Atlanta mayor’s close ties to Biden could bring cascade of benefits to city

Former U.S. Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reacts as he is introduced by Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Former U.S. Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reacts as he is introduced by Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during an assembly of Southern black mayors Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Credit: Copyright Associated Press 2019

Credit: Copyright Associated Press 2019

This year’s presidential election occurs at a time when building bridges between Democratic big city mayors and the leader of the free world couldn’t be more important.

With Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ early endorsement of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and by sticking with him through the primary when it appeared his campaign was on life support, Atlanta’s mayor may have already accomplished that feat.

A Biden victory over Donald J. Trump Nov. 3 would position the city for a cascade of benefits, experts and politicians told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

In the past, close ties between City Hall and the White House helped move interstate highways to expand the airport, provided funding for the 1996 Olympics and gave Atlanta mayors a voice in shaping national initiatives.

“It’s not just about money,” said Shirley Franklin, Atlanta’s 58th mayor from 2002-10. “It’s about policy as well.”

Georgia-based Republican strategist Brian Robinson said he believes the state would continue to be successful under another four years of Trump. But Robinson acknowledged that a Biden victory would hold significant rewards for the city.

“The people who were with you in the general election can come to church,” he said. “The ones who were with you in the primary can sit in the choir.”

Biden thinks so highly of Bottoms that she became one of a handful of people he considered as potential running mates.

“Obviously it’s going to be great to have a personal relationship with the President of United States,” Bottoms told the AJC. “Also, it’s going to be important to be able to have a relationship with the team that he takes into the White House with him, to be able to pick up the phone, call someone, and get a prompt response on any number of issues is going to be extremely important to Atlanta.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms participated in a digital discussion Monday, June 1, 2020 hosted by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden with mayors of other metro areas about recent protests.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms participated in a digital discussion Monday, June 1, 2020 hosted by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden with mayors of other metro areas about recent protests.

Credit: Facebook Live

Credit: Facebook Live

The last four years serve as even more proof that relationships matter.

The global pandemic and racial unrest this year have highlighted the tremendous fissure in the politics of solving some of the countries most pressing issues.

In recent months, Trump’s rhetoric and actions toward the leaders of large Democratic-led urban areas have grown increasingly hostile. He has called them “anarchist jurisdictions,” blamed them for surges in violent crime and threatened to cut off federal funds for COVID relief and other health initiatives over their response to civil unrest.

Bottoms said a Biden administration would bring stability and leadership in areas where the federal government is supposed to lead, like handling the pandemic.

“As mayor, I already have a very difficult job on a normal day,” Bottoms said. “But it’s made that much more difficult when you are constantly having to respond to national issues.”

‘A seat at the table’

Columbia S.C. Mayor Steve Benjamin, a past president of United States Conference of Mayors, knows exactly what it’s like to have the ear of officials in the West Wing.

He helped Barack Obama campaign for the presidency in 2008. When Benjamin became his city’s first Black mayor in 2010, he estimated that he visited the White House six to 10 times a year.

Benjamin said that relationship allowed him input on recommendations that came out of Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century policing, particularly in the area of requiring officers to wear body cameras. Columbia became the first city in South Carolina to have all its officers wear the devices, he said.

Benjamin said he also played a role in crafting a block grant program that provided $3.2 billion to help communities and states develop energy efficiency and conservation projects that created new jobs.

Robinson, the Republican strategist, said White House access can play out in subtle ways — for both politicians and residents. He pointed to former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s post as Trump’s agriculture secretary.

Agriculture is Georgia’s most important industry, and Robinson said a number of people in that business have Perdue’s cell phone number.

'We’re going to take care of this’

Former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said values can be just as important as relationships. Biden recognizes cities as engines that drive industry and the economy, he said.

Slay, mayor from 2001-17, said the former vice president helped his city without even being asked.

During the great recession of 2008, money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was allocated to states, which then provided funding to cities. At the time, Republicans held the majority of seats in the state capitol.

Slay recalled that St. Louis, the second largest city in Missouri, received less than one quarter of one percent of the money — roughly $3 million.

On national television, he called the move an insult to the residents of his city. Soon after an appearance in St. Louis, Biden sought him out.

“He grabbed me around the neck and said, ‘We are going to take care of this,’” Slay recalled.

The city received at least five times more in federal funding than what the state originally allocated, contributing to significant infrastructure projects, Slay said.

In Atlanta, the airport provides one of most prominent examples of a Democratic mayor overcoming the opposition of state lawmakers with the help of a president.

Maynard Jackson, the city’s first Black mayor, wanted a new terminal in the 1970s, but it required relocating I-85 — a prospect for which the Georgia General Assembly scoffed, said Angelo Fuster, a political consultant and Jackson’s press secretary at the time.

“That was the kind of thing people thought was impossible,” Fuster said.

President Jimmy Carter, Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson and Coretta Scott King join 400 Black Southern Leaders in prayer before Carter addressed the group asking for their support in his re-election bid, Sept. 16, 1980. (Larry Rubenstein / UPI)
President Jimmy Carter, Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson and Coretta Scott King join 400 Black Southern Leaders in prayer before Carter addressed the group asking for their support in his re-election bid, Sept. 16, 1980. (Larry Rubenstein / UPI)

Credit: Larry Rubenstein

Credit: Larry Rubenstein

President Jimmy Carter’s administration stepped in, providing $10.3 million in federal money that helped move the interstate and created thousands of jobs. Carter also allowed the city to acquire title to the federal land where the highway was previously located.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has tampered the debate about possible state take over of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, Bottoms has already used her national influence at the airport.

Earlier this year, Democratic officials tapped Bottoms to help draft the party’s platform.

Buried in the 80-page document is a provision that opposes “partisan power grabs” of public infrastructure projects, language intended to frustrate supporters of a long-standing Republican effort to assert control over the city’s most valuable asset.

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