For Keisha Lance Bottoms, serving as Atlanta mayor is personal

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

When Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told City Hall employees to shut off their computers to prevent hackers from encrypting city data three months into her term, her then-chief operating officer told her to consider paying the hackers a $51,000 ransom.

“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,’” said Richard Cox Jr., who graduated with Bottoms from Frederick Douglass High School on Atlanta’s Westside.

This anecdote from the March 2018 cyber attack shows how Bottoms’ lived experiences — her perspective as a daughter, a mother, and a native of Atlanta — have informed her policies and decisions since taking office in 2018.

Bottoms’ ability to relate to city issues became a hallmark of her leadership style. Being mayor is personal for Bottoms, who went to law school in Atlanta and is raising four children here.

“My deep and abiding love for this city was shaped by the love and devotion for Atlanta I have always seen reflected by my family,” she said in a released statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Cici Carter, who shared homeroom with Bottoms in high school, said she didn’t know Bottoms’ childhood background until Bottoms told her story during their 30-year high school reunion, which coincided with Bottoms’ first mayoral campaign.

“She’s carried herself through attack after attack,” said Carter. Carter hasn’t stayed in contact with Bottoms, but took part in a Zoom call with her and 30 others from their high school in February. “That strength that she drew from, I think it came from a place deep inside that she had to develop during that upbringing.”

In pushing for criminal justice reform, Bottoms told the story of her father, who struggled with addiction and went to prison on drug charges.

When she announced in May she won’t be seeking a second term as Atlanta’s 60th mayor, she mentioned her prayer and conversations with her husband Derek before reaching the decision.

“When you have faith and you prayed for God’s wisdom and guidance, in the same way that it was very clear to me almost five years ago that I should run for mayor of Atlanta, it is abundantly clear to me today that it is time to pass the baton on to someone else,” said Bottoms, a former Municipal Court judge and City Council member.

Her decision to not seek reelection puts a greater spotlight on her time in office and what she hopes to accomplish with seven months left in her term. The challenges remaining reflect many of the challenges she faced in 2020, including the coronavirus pandemic, criminal justice reform and reducing violent crime.

“She had more significant events in one term than most mayors get in two terms,” said Jackmont Hospitality CEO Dan Halpern, a prominent Democratic fundraiser. ”Big city mayors have the hardest job in politics other than being president of the United States.”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms attended an event to announce that Publix is coming to the Summerhill neighborhood on Thursday, May 20, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Critics say Bottoms has been absent from much of the daily day-to-day city business and hasn’t been engaged with residents.

“Get off MSNBC, get off CNN, and put your attention on this city, even for the time that’s remaining,” said Kay Wallace, a community leader in Atlanta’s West End who served as deputy chief operating officer for the Atlanta Olympic committee in 1996.

Bottoms said in a released statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she’s focused on addressing the “COVID crime wave.” She said she wants to make Atlanta “a better place for my children.”

Criminal justice hits home

Atlanta entered the national spotlight in 2020 amid nationwide social unrest following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck. Police cars and storefronts were destroyed in downtown Atlanta, but Bottoms received praise for telling protesters that “If you care about this city, then go home.”

When Bottoms addressed the chaos on May 29, she talked about her daily prayers for her children’s safety. She also said she “hurt like a mother would hurt” when Floyd was killed.

It wasn’t the first time discussions over criminal justice hit home for Bottoms, who eliminated Atlanta’s cash bond requirement for nonviolent arrests in 2018.

Bottoms was 8 when she came home to see police officers arresting her father, the Grammy-nominated R&B singer Major Lance, for cocaine distribution. She called his prison time “the death of our family” in a CNN opinion piece. “What I learned that day he was arrested was simple: Sometimes really good people make bad decisions,” she wrote.

The Georgia NAACP President Rev. James Woodall said it was concerning when Atlanta police tear gassed and arrested protesters to enforce an emergency curfew last summer. But he praised Bottoms’ work on bail reform.

“That was a definitely progressive move — a necessary one. There still is a lot of work to do on that front,” said Woodall.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms holds a press conference Friday, May 7, 2021 at Atlanta City Hall about her decision not to run for a second term. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Woodall and other activists support Bottoms’ goal to replace Atlanta’s detention center with a community center. But many city council members want to address overcrowding at the Fulton County jail. Bottoms is in talks with Fulton officials on a temporary solution.

Longtime Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who has known Bottoms since their childhood and went to high school with her, disagrees with the mayor on the best use for the city jail. But he understands her perspective.

“It’s not a model of leadership that you might find in a book, but it’s her own personal compass that is really shaping the actions and decisions that she makes,” said Bond, who said Atlanta needs “a stronger, more robust response to crime.”

Keisha Lance Bottoms and her family take the stage during an interfaith worship service held at Impact Church in East Point, Tuesday on the day of Bottoms' inauguration as mayor. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Surviving the pandemic

COVID-19 “literally hit home” for Bottoms last July when she announced on CNN that she, her husband and one of their children tested positive for the virus.

Two days later, she enacted a citywide mask mandate.

She appeared on national cable news shows to discuss her family’s experience with COVID-19. Her husband, she said, lost 20 pounds in a week and was suffering from long-term side effects.

“My husband began his day with an appointment for a MRI, scheduled because nearly two months after COVID, he still awakes with debilitating headaches. This pandemic was purposely downplayed and nearly 190k lives have been lost and countless others are suffering the consequences,” Bottoms tweeted last September.

In telling her family’s story, she opposed Gov. Brian Kemp’s loosening of pandemic rules.

Housing equity

At a recent ribbon-cutting for a new affordable housing complex in the English Avenue neighborhood, Bottoms recalled her family’s history in the area.

“My grandmother would tell me the story of coming literally in horse and buggy,” Bottoms said, adding that her mother wants to move back into that home as she’s riding around looking at the redevelopment.”

Bottoms uses her family’s story to advocate for more affordable housing to ensure rising home and rent prices will not displace lifelong residents like her mother. She told the AJC in a statement that her administration has put $1 billion in public and private funds toward affordable housing.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms participates in a groundbreaking ceremony in Old Fourth Ward for a new affordable multi-family community in April. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Although a city report stated Atlanta has put $497 million in “city-controlled public funding” toward affordable housing, Georgia State University professor Dan Immergluck said that could include money that was already earmarked for Atlanta, such as federal Housing and Urban Development funds. Immergluck said Bottoms should do more by putting new city funds toward housing.

What’s next?

It’s unclear what’s next for Bottoms when her term ends at year’s end. Many still have questions about why she decided not to seek a second term.

The one thing she’s made clear is she still loves Atlanta.

“My deep and abiding love for this city,” she said,” was shaped by the love and devotion for Atlanta I have always seen reflected by my family.”