Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: ‘We are leaving this city intact’

Keisha Lance Bottoms never dreamed of becoming mayor of Atlanta or being considered as a possible running mate for a presidential candidate.

But that is exactly what happened over the past four years, with Bottoms’ political career shooting from a relatively unknown city council member, to winning the mayor’s office by a few hundred votes, to being considered as a potential running mate for President Joe Biden, to turning down a job offer in Biden’s administration.

Then the roller coaster ride careened down hill six months ago, when Bottoms became the first modern-era Atlanta mayor to decide against seeking a second term in office. She made the announcement under tremendous pressure and criticism for her handling of spiking violent crime in the city.

Along that wild, four-year ride Bottoms dealt with one of the most tumultuous terms of any first-year mayor in recent history — from a crippling ransomware attack on City Hall, to a global pandemic, to an entire summer of street protests over police brutality.

And, always, the Bottoms administration had the issue of a federal corruption investigation of her predecessor’s administration hanging over the government she was responsible for running.

In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bottoms said she is leaving the city in a stronger position than when she took over four years ago.

“We have faced so many challenges and were able to get through it,” Bottoms said. “We are leaving this city intact for the next administration.”

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Bottoms leaves as a popular mayor, although she didn’t get buy-in on all of her policies.

AJC polls of likely registered voters in the mayor’s race from September and October found that 57% approved of her performance as mayor. But 70% disapproved of her handling of crime and 62% disapproved of her administration’s work on affordable housing — the two biggest issues facing the city, according to the AJC polls.

A whopping 59% said the city was on the right track in handling coronavirus, an issue on which Bottoms fought with Gov. Brian Kemp over whether she could institute a mask mandate in the city.

The mayor’s list of accomplishments stretches to all corners of the city.

She negotiated with city council to approve massive developer incentives for the $5 billion Centennial Yards deal that has the potential of redrawing the downtown skyline. The developers have agreed to invest $42 million into affordable housing units and workforce training. Bottoms placed more than half of that in the affordable housing trust fund established by her administration.

Bottoms managed substantial pay raises for police officers and firefighters. She successfully advocated for legislation that eliminated cash bond at the city’s municipal court for some low-level offenders. She invested $50 million to begin building hundreds of permanent housing units for the homeless.

And her administration also leaves behind a $181 million rainy day fund in the bank.

“We’ve been great stewards of taxpayer money,” Bottoms said.

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After the approval vote of the Public Safety Training Center this week, Mayor Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant, Chief Rod Smith of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and Dave Wilkinson of the Atlanta Police Foundation address questions about the facility, it's location and the concerns of the community Thursday, Sept 9, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

After the approval vote of the Public Safety Training Center this week, Mayor Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant, Chief Rod Smith of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and Dave Wilkinson of the Atlanta Police Foundation address questions about the facility, it's location and the concerns of the community Thursday, Sept 9, 2021.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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After the approval vote of the Public Safety Training Center this week, Mayor Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant, Chief Rod Smith of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and Dave Wilkinson of the Atlanta Police Foundation address questions about the facility, it's location and the concerns of the community Thursday, Sept 9, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Council members haven’t always thought highly of the administration’s work.

Some accused Bottoms of being more interested in her courtship with the Biden administration than the day-to-day business of running the city. She had two vetoes overturned by the council — something that hadn’t happened to any mayor in more than a decade.

Michael Julian Bond, a longtime councilman and son of Civil Rights icon Julian Bond, has known Bottoms since childhood and attended Frederick Douglass High School with her.

Bond says he is proud of Bottoms’ accomplishments but that she would sometimes not work with people or groups who disagreed with her. He said one example is Buckhead, where “the seeds” of the mayor’s lack of involvement “have now ended up blossoming into the Buckhead cityhood movement.

“I think there’s always going to be this lingering there that her local performance never matched the celebrity image,” Bond said. “Some members of City Council she was working with very closely. Others, if you didn’t completely subscribe to her point of view, she would work with you less so.”

For her part, Bottoms acknowledged that working with the council could be trying.

“I wish I didn’t have to fight so much inside of City Hall,” she said.

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Surrounded by her family, Keisha Lance-Bottoms is sworn in as Atlanta’s 60th mayor Tuesday, January 2, 2018, at Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta. ALYSSA POINTER/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Surrounded by her family, Keisha Lance-Bottoms is sworn in as Atlanta’s 60th mayor Tuesday, January 2, 2018, at Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta. ALYSSA POINTER/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

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Surrounded by her family, Keisha Lance-Bottoms is sworn in as Atlanta’s 60th mayor Tuesday, January 2, 2018, at Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta. ALYSSA POINTER/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

There was also a deeply personal toll to governing.

Bottoms was frustrated and angered by police actions, and often spoke about the fear of having young sons interact with officers outside of her presence. And she was particularly saddened by the death of an 8-year-old girl during public protests as the city’s homicide rate was well on its way toward a record-breaking 157 in 2020.

“Anytime you have a life taken, especially that of a child, you think back on what could have been done differently,” Bottoms said. “I know the names of the children who lost their lives in our city and it is something I carry very deeply in my heart.”

Bottoms may be leaving office Jan. 3, but she’s not leaving Atlanta.

She will be involved in two fellowships with universities, including one yet to be announced that will involve some teaching. She will also stay involved in politics as a vice chair for the Democratic National Committee, and promised to be available to help U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams with their campaigns next year.

But one thing not of interest to the mayor: Looking back to City Hall.

“I can’t do my best work going forward if I’m constantly looking back, trying to have a hand in the city,” Bottoms said. “I’ve had four years and I’m pretty confident I could have had another four. But I’ve chosen to move on, move forward.”

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201229-Atlanta-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant and Lt. Peter Malecki update journalists on the shooting death of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie during a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 29, 2020 at Atlanta Police headquarters. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

201229-Atlanta-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant and Lt. Peter Malecki update journalists on the shooting death of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie during a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 29, 2020 at Atlanta Police headquarters. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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201229-Atlanta-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant and Lt. Peter Malecki update journalists on the shooting death of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie during a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 29, 2020 at Atlanta Police headquarters. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

A tipping point

Bottoms’ popularity – both at home and on the national stage – was never higher than it was in Spring 2020 when protests erupted into looting and violence downtown. She gave an impassioned speech that talked about her experience as the mother of four Black children.

“I pray over my children each and every day,” Bottoms said that night. “So what I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Marin Luther King Jr. This is chaos.

“If you care about this city, then go home.”

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addresses the city Friday night after protests became violent.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addresses the city Friday night after protests became violent.

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addresses the city Friday night after protests became violent.

A Biden spokesman said later that the then presidential candidate was in “awe” of Bottoms’ response.

Her ascendancy to the mayor’s office came amid a historic cohort of Black women leading seven major U.S. cities. On the day after her 2017 election victory, V-103 radio played a rap song to celebrate having a mayor named Keisha, which is among the roster of names stereotyped against Black girls and women. “My mayor’s name is Keisha” became a catchphrase for her supporters.

Bottoms went on to star in a music video by Ciara, and she ran the gamut of talk shows and appearances on magazine covers. She was even an honoree in Glamour Magazine’s “Women of the Year” series.

But as the homicide rate continued to climb in 2020, the pressure on the mayor mounted. And her response to it seemed lackluster to many.

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President-elect Joe Biden talks backstage with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms after speaking at a campaign drive-in event in Atlanta on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. Biden urged Georgia voters to cast ballots for two Democratic Senate candidates in a pair of critical runoffs early next month, seeking victories that would give his party full control of the Congress and help Democrats advance the agenda he promised on the campaign trail. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

President-elect Joe Biden talks backstage with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms after speaking at a campaign drive-in event in Atlanta on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. Biden urged Georgia voters to cast ballots for two Democratic Senate candidates in a pair of critical runoffs early next month, seeking victories that would give his party full control of the Congress and help Democrats advance the agenda he promised on the campaign trail. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

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President-elect Joe Biden talks backstage with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms after speaking at a campaign drive-in event in Atlanta on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. Biden urged Georgia voters to cast ballots for two Democratic Senate candidates in a pair of critical runoffs early next month, seeking victories that would give his party full control of the Congress and help Democrats advance the agenda he promised on the campaign trail. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Bottoms continually used the term “COVID crime wave.” Last June, council members narrowly rejected a measure to temporarily withhold $73 million in police funding until Bottoms’ plan to reimagine policing was approved by the legislative body. Then, in December, 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie was shot in the head while riding in the car with her family near Buckhead’s Phipps Plaza.

The frustration had reached a tipping point, and Councilman Howard Shook voiced it publicly in an incendiary statement that stopped just short of naming Bottoms.

“To the administration, I don’t want to hear the word `uptick,’” Shook’s statement said. “Stop minimizing our concerns by telling us that `crime is up everywhere.’ Spare us from the lie that the steady outflow of our officers isn’t as bad as it is. And, please, not another throw-away press conference utterly devoid of game-changing action steps.

“It will take a lot to turn it around. But here, in descending order, are the three things we need to begin: 1) Leadership; 2) Some Leadership; 3) Any Leadership.”

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07/16/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms listens as Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant makes remarks during a press conference to give an update on the Atlanta Anti-Violence Advisory Council at Atlanta City Hall, Friday, July 16, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

07/16/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms listens as Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant makes remarks during a press conference to give an update on the Atlanta Anti-Violence Advisory Council at Atlanta City Hall, Friday, July 16, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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07/16/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms listens as Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant makes remarks during a press conference to give an update on the Atlanta Anti-Violence Advisory Council at Atlanta City Hall, Friday, July 16, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Four months later, in May, an exasperated Bottoms held a press conference to announce Rodney Bryant’s promotion from interim to permanent police chief.

“There’s been a lot of discussion on whether or not Rodney Bryant serving as interim [chief] has something to do with crime in our city,” Bottoms said. “Now I think it’s a ludicrous conversation because this COVID crime wave has been experienced throughout the country. So, for those of you who believe naming him as permanent chief will make a difference in crime in our city, I’m naming him as permanent chief today.”

As the long New Year’s holiday weekend was set to begin Thursday, Atlanta was just one homicide shy of the grim record of 157 set in 2021.

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who in 2001 became the first Black woman to be elected mayor of a major Southern city, said crime always challenges an administration.

“They’re tragedies,” Franklin said. “How you respond to them as an elected leaders is always going to be judged.”

Gang takeover

The aftermath of the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in June 2020 was the start of the deeply critical reaction to Bottoms’ handling of violent crime.

An armed street gang barricaded access to a southwest Atlanta neighborhood where an officer shot Brooks, effectively seizing control from police for several days.

During that period, gang members burned the Wendy’s restaurant where officers confronted Brooks, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation warrants. Members also used weapons to threaten a MARTA bus driver on duty as the vehicle reached the barricade at Pryor Road and University Avenue.

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Secoriea Turner: Attorneys filing lawsuit against city, Wendy’s in death of 8-year-old girl

Secoriea Turner: Attorneys filing lawsuit against city, Wendy’s in death of 8-year-old girl

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Secoriea Turner: Attorneys filing lawsuit against city, Wendy’s in death of 8-year-old girl

Those same gunmen pointed their weapons at several other vehicles, including one containing 8-year-old Secoriea Turner. Turner’s family tried to drive around the barricade, but the warrant says a gunman opened fire with his AR-15-style rifle and struck the side and back of the vehicle, killing the girl.

The girl’s death led many to question why the police didn’t seize control of the site.

Bottoms said recently that she would have done everything differently if she could have saved the child’s life.

“Given the information I had at the time, and what was before us, I made what I thought to be the right decision at that time,” Bottoms said. “But clearly at the point that a child’s life is taken, you look back and you have to wonder, ‘was there something that we could have done differently that would have made a difference?’”

Early days at City Hall

Within three months of being sworn in as the city’s 60th mayor, the Bottoms administration faced a ransomware attack that caused massive disruptions, including the loss of police video evidence from officers’ patrol cars. The city’s municipal court had no way to accept payments for traffic tickets and the watershed department could only accept payments in person.

Richard Cox Jr., who graduated high school with Bottoms, served as chief of staff during the 2018 cyberattack. Cox previously told the AJC that he recommended to Bottoms that the city pay the $51,000 ransom in bitcoins.

“She said: `That’s funny, because where I went to high school and in the neighborhood I grew up in, we don’t give money to the people that rob us,’” Cox remembered Bottoms saying.

Instead, Bottoms told city hall staffers to go old school – using pen and paper to communicate with one another while the city spent $17 million reinforcing its digital defenses amid upgrades in software and electronic devices. Cox said those expenditures protected Atlanta when it hosted the Super Bowl in early 2019.

“Richard said there were times he felt like he was looking at me across the table in the cafeteria at Douglas High School,” said Bottoms. The mayor added that the city’s computer infrastructure is just as vital as its network of streets and sidewalks.

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (right) and Chief Operating Officer Richard Cox answered showed a brief demonstration of a new online portal the city has developed that will allow citizens to track government spending. The system should be operational in about two months. BOB ANDRES/BANDRES@AJC.COM

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (right) and Chief Operating Officer Richard Cox answered showed a brief demonstration of a new online portal the city has developed that will allow citizens to track government spending. The system should be operational in about two months. BOB ANDRES/BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (right) and Chief Operating Officer Richard Cox answered showed a brief demonstration of a new online portal the city has developed that will allow citizens to track government spending. The system should be operational in about two months. BOB ANDRES/BANDRES@AJC.COM

Just a month later, while the city was still reeling from the cyberattack and under pressure from the federal corruption investigation, Bottoms suddenly asked for the resignations of all her cabinet members — a group that includes about 35 of the top managers in city government, many of whom served in Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration. She ends her term with just two holdovers from Reed’s team.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation was never far from Bottoms’ mind. She said it sucked the air out of City Hall.

“The investigation cast a cloud over our administration,” City Attorney Nina Hickson told the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in June. “We’ve lost good employees who hadn’t bargained for the added scrutiny that came with the investigation.”

Hits close to home

In July 2020, Bottoms issued a mandate requiring people in the city to wear masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a move that followed similar orders by other local governments in Georgia that were openly defying Gov. Kemp.

A two-weeks long war of words followed, with the politicians assailing each other amid a disintegrating relationship after Kemp sued Bottoms personally to block restrictions in her mask mandate order.

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03/30/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms gives remarks before receiving her COVID-19 vaccination shot at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium Community Vaccination Center in Atlanta, Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

03/30/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms gives remarks before receiving her COVID-19 vaccination shot at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium Community Vaccination Center in Atlanta, Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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03/30/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms gives remarks before receiving her COVID-19 vaccination shot at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium Community Vaccination Center in Atlanta, Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Bottoms enacted the mandate just days after she, her husband Derek and one of their children tested positive for the coronavirus.

“For my son, Lennox, COVID has created a lot of anxiety in him,” Bottoms said. “I struggle to make him take his mask off at home. He says: ‘I don’t want to get you sick.’”

Kemp ultimately withdrew his lawsuit in August 2020, and signed an executive order specifying local governments can’t order private businesses to require masks. Bottoms removed her mandate in November, but she reinstated it in December due to the emergence of COVID’s infectious omicron variant.

Bottoms said she and the governor like each other. There is just a deep political divide between them.

“Our relationship really splintered during COVID,” Bottoms said. “...At some point, when the governor’s talking points began to mimic Trump’s talking points, that personally scared me.”

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Gov. Brian Kemp’s lawsuit accuses Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of violating his executive orders by banning gatherings of more than 10 people on city property and requiring people to wear masks in Atlanta.

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Gov. Brian Kemp’s lawsuit accuses Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of violating his executive orders by banning gatherings of more than 10 people on city property and requiring people to wear masks in Atlanta.

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

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Gov. Brian Kemp’s lawsuit accuses Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of violating his executive orders by banning gatherings of more than 10 people on city property and requiring people to wear masks in Atlanta.

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Running through the tape

The violence and declines in city services that epitomized the second half of Bottoms’ administration galvanized Republican leaders to support a November 2022 secession referendum for the Buckhead community. And those topics were the main points of debate among the handful of serious candidates vying to succeed Bottoms as the city’s 61st mayor.

“Support for Buckhead City continues to surge because of Mayor Bottoms’ failed policies and unkept promises,” Buckhead City Committee chief executive Bill White said.

Bottoms apologized recently for “anything that I had ever done as a leader to give the impression that I don’t value any part of this city.” Bottoms acknowledged to the AJC that she could have done a better job communicating.

Andrew Young, a two-term mayor and a former U.S. Ambassador, credits Bottoms with doing a good job, both locally and nationally, given how “she was in the middle of the worst emergencies I’ve seen in this city.”

“She’s doing things now toward the end of her term that — if they had been spaced through the entire four years — would have given her a positive rating in just about every community,” Young said.

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Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of Atlanta (center) poses with Caroline Young and Ambassador Andrew Young at the State of the City Business Breakfast at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of Atlanta (center) poses with Caroline Young and Ambassador Andrew Young at the State of the City Business Breakfast at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

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Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of Atlanta (center) poses with Caroline Young and Ambassador Andrew Young at the State of the City Business Breakfast at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Even her critics acknowledge that the Bottoms administration is running through the finish line.

Since announcing in May that she would not seek a second term, Bottoms has continued pushing through her agenda — including 36 unique pieces of legislation. She has announced hires for the new Office of Violence Reduction, began work on a 10,000 streetlights program and she held a groundbreaking event at the Parkview Townhome development in Vine City, a $20 million development of 62 homes near the Rodney Cook Sr. Park.

Bottoms wanted to invest $1 billion into housing to create or preserve 20,000 affordable units by 2026. She managed to reach 7,000 units with more than $700 million.

Winfield Murray, a political science professor at Morehouse College and Bottoms’ former deputy chief of staff, said it could be a few years before the mayor gets the credit due.

“The Gulch redevelopment hasn’t even really started yet,” Murray said, referencing the original name for the Centennial Yards development.

As for Bottoms, a southwest Atlanta resident, she wants to see the outcome of the city’s two new programs concerning guaranteed income and child savings accounts for low-income families. She also wants to see if the city’s engagement with the water boys will improve. The water boys are mostly Black young men selling water at street corners and on exit ramps.

“I’ve never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be mayor of Atlanta,” Bottoms said. “Growing up as a child in the 70s in Atlanta, a mayor was almost royalty in our city, so it never occurred to me that I could one day be mayor or that I would even have it in me to think about being mayor.”

AJC staff writers J.D. Capelouto and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms life experiences growing up in Atlanta help shape some of her policies and responses to events. Video by Ryon Horne