OPINION: Andre Dickens wants the job

220103-Atlanta-Andre Dickens takes the oath of office as he is sworn in as Mayor of Atlanta during his inauguration ceremony at Georgia Tech on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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220103-Atlanta-Andre Dickens takes the oath of office as he is sworn in as Mayor of Atlanta during his inauguration ceremony at Georgia Tech on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

My main takeaway from attending the inauguration of Andre Dickens on Monday was, “Wow, this guy really wants the job.”

There he was, dressed in a trim black suit, pocket square, and no overcoat on the blustery 35-degree day, practically exploding with enthusiasm at the work he was about to undertake.

“I stand here today as living proof that a little kid from Adamsville could dare to dream to be mayor and grow up to fulfill that dream by becoming the 61st mayor of Atlanta!” he said with a wide smile.

Thanking God for the chance, the 47-year old delivered what must have been the first inaugural speech to mention block chain and NFT’s as if to prove he’s a new generation of leadership in the city.

But he also rattled off all of the unsexy, unglamorous parts of the job that make being a big city mayor one of the hardest, most thankless roles in government — fighting crime, picking up trash, fixing sidewalks, updating 911 operations, maintaining sewers and park equipment, tackling homelessness …the list goes on and on and on.

Dickens presents an unusually sunny persona for these dark days and there’s no missing the contrast between his eagerness to get the keys to City Hall and Keisha Lance Bottoms’ pained decision last year to leave office after just one term and the drudgery that seemed to follow after that.

She recently told New York magazine about the mindset she was in when she opted out of running for reelection.

“My assessment has not been any different than Simone Biles’s or Naomi Osaka’s or Calvin Ridley’s, any number of other people who said, ‘I’m putting my emotional and mental health first,’ " she said.

If there is any previous mayor whom the new one may sound like, with his focus on the nuts and bolts of the job, it’s former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. And that’s no coincidence.

Franklin has known Dickens since he was a teenager and friend of her late son, Cabral, when both young men were students at Benjamin E. Mays High School.

Cabral Franklin grew to be a respected political strategist in his own right and ran Dickens’ 2013 campaign for city council.

By Franklin’s telling, Cabral brought Dickens’ resume to his mother, who was Atlanta mayor by then, and said, “Mom, Andre’s going to run for city council.”

Franklin said Dickens impressed her from their first meeting as someone who could eventually rise to be mayor or some other higher role.

“It was clear in that first conversation and looking at his resume, that he has a deep passion for service,” Franklin told me. “This is not just something you do to take the next step. He actually has a passion for service.”

Franklin was reluctant to list the achievements that she’s proud of from her time in office, but she’s widely credited with restoring the city to ethical, functional operations after Bill Campbell’s administration became bogged down in scandal.

She also understood that city services often are so taken for granted that nobody notices them until something goes wrong, so she famously launched her “Pothole Patrol,” to fill Atlanta’s pockmarked streets and revamped its aging sewer system.

In his speech Monday, Dickens called Franklin, “One of my strongest supporters, the first woman mayor of Atlanta, who had the temerity and courage to restore the public trust in government, tackle the neglected issues of improving our infrastructure, and create new and vibrant Atlanta institutions such as the BeltLine.”

Sounding a lot like Franklin, Dickens also promised to return respect to city workers and “treat all residents like the most valuable customers that they are.”

“Atlanta, you should expect a clean, well-run city,” he said.

Another key player in Dickens’ next four years was sworn in Monday, too — newly elected city council president Doug Shipman, who has also known Franklin since his days as a pro-bono consultant for Franklin’s effort to launch the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Shipman went on to be the first CEO of the Center and worked with both Franklin and Dickens, who was a board member there.

Shipman now sees his and Dickens’ roles as somewhat reversed, with Dickens as chief executive and him topping the city council, but told me their previous work together bodes well for a functional relationship between the mayor and council, which hasn’t always been the case.

“It’s a little bit like a board of directors and a CEO in the sense that the Chair of the Board has a role for oversight and transparency,” Shipman said. “But also a chair of a board is invested in making sure the CEO is successful. My interest is in trying to make sure that the city is successful.”

For as much as Dickens focused on the bones of governance in his speech, he made clear that he understood that this mayor of Atlanta has a larger, and even existential, task at hand, too, as the person most responsible for keeping the city whole in the face of the Buckhead cityhood effort.

Keeping Atlanta united will be both his and Shipman’s top priorities, along with tackling the citywide crime at the root of some Buckhead residents’ search for a way out.

“We don’t need separate cities,” Dickens said twice for emphasis. “We need one city with the same bright future.”

There’s no way to know now if Dickens will be successful in keeping Atlanta united, or in reducing homelessness, or finding jobs for the chronically unemployed, or reducing violent crime in an era where guns are plentiful and tempers are short.

But the chances of success for any new mayor of Atlanta will be exponentially higher if it’s a job they want to be doing.

And Atlanta, Andre Dickens wants the job.

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