Kasim Reed is smiling. The leaves have turned brilliant colors in the park where he stands with supporters. In the manic world of campaigning, it’s an up day. The mayoral candidate is accepting the endorsement of the city police union, helpful in an election that has been focused on crime. The same day, a poll has come out giving Reed a slight lead over Councilwoman Mary Norwood. It’s the first time that Reed has led in any poll.
Reed speaks at a shuttered rec center in the park in Oakland City, on Atlanta’s south side. He chose the site to highlight his plan to reopen all rec centers at an annual cost of $3.4 million. He talks about hiring 750 police officers in the next four years. Those hires would cost millions.
Reporters ask: How is he going to pay for all of it?
Reed talks — as he often does — about what he learned about budgeting in his years at the state Legislature. He’s tired, so perhaps he misspeaks, but this is what he says first: “I was raised at the state Capitol.”
I was raised at the state Capitol.
It’s a fitting summation of Reed’s political biography — and says much about how he would govern as Atlanta’s 59th mayor. His 11 years at the Capitol — most of it in the minority — taught him the art of horse-trading. The Capitol is a universe where favors are given, but never freely. It’s a place where the difference between winning and losing is often a mathematical equation of who has the most favors. Reed had his share of defeats and didn’t always keep his cool. But he also had his share of victories through coalition and compromise. If state politics were football, Reed would not be the quarterback throwing the long ball for quick touchdowns. He would be running the ball to move it forward a few yards each play.
But now he wants to be mayor of Georgia’s largest city, a boomtown now struggling in a busted new reality. It could use a touchdown.
Will Reed’s tenure as a state legislator help him be a chief executive if he wins?
His staffers flinch when Reed, 40, is called an insider. Yet at every stop on the campaign trail, that is what he offers voters: I know state politicians and I can work the system to help Atlanta.
Of course, this is what his opponent Norwood says she is running against. Norwood has blasted Reed’s style as “politics as usual.”
Reed’s retort: “That is a good quote if you don’t have any political endorsements. ... Who is more capable to build consensus?”
Reed wants badly to be mayor. He has given up his Senate seat and his partnership at Holland and Knight, a swanky Midtown law firm. The day after the police endorsement, he was in Washington, D.C., raising more money. To date, he has loaned his campaign at least $150,000 of his own cash. He has sought the backing of every prominent person with ties to Atlanta, from Andrew Young and Joseph Lowery to Jamie Foxx and Chaka Zulu. He has called in favors and stressed to supporters and donors that he won’t forget them.
Former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, who recently endorsed Reed, said, “I told all who would listen, watch this guy. He’s on the move.”
Reed developed his style of politicking during more than a decade of victories and missteps at the Capitol.
He was first elected to the state House as a representative from District 52. It was the same year he ran Shirley Franklin’s successful campaign for mayor. Once she took office, he served on her transition team.
In his time in the House, Reed sponsored legislation that got some notice, including a bill specifically for Atlanta that raised the homestead exemption for seniors from $15,000 to $25,000. He also was House sponsor of the Georgia Hate Crimes Bill.
In 2002, he ran for and won the 35th District Senate seat, further raising his political profile. As he took office in 2003, however, he found himself in the minority. Party defections meant the GOP controlled the Senate.
Despite the disadvantage, Reed had his greatest legislative triumph. That year Sonny Perdue won the governorship in part on a promise to hold a referendum on the Georgia state flag that would include the option of returning to the 1956 version that displayed the Confederate battle emblem.
Blacks and many business leaders opposed including the old flag on the referendum. At the same time, Perdue was pushing an increase in the state tobacco tax.
It was a classic horse-trading moment. The Democrats didn’t have enough votes to stop a flag referendum, and Republican leadership didn’t have enough votes to push through the tax increase.
Reed saw an opportunity.
Sen. Robert Brown, minority leader in the Senate, said Reed brokered a deal to keep the old flag off a nonbinding referendum, in exchange for delivering 10 Democratic votes for the tax increases. In the end, Reed blocked the old state flag from returning to Georgia and Perdue got his taxes.
“He has an ability to see where the fault lines were, and be able to understand what was really motivating parties involved. Then he hones in on that.”
Reed also had his share of missteps at the Capitol. Franklin often called on Reed as a legislative ally to propose legislation related to Atlanta. It didn’t always go smoothly. In 2004, Franklin asked Reed to propose state legislation for the creation of an independent city parks authority. The plan flopped when City Council members balked and passed a resolution condemning the idea since they had not been consulted. Franklin and Reed awkwardly abandoned the idea.
And though he sponsored legislation to create local ethics boards to monitor cities, counties and school boards in the state, a 2007 story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Reed had filed his financial disclosure forms late numerous times while in office. He has since filed those reports on time.
Reed’s greatest defeat came in 2005, when Reed and other Democrats walked out of the Capitol over passage of a bill requiring voters to bring photo identification to the polls. Reed and others felt the bill would disfavor black, poor and elderly voters.
In a rare moment, Reed cried as he spoke against the bill.
“You are stabbing race relations in the back with this legislation, and I will not forget this,” he declared. The bill passed.
Despite ups and downs, Reed’s Capitol work has garnered praise not just from party faithful, but from ideological opponents across the aisle.
Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Reed earned the respect of many Republicans who saw him as someone sincerely trying to find compromise.
“You have some people over there who grandstand, try to manipulate in a public way. It doesn’t advance the ball up the field. It just draws attention to themselves. That’s not Kasim’s style,” Smith said.
How Reed’s abilities would translate to City Hall remains to be seen.
“He knows what he is walking into,” said Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale), Reed’s suite mate at the Capitol for seven years.
“He could have sat comfortably in his state Senate seat as long as he wanted to.”
Reed, of course, thinks it’s a perfect fit.
“You actually need as much agreement and focus on moving our city in a new direction that I actually think my skill set is right for right now,” he said.
But he has never run a bureaucracy, and now he wants to head a city that faces numerous financial problems, a history of red tape and snafus, and legions of demoralized employees. The neighborhood where he held the police union news conference underscores the challenges that Reed or Norwood will face. Some houses are boarded up. Others have barbed-wire fencing and NO TRESPASSING signs. People interviewed by a reporter said they had no intention of voting at all.
Reed is undeterred. He sees the union endorsement as a few feet closer to the goal, one more group of supporters in his coalition. It’s just like when he used to push legislation at the Capitol.
“In a tough political campaign, inches matter,” he told a reporter months ago.
In closing his remarks at the park, he straightens up and delivers a mayoral-sounding sound-bite about how Atlanta will become safe again if he is elected. He ends with an arcane declaration: “Godspeed.”
It almost sounds like he’s practicing an inaugural address.
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