Atlanta mayor Bottoms’ decisions in crisis lead to differing perceptions

After taking the oath of office two years ago, Keisha Lance Bottoms took over a City Hall primed for crises.

A U.S Department of Justice corruption investigation had yielded several guilty pleas. A crippling cyber attack was about to hit the city. Then came 2020 -- the year of a global pandemic and weeks of social unrest over police brutality.

As other mayors across the country face criticism of losing control of their cities, Bottoms has earned a national reputation for composure, passion and balance. She also earned a spot on the shortlist of potential running mates for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who is expected to announce his decision soon.

But the glowing reviews of her comments in press conferences and on nationally televised interviews — including from Biden, who has called her “incredible” — don’t reflect the complexity of the policy decisions Bottoms has had to make on the ground in Atlanta.

And the controversy they have created.

Bottoms’ personal experiences have appeared to play a role in some of her decisions. Last month, she announced she had tested positive for COVID-19, the very virus she’s trying to contain in her city. And during the protests, she spoke about her own fear for the safety of her Black teenage son.

The mayor has been walking a tightrope created by the contrasting views of an educated and engaged black community, a mostly white conservative population in north Atlanta and a new group of activists who are outraged by police use of excessive force and the city’s growing economic disparities.

Viewed through a local lens, any decision leaves little room for flattery and praise -- much less the difficult judgement calls that have been forced upon her over the past few months.

Bottoms summarily fired police officers involved in alleged use of force incidents and asserted her right to do so without due process for the officers, saying absolute authority over the department belongs to her.

That decision contributed to widespread incidents of officers calling in sick.

The mayor formed an advisory council to recommend changes to the police department’s use of force policies, but then vetoed a unanimously passed City Council ordinance that would have enacted reforms such as banning choke holds and shooting at moving vehicles, and more comprehensive reporting when officers use their weapons.

Bottoms repeated her assertion of authority over the department in a notice to the council explaining her veto, saying she didn’t necessarily disagree with the reforms but the ordinance was vulnerable to a constitutional challenge.

When the occupation of the site of the fatal police shooting by armed protesters led to the murder of an 8-year-old girl, Bottoms said she only allowed it to continue in deference to a city councilman’s request for time to negotiate with the occupiers.

“That was not the administration’s position,” Bottoms said of allowing the protesters to remain on the property.

Civil rights attorney Gerald Griggs, vice president of the Atlanta NAACP, bluntly blamed the mayor for the 8-year-old’s death.

“Get off CNN,” he yelled at a July 7 protest. “We want an end to the police brutality problem on your watch Keisha! We want an end to the gun violence on your watch Keisha! And if you can’t do it, you need to pack up your office.”

A week later, the Georgia NAACP President toned down the rhetoric.

“If we are honest about the truth of the matter, all of us have blood on our hands,” said Rev. James Woodall. “To single out Mayor Bottoms as being solely responsible for this existential crisis that faces Black people in America, however, is to not only be disingenuous but also dangerously divisive.”

Atlanta NAACP President Richard Rose told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Griggs’ words were more of a challenge than a call for the mayor to step down. But he said the mayor has yet to agree to meet with him.

In recent weeks, demonstrators have posted a 2016 video of then councilwoman Bottoms admonishing an activist during a committee meeting.

“The biggest threat to black men and black people in Atlanta quite frankly is not our law enforcement,” she said. “We are the biggest threat to each other.”

The matter was not debatable, Bottoms said. Her nephew had been fatally shot in a gang dispute.

Bottoms’ communication staff did not answer a list of questions submitted last week for this story. But during an AJC editorial board meeting last month, Bottoms forcefully rejected criticism accusing her of ignoring issues at home while polishing her national image.

Those nationally televised interviews, Bottoms said, take about 20 minutes out of her day.

“To the extent that anybody thinks I’m distracted with some talk of being on the ticket, they are absolutely wrong,” she said.

Another crisis in COVID-19

Brian Robinson, a Republican political consultant and former communications director for Gov. Nathan Deal, said there is often a disconnect between a politician’s national reputation and the one they carry around town.

“When local officials attain national prominence their fiercest critics are back home,” Robinson said. “Jesus wasn’t a big deal in Nazareth.”

Bottoms decision regarding the coronavirus put her at odds with Deal’s successor, Gov. Brian Kemp.

The mayor issued an executive order in June, mandating that people wear masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That set off legal battle with Kemp, who argues that Bottoms and other mayors don’t have the authority to issue stricter health guidelines than his own.

Kemp has encouraged mask wearing, but not required it through his own executive orders. On Friday, the governor renewed his order that explicitly bans local governments from enacting mask mandates.

Bottoms has taken other executive action to fight the pandemic that held less political intrigue. She issued orders prohibiting water shutoffs for non-payment of bills, pausing parking enforcement so restaurants can more easily provide takeout service, and preventing evictions of people from properties owned by the city and its affiliate agencies.

Councilwoman Andrea Boone praised the Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services for delivering groceries to thousands of elderly people are afraid to leave their homes.

“I’m proud of the job she has done,” Boone said.

Jason Esteves, chairman of the Atlanta Public School Board, described Bottoms as an invaluable partner in helping coordinate meal delivery to impoverished students and their families, along with making COVID testing available.

“She has been an ally,” Esteves said.

Some of the harshest criticism of Bottoms’ pandemic response has come from inside City Hall.

Tracey Thornhill, president of the local AFL-CIO, said she has called for routine testing of city employees who can not work from home because of the essential nature of their jobs. Thornhill said the mayor has refused to meet with her organization over the concerns.

In a July-13 letter, Thornhill said city employees were “dropping like flies.” Bottoms said on July 23 that 146 city employees have tested positive for coronavirus, and two have died.

“I have been a city employee for more than 30 years,” Thornhill’s letter says. “In these 30 years, I have never seen morale so low.”