Atlanta mayor calls end of her reelection bid a ‘very difficult decision’

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she wanted to avoid an “ugly cry” during a Friday press conference, called so that she could answer questions about her decision to abandon her campaign for a second term as the city’s leader.

Someone handed her a tissue anyway, even though the mayor maintained composure as she detailed a year’s long process of praying for guidance, talking endlessly with her confidants and writing two letters to city residents — one announcing she would drop out of the race, and one saying she would seek reelection.

“Surprisingly, they were essentially the same letter,” she said.

With one major difference. The letter she decided to send said it was “time to pass the baton to someone else.”

“My love for the city was the love planted in my heart moments before I was formed in my mother’s womb,” Bottoms said. “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.”

Reaction to the mayor’s shocking decision — only one incumbent mayor in the last 100 years decided to not seek reelection, and that was Maynard Jackson declining to run for a fourth term in 1994 — spread rapidly throughout the city after Bottoms told supporters Thursday night.

There were about two dozen people on the video chat, which began on an emotional note around 8:30 p.m. After Bottoms confirmed she wasn’t running, the collection of her closest friends, top donors and political allies took turns speaking about her.

Some teared up, others swallowed their emotions. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, one of Bottoms’ closest friends, said he had a lump in his throat as he started to speak: “You’ve been my strength, I’ve been your strength,” he told her, as he recounted a relationship that goes well beyond a political alliance.

”It’s a tough time,” Smyre said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Part of me never thought she would run for re-election. Still, to hear it was difficult.”

Bottoms said Friday that being mayor is her highest honor, and that faith guided her decision to leave office in January 2022. She said she doesn’t know what’s next for her, and denied rumors she or her husband have taken a job in the private sector that would force them to move out of state.

“I can’t get Derek to move two miles off Cascade Road,” she said.

Bottoms also did not rule out another run for elected office.

“I can be mayor again,” she said.

But that statement was overshadowed as Bottoms recounted the difficulties of the job. A cyber attack that happened almost immediately after she was sworn into office. An ongoing federal corruption investigation that “seemed to literally suck the air out of City Hall.”

Social justice protests, police shootings, a pandemic and squabbles with Gov. Brian Kemp also made her list.

“The last three years have not been at all what I would have scripted for our city,” she said.

Still, Bottoms said the pressures of the job are not why she is walking away.

“I started dealing with pressure when I was eight years old, and I saw my father being led out of our house in handcuffs,” Bottoms said. “I’ve never had it easy at City Hall, and I’ve never cowered from a fight.”

The mayor said she may weigh in on the election later this year, as she expects more people to enter the race.

City Council president Felicia Moore and attorney Sharon Gay have already announced their mayoral candidacies this year. Councilman Antonio Brown is expected to enter the race soon. And former Mayor Kasim Reed is rumored to be considering a run.

“We are thankful for Mayor Bottoms’ service to the City of Atlanta,” Reed said in a statement Friday. “I know that she will continue to make a positive difference, just as she has throughout her career in public service.”

Other candidates are sure to follow.

“Whenever there’s not an incumbent, usually the floodgates open,” said Fulton County District 6 Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman, who said she is weighing a decision to enter the race.

Moore said she will continue to work with Bottoms to address violent crime, adding that “my heart is dedicated to being our next Mayor.” Gay said in a statement that she remains committed to bringing “a new vision and smart, honest and effective management to City government” if she’s elected.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at a press conference at City Hall Friday morning.

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

Some of Bottoms’ supporters found her decision surprising since she was running an active reelection campaign that featured a recent fundraising event hosted by President Joe Biden.

Bottoms said Friday that she was offering refunds to donors.

“I was very surprised, and I think the city was very surprised,” said Georgia congresswoman Nikema Williams.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, who said he’s grateful for Bottoms’ service to Atlanta, said his focus will be to work on infrastructure legislation, particularly transportation and water improvements for Atlanta and the region.

Bottoms said she had been thinking about not running for reelection as early as her first year in office.

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

Atlanta school board Chairman Jason Esteves praised Bottoms, saying her election made a statement to Atlanta’s students. Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring agreed, adding that the district celebrates Bottoms and honors the mayor’s legacy.

But Andy Gastley, a 60-year-old Chamblee native grabbing lunch with his partner at H&F Burger on Friday, said he disliked how Bottoms handled the summer protests. Standing outside Ponce City Market, he said Atlanta needs to “start doing stop-and-frisk” and Bottoms left police unsupported.

“Even if they make a mistake, back them up,” he said of officers. “A mayor needs to be a governmental team player.”

Philadelphia native Chanel Keitt, 47, said she was proud of Bottoms, would have voted for her, and was surprised at her decision to drop out of the race.

“It felt very good to have an African American mayor,” she said.

Bottoms wrapped up the Friday press conference by saying a nagging sense of guilt slowed down her decision.

“Part of the delay in my decision was guilt — am I harming my city?” Bottoms said. “I signed up for four years. My four years is nearly up. And this is my decision.”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Greg Bluestein, Vanessa McCray and Eric Stirgus contributed to this article.