeing. How important is it to sort of, to deal with this issue in the city of Atlanta, not just for people who live here, but every Georgian?
Bill Torpy: It's the issue of the election. And it'll be interesting to see what candidates will bring to the table as far as solutions.
Steve Fennessy: When we talk about homicides in the city, the number we're at now is still quite a bit short of where we peaked in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Isn't that right?
Bill Torpy: Right. Right. They're up into, you know, pushing the 300 and I've talked to some of the cops that were around in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. I mean, that was during the crack epidemic. Two hundred-plus murders a year were common. Part of it, as you remember, that there was the — the housing projects that were places where just crime was endemic. The housing projects have all been torn down. People have obviously been displaced and moved. And it's a different city in many ways.
Steve Fennessy: Bill, what are the chances that Kasim Reed is going to step into the race because he's allowed now to run again because the city charter says you can run for two consecutive terms, then you have to step away for at least four years.
Bill Torpy: I keep hearing of him talking to people that, you know, he would like to run.
News Tape WSB: With Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms officially announcing she will not seek reelection, the field of candidates could grow quickly. Rumors swirl about the possibility of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed jumping into the race. He did not return calls or texts on Friday, but did send this tweet about Mayor Bottoms: Quote, “We are thankful for your bottom service to the city of Atlanta. I know that you will continue to make a positive difference.”
Bill Torpy: But then at the same time, he doesn't want the embarrassment of running and losing. So I think he is now just trying to figure out, you know, what his path to running would be. I would kind of bet against it, I think. But as someone who likes political theater, I mean, I wouldn't mind seeing it.
Steve Fennessy: So whoever comes in to be our next mayor in the city of Atlanta, you know, has to deal not just with the — the issues that crop up in the city, but the issues that crop up in the Gold Dome. And I'm thinking specifically of efforts in recent years by — by the Republicans in the state to take over the airport. You know, David Ralston is talking about putting state troopers on the city streets of Atlanta. There's a lot of meddling that goes on when it comes to how the city sort of runs itself. Those fall along political lines. They often fall along racial lines. What kind of specific challenges do you think is the next mayor going to face in that regard?
Bill Torpy: No Georgia politician has gone bad by not beating up on Atlanta. It plays good across the state. There's a lot of political posturing, but ultimately, you know, they have to work with each other. As Atlanta goes, Georgia goes. Atlanta is the economic engine of Georgia. It makes Georgia not Alabama. And I think the powers that be, even the ones that beat up on it, you know, at the state house, know that. And I think that, you know, you need good government here. You need to have cooperation. And that is just something that will make for a better Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: What was your interaction with Keisha Lance Bottoms? How did you get on with her?
Bill Torpy: I really probably haven't talked her, you know, maybe every few months, maybe texts back and forth a bit. I think she is a good person. She reached out to me after my son passed away. And I thought that was very kind thing, you know, for her to do.
Steve Fennessy: After Keisha Lance Bottoms was elected, her national profile elevated tremendously. She was courted by a number of Democratic presidential candidates. And and part of it was, you know, she represented, you know, sort of this vanguard of a new kind of political power. It represented women of color, primarily. To what degree is her decision to not run again going to maybe impede that — that movement?
Bill Torpy: I don't know that it will. There's a couple of things going on last year that kind of put her in that place. And one was that she was for Biden early and she was one of the few Black politicians in the South that was on the Biden campaign pushing for him early and she stayed with him. So I think that was important to Biden. And I think she got a lot also of — of publicity and national renown by standing up to the governor as far as the masks and the way that they dealt with the pandemic. Those two things just gave her some national renown. I think that it was a tough place to be. Just the amount of stuff that happened to her in the last year just made the job something that I don't think she signed up for.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Bill Torpy from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Well, the dust continues to settle after Keisha Lance Bottoms announcement she would not seek a second term. A few days before that, Bottoms convened a new working group asking them for recommendations within 45 days on combatting violent crime. In Atlanta, City Council President Felicia Moore, also a candidate to succeed Bottoms as mayor, criticized the move, saying in a statement, quote, “We need Atlantans to know how the Atlanta Police Department plans to keep them safe today.”
For more Georgia Today, go to GPG. I'm Steve Fennessy, Georgia Today is production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Don't forget to leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador and Jahi Whitehead are Georgia Today’s producers. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.