Analysis: Behind the rift between Atlanta's mayor and Georgia's governor

August 28, 2019 - Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp stands as Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms returns to her seat after delivering her reflections.  A "Celebration of Life" was held for Christopher Redding Edwards II, Erin Victoria Edwards, and their mother, Dr. Marsha Edwards at Cascade United Methodist Chruch in Atlanta. Marsha Edwards was accused of the fatal shooting last week.
August 28, 2019 - Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp stands as Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms returns to her seat after delivering her reflections. A "Celebration of Life" was held for Christopher Redding Edwards II, Erin Victoria Edwards, and their mother, Dr. Marsha Edwards at Cascade United Methodist Chruch in Atlanta. Marsha Edwards was accused of the fatal shooting last week.

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Not long ago, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Gov. Brian Kemp seemed on a path toward a solid, if not necessarily chummy, bipartisan relationship.

After icy clashes on the 2018 campaign trail, both seemed to find common footing on transportation, economic development and other key initiatives.

reset early in Kemp's term paved the way. Soon, the Republican quietly helped block an effort to grant the state oversight over Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, legislation the city abhors. Both collaborated on corporate deals that brought thousands of jobs to the metro area.

As Bottoms emerged as a rising Democratic star and a potential vice presidential pick, Kemp largely refrained from attacking her outright. She often returned the favor, tempering her personal criticism of the governor as she objected to his policies.

Sure, they were never going to have the same fabled friendship as their predecessors, Nathan Deal and Kasim Reed, who forged a rare relationship that survived a spate of political storms. Reed offered Deal a powerful voice in the Democratic-held White House during the Obama era; Deal vouched for Reed on the state level.

Some of the decade's biggest developments, from the deepening of the Savannah port to the $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium to sparkling new corporate headquarters rising along the city's skyline, hinged on that partnership.

>>More: Pandemic, protests keep Atlanta’s mayor in national spotlight

Of course, few high-ranking politicians – even of the same political persuasion – enjoy that kind of bonhomie. Instead, Bottoms and Kemp seemed on the path to a different sort of alliance; if not warm-and-fuzzy, at least functionally resilient.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Gov. Brian Kemp chat before the Norfolk Southern groundbreaking. AJC/Scott Trubey.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Gov. Brian Kemp chat before the Norfolk Southern groundbreaking. AJC/Scott Trubey.

What’s happened over the last week, though, has been the steady unraveling of their ties.

It reached a new nadir on Friday, when Bottoms announced new measures to contain the coronavirus and Kemp quickly dismissed them, calling her effort "non-binding and legally unenforceable." On social media, their proxies traded harsher words.

So how did it get to this? After all, even as the pandemic worsened and pressure on Kemp to take more drastic action mounted, the governor and the mayor of the state’s capital city maintained their alliance.

And as peaceful demonstrations on Atlanta's streets in late May gave way to violent, chaotic bouts of looting, Kemp  called out the Georgia National Guard with the mayor's vocal support.

But tensions between the two intensified over the last weekend, when a spate of gun violence erupted around the city and a large group ransacked the Department of Public Safety's headquarters in southeast Atlanta, smashing up windows and damaging an office with a homemade grenade.

The Georgia Department of Public Safety headquarters on United Avenue suffered broken windows and was tagged with graffiti following a protest that turned violent late Saturday, July 4, 2020.  (Photo: J. Scott Trubey/AJC)
The Georgia Department of Public Safety headquarters on United Avenue suffered broken windows and was tagged with graffiti following a protest that turned violent late Saturday, July 4, 2020. (Photo: J. Scott Trubey/AJC)

A day later, an infuriated Kemp deployed 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops to protect that building, the state Capitol and the Governor's Mansion. Kemp said he had little other choice but to call in reinforcements. Bottoms told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she staunchly opposed the move.

“It’s a terrible visual to have military tanks on our streets. It has the potential to further inflame this already very tense situation. I personally think it’s overkill,” she said. “But don’t blame that on Atlanta. Call it what it is – you want to protect your buildings.”

From there, the disintegration accelerated. Bottoms, who previously opposed a mask mandate, reversed her stance Wednesday and signed an order requiring them. Mostly silent on the spate of cities defying a statewide order, Kemp's office suddenly announced they were "unenforceable" – and singled out Bottoms in the process.

“If the mayor wants to flatten the curve in Atlanta,” said Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce, “she should start enforcing the current provisions of the governor's orders.”

Then came Friday's feud. Pointing to a series of new highs for coronavirus cases, Bottoms announced a return of new restrictions that calls for restaurants to shutter dining rooms, non-essential businesses to close their doors and a return of stay-at-home guidelines.

"Georgia reopened in a reckless manner," she said, "and the people of our city and state are suffering the consequences."

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey speak at the Peachtree Dekalb Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday, July 1, 2020. Governor Kemp and Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey will take part in a “Wear a Mask” Flyaround Tour of Georgia, encouraging Georgians to follow the guidance of public health officials to stop the spread of COVID-19 ahead of the 4th of July Weekend. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey speak at the Peachtree Dekalb Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday, July 1, 2020. Governor Kemp and Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey will take part in a “Wear a Mask” Flyaround Tour of Georgia, encouraging Georgians to follow the guidance of public health officials to stop the spread of COVID-19 ahead of the 4th of July Weekend. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

The Kemp administration’s response was swift. His office invoked the governor’s July order that blocks cities from taking more restrictive steps than the state, which has allowed restaurants and other businesses to reopen if they follow safety guidelines and has steadily rolled back other limits.

“Once again, if the mayor actually wants to flatten the curve in Atlanta,” Kemp’s office said, “she should start enforcing state restrictions, which she has failed to do.”

What's next? Kemp could take court action against Atlanta and other cities that have defied his order, and analysts say he's got firm legal grounding. But picking a fight with local leaders over masks sets up a tricky city-state battle at a time when coronavirus cases are soaring.

Instead, the public sniping seems set to intensify. Georgia Republicans have already shifted their focus from Kemp's gubernatorial rival Stacey Abrams to Bottoms, targeting her handling of police shootings and the protest movement.

And Bottoms could seek other ways to push back, either through city policies and executive orders, or the national platform that her soaring profile has afforded her.

The city-state allegiance is not irreparable, and has certainly seen worse days, but it's hit a recent low.  

Bob Holmes, a former Democratic state lawmaker and history professor, once said that Atlanta was viewed as “Sodom and Gomorrah” under the Gold Dome.  That is, statewide politicians could win office by vilifying the capital city.

He worries that sentiment could be making a comeback, inflamed by polarized national politics and President Donald Trump.

“Hopefully, it’s not a certainty. But what we’ve seen over the last few weeks has been troubling,” said Holmes. “We can’t get out of this pandemic without working together. And that’s not happening enough in Georgia.”

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