Houston – Surrounded by a ring of reporters in steamy parking lot, former Vice President Joe Biden was midway through an answer about how he’d address systemic discrimination when he nodded to the woman standing at his right.
“I should let the mayor answer that – she deals with it in Atlanta every day,” he said.
That would be Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who wore a black shirt with stark white letters that read “HBCU” as she joined Biden on Friday to tour the student center of Texas Southern University in Houston.
No Georgia Democrat has played a more prominent role in promoting a White House hopeful than Bottoms, and her Texas trip to vouch for Biden during the third presidential debate demonstrated her growing commitment to his 2020 campaign.
Since she endorsed Biden in June, Bottoms has emerged as one of the Democratic front-runner’s leading supporters in the South.
She’s trekked to all three of the national debates to support Biden. She’s headlined a posh fundraiser for his campaign. She’s made the rounds on cable TV to plug his policies and defend his policy stances.
And later this week, Bottoms will spend three days circling South Carolina, where Biden hopes to build a firewall for his presidential bid in case he falters during the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
That first-in-the-South primary will hinge on black voters, who make up 60% of the state’s Democratic electorate, and Bottoms – the second black woman elected mayor in Atlanta history — is a part of Biden’s plan to fuel his support among minority voters.
Her endorsement, which made her one of the first Democratic officials in Georgia to choose a side, raised eyebrows in political circles. The timing didn't help either – it came hours after he struggled to respond at the first debate to a searing critique of his one-time opposition to mandatory busing of students.
But Bottoms has responded forcefully to criticism about her decision to back Biden over rivals calling for more strident change – including U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who both campaigned with her in Atlanta to support her mayoral bid.
She said she picked Biden because she sees him as the strongest candidate to defeat President Donald Trump, not to make a statement about the ideological divide over whether Democrats should seek modest changes or more structural overhauls of federal government.
“My husband gave me a great example. He said if you’ve got someone in the emergency room with a stab wound, you’re not looking for a facelift or a tummy tuck. You’re looking to stop the bleed,” she said in an interview in Houston.
“And Joe Biden is not only someone who can stop the bleed immediately, he can also take us to the next level.”
‘Right side of history’
A few weeks ago, Bottoms stood in the foyer of a Sandy Springs living room crammed with back-slapping candidates and high-dollar donors to welcome a special guest: The former vice president’s wife, Jill.
The mayor told the crowd of about 100 that Biden supporters were on the "right side of history" and said Biden's partnership with President Barack Obama created "one of the most progressive administrations in the history of the country."
As she uttered those words, only a handful of Georgia politicians had picked sides in the crowded presidential race — even some in the room hadn’t yet endorsed his bid.
Since then, though, dozens more Georgia office-holders have come off the sidelines – and many of them have backed Biden. Some of the endorsements echo Bottoms’ reasons for backing Biden long before Georgia’s March 24 primary.
"I like my politicians to be experienced and have a good chance at beating Trump," said state Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, a House Democratic leader and one of 26 African-American state legislators who backed Biden last week.
“The other candidates are great, but I’ve always leaned Joe – I agree more with his policies and way of thinking about governing.”
Credit: MICHAEL STARGHILL JR.
Credit: MICHAEL STARGHILL JR.
Atlanta mayors have had a long track record of hitting the campaign trail for presidential contenders.
Bottoms' predecessor, Kasim Reed, was one of the leading Southern surrogates for Obama, a relationship that helped him partner with state Republican leaders who needed his White House connections to help open doors in a Democratic administration.
He was so supportive of Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016 that rumors spread that he would be in line for a Cabinet appointment – perhaps the Secretary of Transportation – if she had won. Reed's name was even on a lengthy list of potential running-mates sent to the candidate.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said that Bottoms, a “seasoned campaigner” with several election victories under her belt, is following a familiar path.
“Other mayors have campaigned for their candidates in primaries: Andy Young for Jimmy Carter, Maynard Jackson for Walter Mondale and me for John Kerry and Barack Obama,” Franklin said. “I assume she will do as we did – which was to campaign for the party’s nominee, too.”
But her extensive campaigning leaves her vulnerable to criticism that she's spending too much time on the road and too little in City Hall, where an ongoing federal corruption probe and a debate about e-scooter use are just some of the issues her administration faces.
Former City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who was narrowly defeated by Bottoms in 2017 and could seek a rematch in two years, said the Democrat has been out of town so often that Alvin Kendall, a lawyer who is a mentor and adviser to Bottoms, "has become the shadow mayor."
“Good for her if she wants to support former Vice President Biden. He’s a good man,” said Norwood. “But our city needs full-time, hands-on leadership from our elected officials right now.”
Biden and Bottoms’ close relationship could pay off for both politicians, said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who was Obama’s southern regional director in 2012.
Johnson said Bottoms will “have a direct line into Biden’s office” and a say in his key policies, including his criminal justice plan and his infrastructure proposals. In exchange, he’ll get a devoted defender who will travel the South to appeal to African-American voters who will decide the election.
“She represents a key voting constituency for the Democratic party and with her high profile, she can go to key states for the vice president,” said Johnson. “They’ve known each other for a long time, and she’s capitalized on her relationship with him from the Obama administration. It’s a natural transition.”
During an interview a few feet from the gaggle of reporters encircling Biden, Bottoms said Democrats learned a hard lesson after Clinton emerged from a damaging primary in 2016 to lose to Trump.
“I don’t think we can leave this election up to chance. We had a solid candidate in 2016 and the numbers didn’t work out,” she said. “The better we consolidate around one candidate, the stronger we will be in November 2020.”