Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mayor Kasim Reed. (Kevin D. Liles/The New York Times)

Bottoms begins to distance herself from Reed in Atlanta mayoral race

It seemed the perfect opportunity for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to slam a bitter rival.

Days earlier, he had called Atlanta mayoral contender Mary Norwood and City Council President Ceasar Mitchell “losers” after they appeared together at a joint press conference. And just as he was wrapping up an event Monday, news broke that former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin also backed Norwood.

Instead, after he was informed of the news by an aide, he declined to make an immediate comment. There was no scathing statement later in the day from his office about the former candidates rallying around Norwood to oppose his preferred candidate, Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms.

And when he did comment, he steered clear of the biting rhetoric he’s used previously during the campaign.

“Democrats at home & across America are supporting Keisha Lance Bottoms’ campaign,” he wrote in one post touting the endorsement of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Today would be a terrific day to early vote for Keisha Lance Bottoms. We need 60K votes,” he wrote in another.

Reed’s endorsement of Bottoms in early October — and his bruising attacks on her rivals — helped her emerge from a crowded field of contenders in the November vote and gave her access to his donors. But he seems to be playing a more understated role in the final days of the campaign.

In a lengthy statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Reed focused on the other Democrats who have supported Bottoms and painted Norwood as a Republican — but he didn’t take aim at the string of former contenders, many of whom he criticized during the campaign, who backed Norwood.

In the past week, former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, ex-Atlanta official Peter Aman and former City Council President Cathy Woolard joined Franklin and Mitchell to support Norwood. And ex-state Sen. Vincent Fort refused to pick a side.

Norwood’s new supporters said they picked her because of her experience and policy proposals and not because of their own clashes with the mayor.

Reed and Norwood have battled as well, and it’s turned personal. The two squared off in 2009, with Norwood losing by roughly 700 votes, and she later accused Reed’s campaign of widescale voter manipulation to defeat her. Reed has cast Bottoms as the only candidate to “continue the progress” — and Norwood as a threat to his accomplishments in office.

Several of Norwood’s new high-profile supporters have suggested that Reed’s involvement has complicated Bottoms’ race.

Woolard, the third-place finisher in November’s contest, said Reed’s outspoken comments throughout the race have made it more difficult for Bottoms to run as her own candidate.

“It’s made it much harder for her to be heard in her own voice, and that’s unfortunate,” Woolard said shortly after holding a forum with both candidates to help make up her mind. “And that’s why I wanted her to have an opportunity in this group to be able to speak about it.”

Bottoms isn’t holding Reed at arm’s length, but she has more vigorously sought to put daylight between her and the mayor. When she invoked Reed’s name at a Tuesday forum, it was to push back at attacks that paint her as a puppet of the incumbent.

“This will not be a third term for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed,” Bottoms said. “I will not be controlled by anyone when I become mayor of the city. We need to put to bed this conversation because the mayor is not responsible for me. I’m not a pixie dust candidate. I’m an independent candidate with an independent mind.”

Bottoms has also sought other ways to burnish her independence. Her latest TV ad scrolls through a series of her high-profile endorsements but doesn’t include Reed, who played a prominent role in her earlier spots. And her policy proposals reflect a shift as well.

She once regularly said that just “a few bad apples” created a cloud of suspicion and led to a federal corruption probe of City Hall. This week, she took a different tack by unveiling a major ethics package that includes an independently funded chief compliance officer to enforce transparency rules.

As Tuesday’s vote nears, some political strategists have encouraged Reed to take a quieter role in the campaign even as they point to signs of his popularity.

Internal polls, they say, show him with high approval ratings. He is one of the most prominent Democrats in the state, a reliable draw on the campaign trail and a magnet for media coverage.

In the statement, Reed said not to expect him to shirk from speaking his mind about the race.

“I have not been shy about talking to you or anyone about this campaign, and I don’t plan to be,” the mayor said. “I have exercised my rights as a citizen, as have others. I endorsed prior to the general election because Keisha Lance Bottoms is the most qualified candidate to be the next mayor of the city of Atlanta.”

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