OPINION: Can Hizzoner save Atlanta? Ex (and next?) mayor says he can

Former Mayor Kasim Reed, pictured Thursday after an interview at Colony Square, said rampant crime has caused him to come out of political retirement and run for his old office. Photo by Bill Torpy
Former Mayor Kasim Reed, pictured Thursday after an interview at Colony Square, said rampant crime has caused him to come out of political retirement and run for his old office. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is back, running for his old job. It would be an understatement to say things have gotten real interesting since Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tossed in the towel last month, essentially saying: One term is enough!

Reed is campaigning to plop down in the chair he had to surrender because the law limits Atlanta chieftains to two consecutive terms. He pushed hard for Bottoms four years ago because he had to support somebody other than the fellow he sees in the mirror each morning while shaving.

He said in an interview Thursday he probably would not have run against Bottoms. But then again, he was out there in late April on the radio, needling the current administration by talking about crime being “unacceptable,” an opinion even Bottoms agrees with.

The following week, Bottoms let the world know she was done.

Cause and effect? Bottoms told me Reed “was a non-factor” in her decision.

“I’m sure he has polled, just as I have, which is likely the reason he announced after I got out,” she said. “With a nearly 70% approval rating and the support of President Joe Biden, it is highly unlikely that any candidate would have succeeded against me, especially one with a very high negative approval rating.”

Ouch.

It probably would be hard to unseat the current mayor. But the population is scared and angry about crime in Atlanta’s streets, and it’s doubtful that Bottoms has anywhere near the pain threshold that her predecessor has when it comes to a bloody campaign. In fact, Reed has bragged to associates about how much pain he can take and mete out, and perhaps it was his plan to make his already unhappy successor even more uncomfortable.

If so, the plan worked and he’s back in the hunt.

Then-candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms and then-mayor Kasim Reed on Oct. 30, 2017, in Atlanta. (Kevin D. Liles/The New York Times)
Then-candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms and then-mayor Kasim Reed on Oct. 30, 2017, in Atlanta. (Kevin D. Liles/The New York Times)

I spent 90 minutes Thursday at Colony Square in Midtown talking with Hizzoner, which is probably 87 minutes more than we spent talking in the last four years of his administration because we just didn’t get along. Our discussion was in advance of his grand birthday bash where (part of) the world was waiting to hear from his lips, “I’m back.”

Most of us hope to get a nice dinner or a comfy pair of slacks for our birthdays. Reed was getting $1,000 a plate — or even donations of up to $4,300, the legal limit you can contribute to a political candidate.

“I’m a better person,” he said, which may not be a Herculean task because he was not the most likable person before. He said the death of his father and time away from office have allowed him to decompress. It took a year, he said, because he was wound up so tight being mayor. He said he couldn’t pull up to an intersection or enter an airport without thinking of something that needed fixing.

“If you look at my life, so much of it was in politics,” he said. “Politics is an aggressive, confrontational business, and it cannot help but to shape your personality. Being away from it was healthy.”

ExploreFormer Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed officially announces reelection bid

Why the return? (Other than being mayor is part of Reed’s genetic makeup.) He talked about the city being a tapestry that is unraveling, “and it will be difficult to put it back together.”

He thinks the movement to create a new city of Buckhead has legs and will devastate Atlanta unless something is done to limit crime. The secession will pull away 40% of Atlanta’s revenue. “If you believe in good schools and don’t think this is a big deal, then you don’t understand basic math,” he said.

Crime is “the No. 1, 2 and 3 issue” in the race, he said. And the plan to close the city’s jail is a bad idea. “It’s the wrong message to criminals that you’re closing the jail,” he said. “I took crime extremely personally and that’s how mayors should feel.”

He said the city’s relationship with police officers must be restored. “They deserved to be supported; they deserve to be at a full complement.” He was referring to having 2,000 officers on the force. There are now fewer than 1,700. The Atlanta Police Department lost scores of officers after the protests and riots last year, and there has been a feeling the current mayor didn’t have their back.

Crime tape remained at the scene at the 2300 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta on May 27, 2021, where Atlanta police are investigating after one man was fatally shot and another was found with a stab wound in the same southwest Atlanta neighborhood. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Crime tape remained at the scene at the 2300 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta on May 27, 2021, where Atlanta police are investigating after one man was fatally shot and another was found with a stab wound in the same southwest Atlanta neighborhood. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

I must add here that officers in the APD largely could not stand Reed, complaining that pay raises were rare and pension cuts meant that many cops who would have stayed didn’t.

Reed spoke in a half-hour soliloquy about where he was in his own head, while describing his accomplishments in office, the same things he’s said for years: “The lowest crime rate in 40 years. The highest cash reserves in history. And the best relationship with the state of Georgia.”

I changed the subject, saying he needed to address the image he forged during his eight years in office — “hard-headed, hard-charging and a bully.” Some of that image admittedly came from my columns because, well, that’s what I saw.

His response? Refer back to the “I’m a better man” quote.

And then there’s the ongoing federal corruption probe that started in 2015 and has pulled in about a dozen city officials and vendors. Former U.S. Attorney B.J. Pak spoke many times about a “culture of corruption” at City Hall and that it starts from the top.

Reed noted that as mayor he oversaw 9,000 people and couldn’t monitor them all. I pointed out that it wasn’t exactly garbagemen and codes inspectors getting swooped up. It was his chief financial officer, his chief procurement officer, the deputy chief of staff, and the head of the water department, among others.

“This was their personal behaviors,” he said. One, he noted, was going into a bathroom to get payoffs. Another was buying machine guns on the city dime. He contends that there was no systematic pay-to-play scheme, and that he was fully investigated and has not been charged.

“After more than three years of it, the Trump administration’s Justice Department did not take any action against me,” he said. “I said that I would cooperate in every way and that’s what I have done. I have not walked around talking about my woes.”

In early 2019, The Atlanta Journal Constitution and Channel 2 Action News wrote that the city had spent about $7 million in lawyers’ fees responding to the investigation. And there has been nearly 30 months of lawyering and responding since, which is pretty expensive cooperating.

There was the $90,000 trip to South Africa, a junket Reed said was a legit business trip to boost business connections with Africa. Of course, several on the trip flew the equivalent of first class. After the media made a stink, about $40,000 of the trip was later repaid through a byzantine arrangement with a nonprofit tied to the city’s development authority, Invest Atlanta.

The $40,000 came from a city account that held money from raises that Reed had deferred and set aside to give to charities. Only this time he got the City Council to approve funds to Invest Atlanta’s charity, which was designed to raise money for affordable housing and job creation, which then gave it back to the city to pay for the fancy plane rides.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, standing in front of boxes of documents related to the City Hall bribery investigation during a February 2017 press conference. (HENRY TAYLOR / AJC file photo)
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, standing in front of boxes of documents related to the City Hall bribery investigation during a February 2017 press conference. (HENRY TAYLOR / AJC file photo)

Reed likens it to the chamber of commerce paying for a business trip.

And there was the $500,000 in bonuses and gifts handed out to senior staff members and even his security detail as he headed out of office. Several of those people repaid the money after, again, the media made a stink. But Reed defends the largesse, saying his team did a good job (see above: lowest crime, highest cash reserves). He does admit he should have brought it to the City Council for approval.

“Folks will look at my entire record,” he said. “I’m the most vetted person in this campaign. No one has been what I’ve been through.”

And now some other mayoral candidates will be going through their own ordeal as Reed, a go-for-the-throat campaigner, joins the race.

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