OPINION: Can the Brian Kemp, Keisha Lance Bottoms relationship be saved?

Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms have had a rocky relationship lately.
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Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms have had a rocky relationship lately.

Credit: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

In 2017, as Keisha Lance Bottoms was locked in a battle to become Atlanta’s next mayor, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that preserving the city’s relationship with the Governor’s office would be a top priority.

“We are not Washington. We really need to be on the same page for the city to be great, for the state to be great,” Bottoms said.

But fast forward to 2021, and Bottoms is finishing out her first and only term as mayor in an open feud with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, with each pointing fingers at the other as Atlanta recovers from the COVI-19 pandemic, but endures an ongoing wave of violent crime.

Battles between Atlanta and the governor’s office are nothing new in Georgia. Attacking the city has been a go-to move to activate a base of rural, mostly white voters almost as long as Atlanta has existed.

Gov. Eugene Talmadge and his son, Herman, both used to gripe about “them lyin’ Atlanta newspapers.” (That’s our predecessors at the AJC, if you’re keeping track).

Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell once wrote “F-Lester Maddox” about Gov. Lester Maddox on a steel I-beam after years of bad blood between the two, Massell told his biographer.

Other governors fought other Atlanta mayors, but race, class and the now-dead county unit system eventually took a backseat to a more frequent business-first mantra between the city and the state.

The Kasim Reed-Nathan Deal duo may have been the high watermark. The Bottoms-Kemp one, fueled by partisan strife and political ambitions, is heading for the new low.

The latest blows between the two have been on cable news, naturally.

When Bottoms appeared on MSNBC last week to talk about the crime in Atlanta, she pointed to state and federal gun laws, as well as Kemp’s orders to open Georgia business last spring, as primary culprits.

Kemp, who is now running for reelection and facing a GOP primary, responded on Fox News, he said it is Atlanta policies. not state laws, causing the problems.

“People are fed up with having leaders blaming someone else for problems they have in their own jurisdiction,” Kemp said. “Quite honestly. I know I’m fed up with it.”

If it looks bad from the outside, it seems even worse on the inside, where a source close to Kemp says his frustration with Bottoms is borne out of a sense that she put her political considerations, including a possible role in the Biden administration, ahead of the city’s best interests during the events of the year.

Bottoms office did not respond to requests to comment on Kemp or her relationship with him.

How did we get here?

Things between Bottoms and Kemp started out on a brighter note in December of 2018.

Kemp, fresh off a victory in the governor’s race, walked the block and a half from the state Capitol to City Hall to see the mayor.

The two had scrapped during the governor’s race, but the walk to City Hall was meant to be a reset button with the mayor, “a show of respect and deference to the relationship that city and state leaders have,” a Kemp ally said. Functions between the two moved along reasonably well after that.

But that changed in the spring and summer of 2020 as Bottoms and Kemp engaged in a constant tug of war over COVID restrictions, and later, over policing and public safety following the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and ultimately 8-year-old Secoriea Turner.

Over Memorial Day weekend, after Bottoms famously urged unruly and violent protestors at CNN Center to go home, Kemp declared a state of emergency and deployed the Georgia National Guard, at Bottoms request he explained, to “protect people and property in Atlanta.”

A month later, after the death of Brooks and Turner near an Atlanta Wendy’s restaurant, Kemp again deployed Guard troops, this time over the mayor’s objections. He said the Guard would protect state facilities in and around Atlanta.

While the governor and mayor clashed over policing, they simultaneously battled over masks and public health, with Kemp going so far as to sue Bottoms and request a gag order to keep her from speaking out in favor of mask mandates over his objections.

Relations between the two weren’t improved by the 2020 elections, but they were overshadowed — first by Joe Biden’s historic victory in the state, and then by Donald Trump’s non-stop campaign to destroy Kemp.

Her decision in the spring not to run for reelection also seems to have taken some of the heat out of their fights, but it hasn’t changed the urgency of the crises Atlanta is facing, with its mayor and its governor still mired in a state of dysfunction.

When I asked Kemp’s office about the relationship between Kemp and the Bottoms, Kemp’s spokeswoman focused on the issues facing the city and next mayor of Atlanta instead.

“The Governor looks forward to working closely with whoever is elected to solve these pressing issues for Atlanta,” she said.

Former mayor Kasim Reed recently spoke to Mara Davis and state Sen. Jen Jordan on their VoteHer podcast, and pointed to the dysfunction between Kemp and Bottoms as one of the primary reasons he’s getting into the race .

“I think that the relationship between the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta is the worst I’ve seen it in my lifetime, whether people realize it or not, that is a critical relationship to their everyday lives.”

We’ll find out eventually who the next mayor will be, and part of the campaign should focus on how that person plans to get along with Kemp and the governor after that.

But Atlantans shouldn’t have to wait for six months for its two top leaders to cooperate when the realities facing the city demand the opposite.

To paraphrase Bottoms in 2017, we need our leaders to be on the same page, not just for the city to be great, but for it to survive at all.