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Atlanta mayor plays an outsized role as metro “spokesman”

The candidates are plentiful, their backgrounds diverse: They come from inside and outside the political world. They are new and repeat contenders. Among them are an artist, former federal prosecutor, an international businessman.

Only the voters who live in the city of Atlanta’s 130-some square miles will cast ballots in this fall’s mayoral election, but the impact of their decision will be felt far beyond those borders.

As the home of the world’s busiest airport, five of the state’s 17 Fortune 500 companies, and the home address of another eight, Atlanta is the economic engine that drives a 29-county region and therefore the state.

To the outside world, “what happens in the city, for better or for worse, defines the region,” said Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

That means, the mayor of Atlanta is the face and voice of that region, though only 8 percent of the metro area’s 5.5 million people live in the city.

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Three years ago, when two inches of snow and a coating of ice shut down interstates and brought life from Alpharetta to Fayetteville to a grinding halt, much the national ridicule landed squarely on Mayor Kasim Reed.

Though the storm affected all of north Georgia, Reed found himself on the defensive in television interviews. “I’ve sat and watched all day long you all show image after image of interstates that aren’t in the city limits and aren’t the responsibility of the city,” a testy Reed told CNN. “And the only name that you have used all day long is the city of Atlanta.”

On the other hand, the mayor is often given credit for accomplishments that are region-wide, such as the state’s emerging film industry. It’s Reed who gets to thump his chest, whether filming is taking place inside the city limits or outside.

“Sometimes Atlanta is Atlanta, and sometimes Atlanta is a region,” said Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson. “It’s a really interesting dichotomy of who you represent and what you represent.”

Different mayors have brought different styles to the job.

Sam Massell and Andrew Young are considered by many to have been consensus builders who maintained a collegial relationship with the regional leaders. Maynard Jackson focused more intently on raising the city’s profile by making Hartsfield Atlanta International airport a major player.

From his perch, Reed has sought to elevate Atlanta’s profile nationally and globally, appearing on Sunday-morning talk shows as a surrogate of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and taking part in the World Government Summit in Dubai.

“The mayor of Atlanta has to talk global but act local,” said A.J. Robinson, president of downtown Atlanta business group Central Atlanta Progress. “You have to deliver to lots of people.

Each mayor has to decide his or her own profile on a local, regional and national scale. Each has to strike a balance between Atlanta-centric issues and those that may have broader reach.

“He or she is the person that national leaders are going to call on to get into important conversations on national policy or foreign policy,” the ARC’s Hooker said. “Very often, it’s helpful if that mayor has a sense beyond the city of what the region is experiencing.”

Coping with fragments

Atlanta’s next mayor will have his or her hands full. A bribery scandal has just begun to ensnare people connected to city hall. And the new leader will have to contend with continued transportation issues, skyrocketing housing costs and long-standing racial tensions that affect residents both inside and outside the city limits.

With many of those issues affecting decisions made around the region, some hope the next mayor will do more to give direction to the disparate governments that make up the metro area.

Metro Atlanta is composed of 150 cities spread across 29 counties. Fulton County alone includes 14 cities, with largely white, Republican northsiders often at odds with mostly black, Democrat southsiders.

“We have always had a very fragmented area,” said Harvey Newman, a retired political science professor at Georgia State University. “Many scholars have said this is the Achilles’ heel of metro Atlanta.”

Newman pointed to the long feud between Cobb and Fulton counties over Johnson Ferry Road. Cobb expanded the road as it traveled over the Chattahoochee River to six lanes in the 1990s, but Fulton refused to widen its four lanes of the road to six lanes until construction began in 2011.

Prior to Fulton’s change of heart, motorists crossing over the river lived a nightmare of backups.

“There’s not a smooth framework for governance here,” he said. “Cities and counties often go their own ways, often at the expense of their neighbors.”

How much influence the Atlanta mayor can have on brokering agreements in such skirmishes depends on the relationships built across borders.

“The Atlanta mayor could extend an olive branch that could start a dialogue,” said Massell, the former mayor. “But since he is not in charge, it would be informal.”

Liz Hausmann, a county commissioner representing north Fulton, said too often under Reed, Atlanta has looked inward. She said Reed’s participation in a regular meeting of Fulton County mayors has been “lukewarm” and said she hoped for a leader with a “broader view” who would better communicate with other governments.

Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle said he’d like to see the mayor help connect Atlanta’s technology firms with those up Ga. 400, creating a corridor that could have influence across cities. Not to do that, he said, is “leaving a lot on the table.”

“No one else has the natural standing to pull people together,” Belle Isle said. “We need someone who can think beyond those borders.”

There’s no doubt that there are times when the region needs to think as a region, and whoever the next mayor of Atlanta is will need to remember that, Reed said.

“The role of the mayor of Atlanta is a fluid one,” he said. “There are times when your interests are within the city limits, and there are times when you are acting as the leader of the region because people in America, and in the world, identify you as such.”

“I’m a very strong believer that we are a highly interconnected region,” Reed said. “The metro Atlanta brand is essential to all our financial health.”

Limits of power

It’s a hard line to toe. Regardless of the desires of Atlanta’s mayor or other leaders, there are limits to the mayor of Atlanta’s influence.

Cobb County Commissioner Bob Ott said there are other “powerhouses” in the region that should get attention — such as county governments in Cobb and Gwinnett. Maybe the mayor of Atlanta shouldn’t be the expected leader of the metro area, he said.

“There has to be a realization from everyone that everything doesn’t happen in Atlanta,” Ott said. “Maybe it is the mayor of Atlanta, maybe it isn’t.”

The cityhood movement that has swept the metro area is in part about creating a distinct identity outside Atlanta’s orbit. And those new voices are often the most fervent in rejecting leadership from Atlanta or anywhere else.

After all, all politics is local.

Mike Koblentz, chairman of the Northwest Community Alliance, an Atlanta neighborhood association, said he generally thinks Reed has been a strong regional and national leader. But, he said, he’s been disappointed in the mayor in key city issues, such as the sale of Fort McPherson to film mogul Tyler Perry and failure to get a community benefits agreement with Georgia State University in its purchase of the Atlanta Braves property.

“From a macro point of view, he has done a lot of good things,” he said. “But on neighborhood issues, I think he has been weak.”

Hala Moddelmog, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said the mayor of Atlanta’s duty is to his or her constituents. Upholding that duty, though, can sometimes mean looking beyond the city limits.

For instance, the mayor of Atlanta may not be involved in efforts to bring jobs to Decatur. But those jobs can attract ancillary businesses that end up in the city. And workers are not limited to geographic boundaries where they live, shop or play, so promoting the region is a win for all.

“Economic development is a team sport,” she said.

William Pate, president of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the mayor’s role regionally is not much different from others who sell both the city individually and the area as a whole. The visitors bureau competes with its counterparts in Gwinnett and DeKalb for convention business, but supports those competitors if it’s clear they have a better shot. After all, Atlanta gets a residual impact, from visits to sites such as the Georgia Aquarium and CNN Center.

Likewise, when the city gets a convention — one so large visitors have to find rooms in the Perimeter area and beyond — the region benefits.

“We always put ‘the big A’ ahead of everything,” he said. But “Ultimately, it all comes back around.”

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