Each day, nearly 300,000 travelers are welcomed to Atlanta by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, her voice echoing through the concourses of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The greeting is one way the city has staked its claim on Hartsfield-Jackson, which it has transformed over the decades from an abandoned race track to the word’s busiest airport.
But some at the state Capitol are gunning for a piece of the action. Legislators in the Georgia Senate have adopted a bill that would hand control of the airport from the city to the state. An alternate proposal passed by the Georgia House would create a legislative oversight committee over all commercial airports in Georgia.
City leaders vehemently oppose both plans. Bottoms has said a state takeover is tantamount to theft.
It’s a familiar battle in Georgia — city vs. state, urban vs. rural and Democrat vs. Republican. But, underlying it all, is the question of race.
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African-Americans in Atlanta have long seen the airport as a beacon of black pride and entrepreneurship. It’s the place where Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, pioneered minority contracting, now a federal standard at airports across the country. In Atlanta, those contracts have played a key role in developing African American-owned businesses. To attack the airport, some say, is to attack the underpinnings of the city’s black power structure.
Atlanta has been led by a black mayor for 45 years, while the governor and much of the Republican-led legislature is white.
“In the eyes of many, there’s an old trope here that’s quietly bubbling beneath the surface… And that is the old trope that black people can’t run things. ‘It’s just going to be a mess if you let those black people run something. We’ve got to put the state over there in charge. ‘Cause they’ll never straighten it out,’” said State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, who opposes a takeover, during remarks on the Senate floor. “And that is said in the face of an airport whose track record is incredible in terms of our achievements.”
Republicans counter that it is corruption — not race — fueling the fight.
State senators have pointed to a federal bribery investigation into Atlanta City Hall, a Federal Aviation Administration investigation into potential misuse of airport revenue and decades of allegations and lawsuits alleging contract steering at the airport in arguing for legislation to create a state authority that would run the Atlanta airport.
“There is a definite pattern of verifiable unethical behavior at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport that can be attributed to an institutional flaw,” said state Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican from Jackson who proposed the airport takeover. “Unfortunately there have been some people that have taken advantage… where they’ve given out political favors and lucrative contracts to family members and friends.”
“There is a definite pattern of verifiable unethical behavior at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport that can be attributed to an institutional flaw.” —State Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican from Jackson
Georgia Persons, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy who wrote a dissertation on Jackson’s first term as mayor, said the conflict carries with it a real risk for the city’s reputation.
“If there’s this image and this notion and this thinking that’s created and generated in the minds of the public that the city of Atlanta is not the best manager for the airport, then that could be very, very serious,” Persons said. “It would be seen nationally as a kind of takedown of the city of Atlanta.”
ATLANTA’S CROWN JEWEL
City Hall has long recognized the airport’s importance, as both an economic engine and a symbol of Atlanta’s global status.
Just days after she assumed office in 2002, Mayor Shirley Franklin said Jackson — one of her political mentors — called and said he urgently needed to meet with her. He only required 10 minutes.
“He was clear that matters related to the airport needed to be handled with the utmost integrity. That was his expectation of me,” Franklin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He said that there are many things that are important in Atlanta and major issues that are urgent, but when it comes to the economic health and well-being of the people of Atlanta, the airport is the most important. The airport is not something that can be replaced with another initiative.’”
Following Jackson’s death, Franklin pushed through a measure to add Jackson’s name to the airport.
Those backing Atlanta control of the airport say the state is not immune to ethics controversies of its own; Gov. Nathan Deal hired his daughter for a six-figure job at the Georgia Lottery just before leaving office and an AJC investigation found state House Speaker David Ralston delayed criminal court cases by claiming the dates interfered with his legislative duties.
“I think race is the main issue,” said Rodney Strong, an attorney and supplier diversity expert who is chairman of Griffin & Strong and was director of contract compliance under Jackson. “I think there’s a lot of hostility, and the hostility has been there a long time from the state. And I think a lot of it is driven by racial animus. That’s how I see it.”
The airport would not become a cash cow for the state, at least not in the way one might expect. Federal restrictions prohibit airport money from being diverted to non-airport expenses.
But at stake is control of hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts — for things like the airport’s expansion, restaurants and shops and the ongoing work of keeping the terminal, concourses and airfield operating 24/7. Airport contractors are also a significant source of campaign contributions for city officials.
For those who do business with the city of Atlanta, there is deep concern that minority contracting could decline under a state-run airport.
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“We want to be able to protect black money, black dollars, so we can create black wealth,” said Adrienne White, who co-chaired a town hall meeting by the Atlanta Business League, a minority business developer, on the airport takeover issue.
When the airport’s terminal was built in the 1970s, Jackson determined that minorities should get 25 percent of the total contract dollars.
Franklin said Jackson’s thinking was, at the time, revolutionary.
“Business leaders were shocked at his suggestion that there be a change in how they do business and thought that he would change his mind,” Franklin recalled. “A year or two later they said came back and said, ‘we get it.’ Maynard stuck to his guns, because he knew that was the only way Atlanta could thrive.”
Now, airports across the country have minority contracting programs, to comply with the federal disadvantaged business enterprise program.
That also means a state-run airport would need to follow the same federal disadvantaged business enterprise program rules in order to qualify for federal grants.
Airport concessionaire Bill Swift, president of Business Traveler Services and a former director of purchasing under during Jackson’s administration, said the state has historically not shown the same level of interest in minority contracting as the city.
“They don’t have the background or the propensity to do what the city has been doing for 40 years,” Swift said. “So they have to play catch up at best.”
Tommy Dortch, a board member of the Atlanta Business League, said if the airport is handed over to the state, “the economic prosperity of middle class black folks and Latino folks will really start to dissipate.”
“This is probably the biggest issue for us in 50 years,” Dortch said
AN INSIDE TRACK
But some state senators have raised concerns that the airport is dominated by a small group of political insiders that have an inside track on contracts. They argue the airport should be run by an authority an arm’s length away from politics, rather than under the control of the Atlanta mayor.
As she voiced her support for a state takeover on the state Senate floor, Renee Unterman, R-Buford, described how she tried to help a vendor to get a kiosk selling pecans at the Atlanta airport.
“For six months I worked trying to be able to get a kiosk for this NGO, this nonprofit, for these girls to be able to sell” pecans from South Georgia, Unterman said. “It didn’t matter who you were or what you are, you’re not going to get in unless you get preferential treatment.”
One thing seems clear, politics is at play.
“The politics, I think of it, includes both party and race,” said Steve Van Beek, head of North American aviation for consulting firm Steer, who compared the state move to take over the Atlanta airport to a similar dispute in North Carolina over Charlotte’s airport. “It’s sort of the New South versus the Old South.”
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