This year in Atlanta politics was always destined for tension.

With the City Council president running against a sitting mayor amid a rise in violent crime, the city was gearing up for another contentious and expensive election season. But few expected the race to take the turn it did Thursday night, when Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced she will not seek a second term, blowing wide open the race for City Hall.

The decision by an incumbent mayor to not seek reelection is almost unprecedented — it has happened only once in the past 100 years, when Maynard Jackson decided against seeking a fourth term in 1994.

It almost certainly means more candidates, more money and more political drama. And it could turn this year’s race into a rerun of the 2017 election, when 11 candidates spent more than $10 million in a bruising contest that ended with Bottoms squeaking out a runoff victory over Mary Norwood by about 800 votes.

With Bottoms on the sidelines, a heap of new candidates are expected to enter, joining Council President Felicia Moore and attorney Sharon Gay, who announced bids for mayor earlier this year.

City Hall insiders now predict former Mayor Kasim Reed will jump into the race and vie for his old post.

Rumors have swirled for more than a month that Reed, once one of Bottoms’ most important allies, could challenge the woman he vigorously supported in 2017. They were fueled by comments Reed has made criticizing the city’s approach to crime and boasting about his own record on public safety as mayor from 2010 to 2017.

ExploreFormer Mayor Kasim Reed: Atlanta crime is unacceptable, ‘not COVID-driven’

Now, with the popular incumbent stepping aside, Reed would bring formidable experience, political savvy and fundraising ability to the race. But he would also face significant scrutiny regarding members of his administration found guilty or indicted for alleged corruption, and for some of his own controversies at City Hall.

Former City Councilwoman Mary Norwood could mount a third mayoral bid. Norwood, who lost a runoff to Reed in 2009 by about the same margin as her defeat to Bottoms, was already running for a Buckhead council seat and has amassed a $300,000 campaign war chest for that race.

Other familiar names being floated in political circles include former state Sen. Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014; former City Council President Cathy Woolard, the third-place finisher in the last race for mayor; and Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who could launch a business-backed outsider campaign; and City Councilman Andre Dickens.

Councilman Antonio Brown and Fulton County Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman have also said they are considering a run for mayor.

“It changes the landscape in the city of Atlanta. The gates are clear now,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a close friend of Bottoms and one of the most influential Democrats in Georgia. “It opens up the political horizon — and it opens a lot of opportunities for a lot of people.”

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

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Bottoms was seen as a strong incumbent heading into reelection season, despite criticism over her handling of crime that led some residents to push for Buckhead to break away from Atlanta.

During a press conference Friday, Bottoms said she is confident she could win reelection — pointing to an internal poll that showed high approval ratings. The mayor did not say who she will endorse to succeed her, but said she plans to weigh in on the race later this year.

“I have a pretty good idea of the people it should not be,” she said, adding that she hopes Atlanta’s 61st mayor isn’t a self-funded candidate.

ExploreOPINION: Atlanta mayoral job in a spin as Bottoms bows out

Former Atlanta mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young said Bottoms’ decision means the race for mayor is just starting.

“It throws it wide open,” Young said, adding that he thinks Bottoms has done a good job under unusually difficult circumstances. “Now we’re waiting to see who’s running and what they have to say.”

Reed brings experience, controversy

If Reed jumps into the race, it is sure to put a spotlight on his strained relationship with Bottoms.

Bottoms joined the City Council in 2010, the same year Reed became mayor. In 2015, he appointed her to run the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, which controls Zoo Atlanta and State Farm Arena.

During the 2017 election, Bottoms leaned on Reed to fundraise and break through a crowded field of candidates. After the election though, she began to distance herself from him.

She pushed back against attacks that claimed Reed controlled her actions, saying in 2017 that her tenure “will not be a third term” for Reed. Months after her inauguration in 2018, she told dozens of top city officials from the Reed administration to hand in their resignations.

On Friday, Bottoms said she hasn’t spoken to Reed recently, and took some digs at his administration. She referenced the federal corruption investigation, saying it “seemed to literally suck the air out of City Hall.” One regret from her time in office is that she didn’t ask for Reed’s top officials to turn in their resignations sooner, Bottoms said.

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and then Mayor-elect Keisha Lance Bottoms talk during Reed’s final workday at Atlanta City Hall on December 29, 2017. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Caption
Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and then Mayor-elect Keisha Lance Bottoms talk during Reed’s final workday at Atlanta City Hall on December 29, 2017. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Reed has largely stayed out of public view since Bottoms became mayor, but he recently began making public comments about the spike in Atlanta’s violent crime rate while boasting about his own public safety record as the city’s 59th mayor.

In April, Reed told The Frank Ski Show on KISS 104.1 FM that Atlanta’s “unacceptable” levels of crime are “not COVID-driven.” Reed never mentioned Bottoms by name, yet he attacked her assertion that Atlanta — as well as the nation — is experiencing a “COVID crime wave.”

“When I was mayor, I had a pager on my hip that let me know every time a crime occurred in Atlanta,” Reed said. “... I would be much more physically present and hands on.”

A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, a business and civic nonprofit focused on development downtown, said many in the business community admired Reed during his time in office but are uneasy about the federal investigation that loomed over the end of his second term and has continued since he left City Hall.

That investigation sent Reed’s purchasing chief and deputy chief of staff to prison for accepting bribes, and has his chief financial officer under indictment on fraud and weapons charges.

“Until that cloud is lifted, I think people would still have some concerns,” Robinson said.

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. (Leon Stafford / AJC)
Caption
Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. (Leon Stafford / AJC)

Credit: Leon Stafford

Credit: Leon Stafford

Reed’s behavior — including lavish spending with city-issued credit cards, hefty bonuses to senior staff just before leaving office, and improper usage of emergency lights on his city-owned SUV — could also become an issue if he enters the race.

Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University, said it will be interesting to see how Bottoms treats a possible Kasim Reed candidacy.

“If he were to do it, we shouldn’t be surprised, because we have Maynard Jackson as the model for that,” Owens said. Jackson ran for a third term in 1990, eight years after first leaving office.

Fundraising continues

Moore, meanwhile, said Friday that her campaign has raised nearly half a million dollars in donations, with $418,000 on hand. She called herself the “frontrunner” in the race.

“Because I was the first and only candidate who even took on a challenger very early on, in January, I have had the opportunity to connect with voters and those who would support the campaign, so I believe I’m in the best position,” Moore said during a virtual briefing with reporters.

Moore said she respects Bottoms’ decision and that “whoever decides to run does not change the direction and focus that I have to win.”

Gay said in a statement that she remains committed to bringing “a new vision and smart, honest and effective management to city government.” She reported raising $208,000 in donations, plus a $210,000 personal loan she issued to her campaign.

— Staff reporters Greg Bluestein, Wilborn P. Nobles III and Ben Brasch contributed to this report.