Tensions between Atlanta mayor, councilors spill into the open after 7-year-old girl shot

Atlanta Councilman Howard Shook and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

Atlanta Councilman Howard Shook and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

The fatal shooting of a 7-year-old girl outside an Atlanta mall Monday evening led to a public tiff between some of the city’s top elected officials, previewing the contentious debate that could be front and center during next year’s elections for mayor and city council.

Councilman Howard Shook’s statement following the shooting of Kennedy Maxie at Phipps Plaza in Buckhead marked what may be the most direct and biting public criticism Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has received from a member of the City Council since she took office.

Maxie was struck in the head by a stray bullet while Christmas shopping with her family; she died Saturday night after being taken to Children’s Healthcare at Atlanta at Scottish Rite.

“It will take a lot to turn this around. But here, in descending order, are the three things we need to begin: 1). Leadership; 2). Some leadership; 3). Any leadership,” said Shook, who is in his fifth term representing a large portion of Buckhead.

Shook issued the statement as a press release and sent it out on social media Tuesday evening, when Maxie remained in critical condition. He declined to comment further when reached by phone later in the week.

The rebuke did not mention Bottoms by name, but took aim at “the administration.”

“I don’t want to hear the word ‘uptick.’ Stop minimizing our concerns by telling us that ‘crime is up everywhere,’” Shook’s statement said. Both Bottoms and Atlanta police Interim Chief Rodney Bryant have used similar language when discussing the rise in crime during press conferences and interviews in recent months.

“Spare us from the lie that the steady outflow of our officers isn’t as bad as it is,” Shook’s statement continued. “And please, not another throw-away press conference utterly devoid of game-changing action steps.”

The mayor’s office hit back, saying that a mention of the surge in violence across the nation is “not an abdication of responsibility, but an acknowledgement of the widespread severity of this issue.”

Kennedy Maxie, 7, died of her injuries Saturday night, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed to local media Sunday. The girl had been in critical condition at Children’s Healthcare at Atlanta at Scottish Rite since the shooting last week.

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“If there are solutions that we have not explored and enacted, I welcome the suggestions, as I am always open to making the city that I am raising my children in a safer place for us all,” Bottoms wrote in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, without mentioning Shook by name.

In the past, council members including Shook have spoken up about the rise in violent crime this year but have not directly criticized Bottoms’ leadership. In some ways, Shook’s statement brought to light the frustration some other members of the council have felt about public safety and the mayor’s duties.

“We would like to see more focus from the administration, and really from the mayor, on taking a leadership role,” Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, who also represents Buckhead, said Wednesday. “She hasn’t focused as much attention on crime as she has on other issues.”

City Council President Felicia Moore said she spoke with Shook on Tuesday; he told her he sent out a statement, but she didn’t see it until after its’ release.

“He’s had some issues with the crime previously, and it’s just kind of built up, I believe, to a young, innocent child getting shot in the back of the head just driving down the street,” Moore said, adding that she wouldn’t characterize the issue as tension between council members and the mayor’s office.

“I think everyone wants something to happen, they want to see action ... And I believe that his statement was just his way of expressing his frustration,” she said.

Councilman Andre Dickens, who has a citywide post, said some tension between the council and mayor is normal and comes with the territory. Dickens has served under both Bottoms and Mayor Kasim Reed, “and I’ve always had some tension between both of them at some time. I don’t always vote for a mayor’s policy or plan, or against it.”

Dickens declined to comment specifically on the mayor’s handling of public safety issues. Regarding Shook’s statement, Dickens said an “outspoken, considerable amount of that community is communicating that they don’t feel safe and they want some help. This is his version of responding, and it’s definitely gotten attention. Let’s see what happens next.”

Several other city council members declined to comment on Shook’s statement and the implications it could have.

In the past, under Bottoms’ tenure, any public disagreements between the mayor and council have mostly centered around specific policy issues, rather than leadership concerns. Shook and Bottoms served together on the City Council for eight years and largely maintained a professional, cordial relationship.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who keeps tabs on local politics in Atlanta, pointed out that Shook sent the statement as a press release rather than a private message to members of the administration.

“He wants this to be publicized that he is expressing these kinds of concerns, and in so doing (is) mobilizing public support for his positions,” Bullock said.

Some also questioned the political implications of Shook’s remarks.

“Welcome to the season of re-election,” Rashad Taylor, one of the mayor’s senior advisors, said in a tweet Tuesday night, perhaps implying that Shook’s statement could be intended to help bolster a possible reelection bid next year.

Taylor also pointed out that Bottoms has raised the salaries for Atlanta police officers and that crime is down overall, while APD is targeting “areas of concern.”

“Come with solutions and not rhetoric,” Taylor wrote. He did not mention Shook by name.

Police department data shows serious crimes are down by 15% this year compared to 2019, though murders and aggravated assaults both increased. The 151 homicides recorded in the city this year is the most Atlanta has seen since 2002.

Adding to political fallout Tuesday night was a tweet from former mayor Reed that directed attention to Shook’s statement. With a single emoji of a hand pointing downward at the councilman’s press release, some wondered if Reed was criticizing his successor, whom he supported during Bottoms’ 2017 runoff election against challenger Mary Norwood.

Reed said in a later tweet that he was not “calling out” anyone: “I am saying the current level of violence in our city can’t stand. We all have to work to push back against it. It is a solvable problem. We have done it before.”

The issue of crime and public safety is expected to play an outsized role in 2021, when the mayor and all 15 members of City Council are up for reelection. Bottoms said early this year that she plans to seek a second term in office, though she has not formally launched a reelection campaign.

Taylor said this month that Bottoms turned down an offer to serve in President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet, after being considered a top candidate to be his vice presidential running mate.

Public safety is “always job one for every elected person, mayor and city council,” said Michael Julian Bond, a citywide councilman. “I just know ... people want more effective policing. They want a stronger police presence.”

The recent rise in crime in Buckhead, especially at popular malls like Phipps and Lenox Square, “is highlighted because it is in Buckhead,” Bond said. “But it’s emblematic of what’s going on all across the city.”

Staff reporter Shaddi Abusaid contributed to this report.