Andre Dickens plays peacemaker in first 100 days as Atlanta mayor

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to talk about his first 100 days in office. Video by Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne/AJC

Dickens has worked to soothe strained relations with state, police and Buckhead community

Housing developer Egbert Perry first met Andre Dickens years ago, when Atlanta’s new mayor was a city councilman. They didn’t have a particularly close relationship — at the time, Perry’s company was embroiled in a bitter and longstanding legal dispute with the city over ownership of dozens of acres of vacant land.

But a few weeks after Dickens took office as Atlanta’s 61st mayor with an ambitious affordable housing goal, a top advisor made calls to Perry and Atlanta’s public housing agency trying to end the dispute before a March court date.

In February, with Dickens and his team playing mediator, Perry’s Integral Group and Atlanta Housing Authority agreed to a deal that two previous administrations had been unable to secure. The land would be split, with dozens of acres secured for desperately needed affordable housing.

“He said we need to get this stuff behind us, we have a lot of work to do, and this is not a time for people to be spending all their energy and taxpayers’ money in court,” Perry recalled Dickens saying to him.

AJC Podcast: Mayor Andre Dickens on his first 100 days

The agreement, on a dispute that has cost taxpayers more than $1 million, demonstrates the emphasis the new mayor has placed on resolving conflicts and avoiding turmoil in his first 100 days in office.

Dickens has shown peacemaking sensibilities time and again — embracing GOP lawmakers in an attempt to sooth strained city-state relations; attending police roll calls to rebuild rank-and-file officers’ confidence in City Hall; and working with community leaders in Buckhead over public safety concerns.

Improving relations with all three groups ultimately led state lawmakers this year to drop one of the biggest threats facing Atlanta: the Buckhead cityhood movement.

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens at an event in Buckhead in January. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens at an event in Buckhead in January. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens at an event in Buckhead in January. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“I feel like the city is moving in the right direction,” Dickens said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ahead of his 100th day, which was April 12. “The first (three months) have been really about getting out into all aspects of the community, sharing my vision, receiving feedback and input.”

Dickens has been extremely visible in his first 100 days. He has shown a marked departure from his predecessor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, with a near-daily presence at press conferences, ribbon cuttings, community cleanups and other events. That has generated praise from Atlantans eager to feel more connected to city government following pandemic shutdowns, inconsistent city services and the continued rise in violent crime.

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Atlanta Council member Dustin Hillis, right, and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens head for the river with the other volunteers at the start of Sweep The Hooch day at Proctor Creek at Grove Park Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta Council member Dustin Hillis, right, and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens head for the river with the other volunteers at the start of  Sweep The Hooch day at Proctor Creek at Grove Park Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Atlanta Council member Dustin Hillis, right, and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens head for the river with the other volunteers at the start of Sweep The Hooch day at Proctor Creek at Grove Park Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“I met him over at Lenox Mall a couple of weeks ago to speak with their security folks who were walking around, and he was like a rock star,” said City Councilman Howard Shook, who represents a Buckhead district and has served on council at the start of four mayoral terms. “He couldn’t go 10 feet without a hug or a selfie or a handshake. He seems really comfortable in his own skin.”

It hasn’t been all hugs and selfies.

The surge in gun violence has continued unabated this year as residents await Dickens’ decision on whether to retain police Chief Rodney Bryant, or install a new APD leader. He is searching for four new Cabinet-level department leaders at City Hall and placed two longtime city employees on administrative leave to investigate their alleged roles in a years-old bribery scheme.

And Dickens faced pushback from local advocates after the city removed barricades on Peachtree Street that converted two car lanes into space for pedestrians and bicyclists. Although the barricades remained in place longer than initially planned, the abruptness with with they were removed, with no firm next steps, upset mobility advocates.

“I really thought his administration should have engaged the public on giving people attempts to respond and an explanation of why they were doing it,” said Sally Flocks, the former head of the pedestrian advocacy organization PEDS. “It did cause a lot of people to be disappointed.”

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Advocates called on Dickens to keep the Peachtree Shared Space project at a protest in March. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Advocates called on Dickens to keep the Peachtree Shared Space project at a protest in March. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Advocates called on Dickens to keep the Peachtree Shared Space project at a protest in March. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Now that the honeymoon period for the new mayor is ending, the pressure is sure to mount even further for the peacemaker to show results on stubborn problems such as gun violence, affordable housing, and a notoriously slow city permitting process. And it will test Dickens’ political philosophy to “draw circles, not lines.”

“As you start to take action, you’re probably going to get crosswise with people, and that’s what happens with city government and with the mayor,” Midtown Alliance CEO Kevin Green said. “You do have to focus in on what your priorities are.”

Dickens said he is guided strongly by his faith and an action-minded mentality, often referencing guidance from his pastor that “love oughta look like something.”

The mayor leads his team to “execute like the world’s coming to an end, because for too many of our families, it is,” one city official said.

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens (center from left), Congresswoman Nikema Williams and Atlanta Department of Transportation Commissioner Josh Rowan take a tour of the ATLDOT North Avenue facility in January. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens (center from left), Congresswoman Nikema Williams and Atlanta Department of Transportation Commissioner Josh Rowan take a tour of the ATLDOT North Avenue facility in January. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens (center from left), Congresswoman Nikema Williams and Atlanta Department of Transportation Commissioner Josh Rowan take a tour of the ATLDOT North Avenue facility in January. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Dickens said he wakes up most days before sunrise and dedicates 45 minutes to working out at the city’s gym. He estimated that he takes part in about 12 meetings or events every day.

“The most frequent thing (I hear) is ‘I know you’re busy, but can I get 15 minutes?’” said Dickens. He joked that 15 minutes is also about how little time he has to eat during the day.

Fellow city officials and friends say the mayor’s affable public persona also comes through in his private life.

“Even when something is tough, he might say something funny just to break the ice to calm everybody down,” said former Mayor Shirley Franklin, a mentor to Dickens. “Or he might start quoting scripture.”

Avoiding a Buckhead divorce

The start of Dickens’ mayoral term was marked by a political victory — defeat of the Buckhead cityhood movement that would have drained Atlanta of a significant portion of its tax base while further dividing the city along racial and economic lines.

Dickens’ proactive efforts to court Republican state leaders — sometimes by intentional running into lawmakers at events across the city — were instrumental in the defeat. The mayor said he’s visited the state Capitol 12 times, including in January when he got a standing ovation in the House chambers.

“To really have those relationships be solidified, be substantive and for them to see us as a viable set of operators of this city, that took a lot of time, and that took a lot of commitment to work together,” Dickens said. “And that work didn’t come easy.”

ExploreHow Atlanta ducked a Buckhead divorce

Unlike Bottoms, Dickens chose to not be as publicly antagonistic toward the governor or Republican-led Legislature over divisive issues such as expanding gun access. In February, the secession proposal was scuttled for the rest of the session when House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he and other lawmakers want to give the new mayor a chance before breaking up the capital city.

Ralston’s remarks to reporters included one caveat: “The problem of how we got here is not solved,” a reference to the issue of crime that drove the Republican-led Buckhead cityhood push.

Homicide spike continues

The same week Dickens celebrated the dismissal of the cityhood effort, an Atlanta police officer was shot six times while trying to serve a warrant on a robbery suspect. Dickens rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital to visit the officer, and said the city would pay for a nearby hotel for his family.

Hours later the mayor went back to the hospital to check on the officer’s recovery — a visit that wasn’t publicized at the time.

Atlanta Police Foundation Dave Wilkinson recalled later telling Dickens: “Every patrol car in the city of Atlanta was talking about the fact that the mayor came to the hospital to check on the officer and his family.”

Wilkinson and other officials have heaped praise on Dickens for prioritizing policing during his first 100 days, including visits to roll call at police zones across the city to meet officers. Dickens centered his campaign last year around crime and public safety and set a goal of hiring 250 officers in his first year — a benchmark he said he will meet, with recruitment efforts up from this time last year.

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at a press conference at APD headquarters as police command staff look on. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at a press conference at APD headquarters as police command staff look on. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at a press conference at APD headquarters as police command staff look on. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Nevertheless, the issue of gun violence in the city remains a constant.

As of Monday, Atlanta police tallied 49 homicides, compared to 37 this time last year. Overall property crimes, including robbery and car theft, are down, while aggravated assaults have remained even.

Dickens said the murder total is “too high for me. Too high for our citizens.”

“It’s tearing at me at the core,” Dickens said. “To see people, you know, take a bowling ball dispute and it ends in murder … these things concern me.”

ExploreArrests made in 72% of this year’s killings, Atlanta mayor says

In partnership with APD and police foundation officials, Dickens’ administration has launched a new unit focused on repeat offenders.

“We’re seeing citizens are saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” Dickens said. “If you are up to your 13th and 20th (criminal) cycle, then you definitely need to go sit down. You need to be in prison.”

Tiffany Roberts, public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, commended Dickens for not governing as an “overlord.” But she cautioned against punitive stances leading to over-incarceration, urging the mayor to continue supporting the Policing Alternatives and Diversion initiative and Office of Violence Reduction.

“There has to be some transformation in the way that we talk about public safety from the top,” Roberts said. “If that doesn’t happen, all he’s going to see is more overcrowded jails and people complaining.”

A focus on housing

Dickens was seen as a principal champion of affordable housing during his time on the City Council, and his mayoral campaign was bolstered by an ambitious promise of building or preserving 20,000 units of affordable housing in eight years.

Since taking office, he’s used his bully pulpit to help resolve longstanding squabbles often involving private companies and public housing agencies on the state and federal level — starting with the dispute between the city and Integral.

Attorney Robert Highsmith, an Atlanta Housing Authority board member, said Dickens called attention to the agency’s mission to address housing affordability, rather than focus on litigation.

“He wasn’t acting in the way that a lawsuit mediator would act in shuttling proposals back and forth and suggesting terms of resolution,” Highsmith said. “He was putting a marker down for both sides to say this is not productive.”

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Tanya Washington (left) marches the block in Peoplestown with Bertha and Robert Darden after an rally last year. Dickens has pledged to work with the residents to help them stay in their homes after previous administrations filed evictions. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Tanya Washington (left) marches the block in Peoplestown with Bertha and Robert Darden after an rally last year. Dickens has pledged to work with the residents to help them stay in their homes after previous administrations filed evictions. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Tanya Washington (left) marches the block in Peoplestown with Bertha and Robert Darden after an rally last year. Dickens has pledged to work with the residents to help them stay in their homes after previous administrations filed evictions. (Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Phil Skinner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Meanwhile, residents in the Peoplestown neighborhood in southeast Atlanta are still fighting to stay in their homes amid a complex legal battle that started under former Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration and continued through Bottoms’ tenure.

The city used eminent domain to demolish dozens of houses there for a flood prevention park, but several residents, including Tanya Washington, rejected the city’s deal.

Dickens promised to tackle the Peoplestown dispute within his first 100 days, but said last week that discussions are still ongoing. Washington said the mayor has met with the residents multiple times and this administration gave them documents that weren’t provided in the past.

“It shows to me that he intends to resolve this based on the facts,” Washington said. “I’m confident that he’s going to make a decision based on that, and not based on friendships and politics.”

Tenants at the dilapidated Forest Cove Apartments in Thomasville Heights have been waiting on repairs for years. Millenia Companies, the private owners of the federally subsidized complex, were supposed to relocate the more than 200 tenants by March after a judge condemned the complex for demolition, but the relocation process has lagged.

ExploreForest Cove freezes rent as tenants protest deplorable conditions

Dickens stepped in and identified funding to help with the relocation of residents, which has since begun. Forest Cove residents said Dickens’ Feb. 12 visit was the first time a mayor had visited the complex.

“I think he’s doing good … I think he should still be held accountable,” resident Lolita Evans said of Dickens. “He said he was going to try to talk to the right people to get us moving forward. It looks like he has made an effort to do something but … we have been promised things before.”

Dickens’ peace-making style has worked for him during the first three months, but more challenges await. And peaceful politics isn’t always an option at Atlanta city hall.

“The time’s going to come when he’s going to have to trade elbows with people,” councilman Shook said. “That’s a part of what you signed up for. My gut tells me he’s going to handle that well when the time comes.”

TIMELINE: Tracking Andre Dickens’ first 100 days