On its face, the race for Atlanta City Council seat, Post 3, is simply an election pitting a sullied incumbent against a wide-eyed newcomer.
But the campaign has exploded into a covert proxy war between Mayor Kasim Reed and former Mayor Shirley Franklin, reminding some of Cold War battles between the superpowers, and transformed a minor political race into the talk of the town.
While the the mayor and his predecessor have not gone at each other directly, they’ve come close. And people who know the two are puzzled at how the campaign has degenerated into such a nasty and personal tit for tat.
Recently, in a press conference held on the Beltline, Franklin, who backs neophyte Andre Dickens, called out Dickens’ opponent, attorney H. Lamar Willis, for running a questionable charity and for getting disbarred for not turning over an injured child’s cash settlement. A couple days after Franklin’s salvo, Willis faced cameras outside City Hall and fired back at Franklin and her family, saying the former mayor had once harbored her drug-dealing felon son-in-law in her home. He also referred to Franklin’s son and daughter, a personal attack on family members that violated the unwritten rules of campaigning.
The increasing venom has caused many to shake their heads.
“I’ll be honest with you up front, we don’t know why,” said William Boone, an associate professor at Clark Atlanta University who specializes in Atlanta politics and was speaking first-person plural about Atlanta’s black political establishment. “There seems to be something going on. It looks like a proxy fight. It’s certainly unusual for the city of Atlanta to have this kind of situation.”
“There’s been some strain in the relationship the past few years,” ventured Aaron Turpeau, who worked for Atlanta mayors for two decades and served as former Mayor Maynard Jackson’s chief of staff. Reed, Turpeau added, “has indicated to people a dissatisfaction with the previous administration. That caused a strain. And with (Willis’) press conference, there certainly is now a break.”
The campaign started in August when Reed, who faces token opposition and can spend time politicking for political allies, helped the three-term Willis raise money for re-election. Days later, Franklin helped turn the sleepy campaign into perhaps the city’s hottest race when she endorsed Dickens, a longtime friend of her son, Cabral, who is advising his campaign.
Dickens, Franklin said, “offers an alternative to an incumbent whose questionable ethical judgment has been well documented.”
After that, it was on.
Soon, Atlanta residents received anonymous robocalls taunting “Shame on Shirley,” and disparaging her term in office (she left City Hall nearly four years ago). A couple weeks later, Reed urged the media to stop dwelling on Willis’ woes and check into a bankruptcy filed by Dickens.
Tom Houck, a former radio host and political raconteur with decades involved in Atlanta politics is amazed at the turn of events. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “It’s driving a stake down the middle of town.”
“The first rock in this was thrown by Shirley,” Houck said. “I think Shirley’s involvement in the race has kept Kasim in this race. It’s caused him to dig in his heals. He’s loyal.”
Ralph Long, a former state representative from Atlanta, said “Shirley is deeper in this than she thought she’d be.”
Long, who is black, caused a stir in 2009 when he supported Reed’s white opponent, Mary Norwood. He said the tone of Willis’ campaign goes back to Reed.
“The mayor is vindictive, is spoiled and throws temper tantrums,” Long said. In fact, Long, and others, believe Reed knew about and even approved of Willis’ shots that were taken at Franklin.
“It’s the mayor; he’s in cahoots,” Long said. “They do nothing without a plan.”
Doug Dean, a longtime Atlanta legislator, said he attended a private meeting about Willis’ campaign that included Tracy Reed, the mayor’s brother.
Dean said participants discussed attacking Franklin’s family.
“I was opposed to that position,” he said. “I think family are off limits. But it seems like that decision was made before that meeting.”
He also believes the mayor knew about the proposed attacks on Franklin’s family.
“You couldn’t make me believe that he doesn’t know,” Dean said.
Mayor Reed, at an event last week, declined to comment on the jabs between Willis and Franklin.
“I don’t have anything to do with this,” Reed said. “I live my own life.”
Reed said he supports Willis simply because he’s a better candidate.
“You don’t compare them to the Almighty,” he said. “You compare them to the alternative, and I think (Willis) is the better alternative.”
Franklin, reached last week while waiting for a plane to Paris at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, said she has “no idea” if Reed is complicit in or approving of the attacks on her.
But, she pointedly noted, “he verbally has not said he’s opposed to what was said. He has not denounced these tactics.”
Asked for further comment, Reed planned to speak to an AJC reporter about the matter again, but ultimately chose to e-mail a statement late Friday afternoon.
“It’s unfortunate that anyone has attempted to cast this campaign as any kind of feud, or disagreement, between myself and former Mayor Shirley Franklin. I respect Mayor Franklin, and believe she served ably for eight years as mayor,” the current mayor wrote. “A thorough, or even cursory, review of the public record will show that during the year-and-a-half that I served as her campaign manager, and the eight years that she served as mayor, that I was loyal to her and did not engage in public disputes with her on any issue. I do not intend to start now.”
Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, Jackson’s first wife, said that the split between Reed and Franklin is not unusual given the type-A personalities of those who become mayor.
“It’s a characteristic of successful politicians — hard-headed, opinionated,” she said. “You have to have a strong ego: ‘Come vote for me.’ ”
“I know those kinds of personalities,” she added, laughing.
The players in this drama are all intertwined. Jackson-Ransom sits behind Willis’ mother at church but runs into Franklin at the local grocery story. She supports Willis.
“There was a time when black politicians got in a room, argued, hashed it out and then came out unified; they kept it in the family,” said Jackson-Ransom said. “Now we run against each other. It’s a sign of growth. I don’t like that growth.”
Theories abound why the split has occurred. Reed was Franklin’s campaign manager for both her mayoral runs.
“That gave him the kind of visibility that helped him,” said Boone. “You’d think he’d have an indebtedness.”
Several people have ventured that Franklin feels slighted by Reed, that his frequent claims he has fixed a broken city denigrates her mayoral legacy. During a spirited election in 2009, Franklin did not endorse Reed until the day before the general election.
“It was only after (the general election) that the black community rallied around him,” said Boone. “He owes a great deal to the old-guard leadership.”
Franklin said she’s not worried about her legacy.
“I’m a 68-year-old who doesn’t need validation,” she said.
Franklin, who worked for former mayors Jackson and Andrew Young before venturing into elective politics herself, hinted that any differences between her and Reed may be generational.
“I have always been clear that I stood on the shoulders of those who came before me. He’ll have to define to you how he got where he is,” she said. “I owed respect to Andy and Maynard and (civil rights icon and now-Congressman) John Lewis for being nurturing to me. But not everyone has that kind of respect.”
She referred to Reed taking credit for the Beltline and the new international terminal at the the airport, efforts that have long been in the works. “It is the way some people operate,” she said.
She thinks it goes back to a maturity; Reed is 24 years younger and unmarried.
“I’m a mother, a grandmother; I’ve been married. I’ve made commitments,” she said. “I’m not a single person who has moved through life. There is a different kind of commitment.”
Katie Leslie contributed to this article.