The most powerful African American in the U.S. Congress rattled off a couple of names as potential running mates for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, neither of which were surprising: U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Obama’s former National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
Then U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) mentioned someone few people expected.
“There is a young lady right there in Georgia who I think would make a tremendous VP candidate,” Clyburn told the London-based Financial Times last month. “That’s the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms.”
Clyburn listing Bottoms alongside some of the most recognizable women in politics shows how much the mayor has raised her profile during the past three years: from little-known city council member to national political figure.
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It also demonstrates that in a time when a brash, telegenic character who has never held elected office can become president, conventional political strategy no longer applies — and the possibility of a mayor with little executive experience being a heartbeat away from the nation’s highest office can’t be dismissed.
Bottoms indicated as much in an interview on National Public Radio Wednesday.
“I want Vice President Biden to choose the person who he thinks will help him best beat Donald Trump in November, and so if it’s me, I would be honored,” she said. “But if it’s a green martian that helps him get over the finish line, then I think that’s who he needs to go with.”
Although Bottoms has cracked a few top ten lists of potential VP picks, another Georgia Democratic has always ranked higher: former state representative and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
Bottoms’ ascension came through a combination of clever social media use, national TV appearances, public defiance of President Donald Trump, and a surprising early endorsement of Biden’s campaign.
Bottoms also enjoys strong support among black women, a key voting bloc in the South.
The mayor’s rhetoric about the importance of affordable housing earned her chair of The United States Conference of Mayors Community and Housing Development Committee. Her self-effacing humor and photos of home cooking went viral on Twitter.
And when President Trump instituted policies that separated children from their parents on the Mexican border, Bottoms was one of the first big city mayors to push back against the White House. She signed an executive order halting the receipt of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detanies in the city’s jail.
“The inhumane action of family separation demands that Atlanta act now,” she said.
Bottoms has made the ascension largely without use of local media. She grants few interviews with Atlanta reporters and she has yet to hold a press conference on coronavirus, although she did take questions in a joint press conference with Gov. Brian Kemp.
The most impactful public policy decision Bottoms has made as mayor came two weeks ago, when she issued a city wide stay-at-home order, essentially shuttering restaurants to inside dining and closing other businesses not deemed essential. She announced her executive order on Twitter late in the evening.
Bottoms' rise has also occurred as she has run a city beset with controversy and catastrophe — an inherited federal corruption investigation of City Hall, a cyber attack that paralyzed city government just three months after she was sworn into office, and now the coronavirus pandemic that threatens to blow a hole of at least $40 million into the city budget.
‘Only in Atlanta’
In winning the hard-fought 2017 election against fellow City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, Bottoms became the face of a dynamic city known as home to the Civil Rights movement and Affirmative Action.
It’s a position from which other mayors have become national figures, including Bottoms’ predecessor Kasim Reed who in 2016 was mentioned as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton.
“She is the highest profile elected official in the highest profile African American city,” said Brian Robinson, a Georgia Republican political strategist and former communications director for Gov. Nathan Deal.
And Bottoms, a lawyer by trade, skillfully capitalized on that ethnic pride after being sworn into office, recognizing the symbolism of her name — even in a city that has voted for African American mayors in every election since 1974.
“Only in Atlanta could a young girl named Keisha …” Bottoms declared at her inauguration before being cut off by the cheering crowd.
The moment morphed into various catchphrases on social media, such as “My mayor’s name is Keisha.”
The cyber attack also helped boost her profile. The mayor took a tough stance against paying the ransom demanded by hackers and she became an in-demand voice on how cities should protect themselves, testifying on the subject before Congress and speaking about the city’s experience on national news programs.
“The good news is that Atlanta is rebounding from this attack and sharing its experience with other cities,” Bottoms told the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security.
And last year, Bottoms again hit the national spotlight when she and Police Chief Erika Shields re-opened the Atlanta Childhood Murders cases — recalling a horrific era in the city’s history when 29 black youths and young adults were killed from 1979 to 1981.
The purpose was to learn if modern technology could shed new light on a tragic time, and has become the subject of an HBO documentary that features her prominently.
Mac and Cheese; sweet potato fries
But lightheartedness and frankness have also been key ingredients to cultivating a national image, giving Bottoms an aura of authenticity.
Robinson, the Republican consultant, said that Bottoms’ candor is an innate skill that many politicians don’t possess.
“She talks to crowds the same way you talk to someone at the dinner table,” Robinson said.
She made a cameo appearance in a music video by Ciara, dancing hip to hip with the R&B star. Tweets showing pictures of her mac and cheese and sweet potato fries have sparked cheeky viral debates about Bottoms' skill in the kitchen.
Tharon Johnson, an Atlanta-based political consultant and lobbyist who advises Bottoms, said those social media moments have helped humanize the mayor.
That openness on the national stage, however, is not extended to local media outlets.
She spent most of her speech at the Atlanta Press Club last year chastising local reporters for producing too many stories about corruption in the city.
She has repeatedly turned down interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and declined to comment for this story. Bottoms office has also declined to make her calendar public.
And her high profile hasn’t always pleased city employees, several of whom told the AJC that they were offended to learn they’d be working from home during the pandemic when Bottoms announced it from her home during an interview on MSBNC.
“We hope to be as best prepared as any city can be for a pandemic,” Bottoms told Chuck Todd, with a dog barking in the background.
Bottoms endorses Biden
Even before Bottoms formally endorsed Biden, she was helping bail him out of political trouble.
In late March 2019, four women came forward with complaints that the presidential candidate had touched them inappropriately — smelling hair, placing his hand on a thigh, or rubbing his nose against theirs.
Within days, Bottoms tweeted a picture of the former vice president with her.
The pair were touching foreheads, noses a stone’s width apart, with Bottoms wearing a wide smile.
“Everyone’s experience is their own,” the mayor wrote on April 3. “As for mine, I found my introduction and interaction with @JoeBiden to be genuine and endearing.”
Daniel Halpern, an executive committee member and regional finance chair of the Democratic National Committee, said Bottoms’ early endorsement of Biden exposed her talent to a wider audience.
“DNC members around the country are impressed with her,” Halpern said.
Bottoms traveled to Iowa to campaign for Biden in the February caucuses, and she was a consistent presence in Biden’s corner of spin rooms after Democratic debates.
‘What does that mean for black people?’
Essence Magazine headlined a March 2019 feature on Bottoms with a question.
“Atlanta’s Got a Mayor Named Keisha’ Lance Bottoms: What Exactly Does That Mean For Black People?”
The article mentioned the city’s national reputation for income inequality, and ended with a warning that there would be consequences if Bottoms failed to strive for the equality championed by past generations of Atlanta leaders.
“There is a new generation of activists and organizers who will both cheer her on and hold her accountable every step of the way,” the article said.
The admonition proved to be somewhat prophetic.
A group of activists traveled to South Carolina in February before the primary election to confront Biden over Bottoms' lack of action on the displacement of low-income African Americans from their homes.
Peoplestown resident Bertha Darden asked Biden, who was holding a campaign event, to “please tell her to stop evicting and displacing black families in Atlanta.”
Darden and her husband, Robert, were in a long legal battle with the city that began under former mayor Reed. Their home was among nearly 20 that sat on a block devastated by flooding in 2012. While on the council, Bottoms voted in favor of a plan to acquire the homes through eminent domain and build a park and a retention pond to stop future flooding.
Biden responded to the comment by simply saying Bottoms is a “great mayor.”
Johnson, the political consultant who advises the mayor, said that Bottoms endorsement of Biden in June turned out to be a smart, calculated risk. The endorsement surprised some, since presidential candidates Cory Booker and Harris campaigned in Georgia for Bottoms during her 2017 mayoral run.
“She has never wavered in her support of him even during tough times,” Johnson said. “Once she is with you, she is always with you.”
But will that loyalty earn her a spot on the ticket?
Emory Political Science Professor Andra Gillespie said Bottoms’ age, 50, and her race would help balance out the ticket. But her lack of experience hurts her chances.
A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released last week showed that two-thirds of registered voters prioritize experience over race and gender for Biden’s VP selection.
Gillespie said that the mayor is likely on the long list of potential VP picks, but not on the short one.
Former Mayor Shirley Franklin isn’t so sure.
Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden helped him win the South Carolina primary, where Biden won two-thirds of the black vote.
Franklin indicated that Clyburn floating Bottoms’ name may have been significant signal.
“I have no reason to believe the representative was talking without some knowledge,” Franklin said.
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