A bully or a man on a mission

The matter before us today is whether there is a difference between a bully and an insistent man with a to-do list.

Friday, July 1, is an important day for the city of Atlanta.

Mayor Kasim Reed wants the city’s new pension plan in place by that date — the beginning of a new fiscal year. Otherwise, he has said, the city will be forced to lay off more workers to accommodate the extra cost.

July 1 is also the day that provisions of Senate Bill 79 kick in. This is the measure passed by the Legislature that will oblige the state school board to step into the swamp that is Atlanta Public Schools and recommend whether Gov. Nathan Deal should replace members of its duly elected board.

The school district’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, placed the board on probation in January, accusing it of poor governance. The system has until September to convince SACS that it has seen the light.

The mayor of Atlanta helped push SB 79 through the General Assembly, which means that the school board and pension issues are united by more than a date. And with June fast running out of days, Reed has begun taking heat from certain quarters for pushing both matters to a timely conclusion.

Last weekend, the exiting-but-not-quite-ready-to-leave chairman of the Atlanta school board, Khaatim Sherrer El, sent around an email praising his own courage and accusing a “bullying” Reed of kowtowing to the downtown Atlanta business community.

El pointed to Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell’s fight with Reed over the pension overhaul. Last week, just before a council retreat to discuss the issue, Mitchell — the son of a police officer — issued a statement calling for civility in the forthcoming debate.

Since he and Reed had recently exchanged harsh words — the council president had wanted to delay the pension vote until September — there was little doubt about Mitchell’s target.

Code words are a part of any political culture. In Atlanta, the phrase “downtown business community” is a polite reference to the white economic forces that rule daytime Atlanta. It is a signal to the city’s black voters.

But “bully” is another matter. So is an accusation, however veiled, of uncontrolled hostility. Both phrases raise the specter of the angry black man — a high sign to Atlanta’s growing white population.

There is no question that Reed, a state senator, is well-versed in hardball political tactics. The state Capitol is the realpolitik capital of Georgia.

Also consider that Reed’s haste isn’t that unusual. Good politicians understand that major initiatives must be tackled early in their terms, before their public mandate drains away. And if the mayor is to tackle anything else during his four years, he needs to dispose of the pension fight as quickly as possible.

But the real test of whether the mayor of Atlanta qualifies as a bully is whether he has stepped into a fight that is none of his affair. So you can immediately scratch pensions from the warrant — overhauling the city of Atlanta’s retirement benefits was a central part of his ’09 campaign.

As for the school board fracas, Reed didn’t enter the fight in a public way until January, when SACS placed the Atlanta Public Schools on probation. Within that same time frame, city and state officials were negotiating with Porsche over whether to relocate an enlarged, $100 million North American headquarters next to Atlanta’s airport.

It is difficult to attract new business to a city whose high schools can’t issue diplomas that will be honored by the state’s own public universities. Which makes the Atlanta school system Reed’s business.

No, if Reed is guilty of anything, it is of acting with the confidence of a political figure who knows he has the facts and the votes on his side.

Last month, the mayor drew money from his campaign fund to finance a poll of 600 Atlanta voters by Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies in Washington, D.C. No doubt Reed has shared it with members of the City Council.

Among the results (with a 3 percentage point margin of error):

● 80 percent said they were concerned about the pension issue.

● 49 percent of voters view Reed as being fair to city workers on pensions; and another 49 percent opposed more trims to the city work force — which would be the alternative.

● 55 percent agreed with the statement that “in this economic downturn, everyone must sacrifice, including city workers who have a more than generous pension plan that’s better than found in most private sectors.”

Reed has more political leeway when it comes to education:

● 63 percent approved of the way the mayor is handling the Atlanta school board issue.

● 72 percent disapprove of the way the school board is performing its job.

Are there limits to Reed’s mandate? Absolutely.

● A hefty 44 percent disagreed “with the idea of the mayor taking over the public schools.” Only 42 percent endorsed it.

● A majority — 54 percent — would object to the governor replacing members of the Atlanta school board. The idea is fine with 39 percent of voters.

On Friday in Savannah, Deal said that he would only use that power with great reluctance.