‘A reckoning’: Kasim Reed’s comeback collapses with third-place finish

Reed formally conceded Thursday
Atlanta mayoral candidate Kasim Reed speaks at his election night party early Wednesday. Reed conceded defeat later in the day. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta mayoral candidate Kasim Reed speaks at his election night party early Wednesday. Reed conceded defeat later in the day. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Kasim Reed entered the race for mayor in June at a glittering Buckhead fundraiser by declaring that he was a powerful force once more in Georgia politics. His comeback bid ended with a disappointing third-place finish behind a lesser-known councilman he boasted he would brush aside.

Reed formally conceded the race on Thursday and pledged to “continue to work on behalf of the city that I love to ensure that we remain that shining city on a hill.”

The former Atlanta mayor centered his campaign for a third term on a promise to curb the city’s rising crime rate, stop the movement to cleave off a Buckhead City and encourage more investment in the city.

But he couldn’t overcome the cloud of questions surrounding an ongoing corruption probe that has implicated a number of officials who served in his administration or the backlash from his cutthroat approach to local politics.

His finish behind City Council President Felicia Moore and Dickens, who will square off in a Nov. 30 runoff, was a stunning upset of a former Democratic star who had huge advantages: high visibility, a sizable fundraising edge, celebrity endorsements and strong positions in most public polls.

Reed was undone by scathing attacks from his rivals who said Reed’s return to City Hall would only extend the “most corrupt administration in Atlanta history” as well as an inability to rehabilitate an image with many of the city’s voters who saw him as toxic.

No matter how he tried to portray himself — doting father, irascible crime fighter, no-nonsense policy wonk — he couldn’t seem to bring down his negative ratings in polls.

And he wasn’t helped by a late focus on the plight of homeowners in the southeast Atlanta neighborhood of Peoplestown who battled with the Reed administration over an attempt to use eminent domain to acquire property that was at risk of destructive flooding. Both Dickens and Moore capitalized on the issue, framing Reed as a power-hungry despot.

Likewise, he was dinged by a rebuke from the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP and groups aligned with Stacey Abrams who were critical of Reed’s track record in office.

Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist, said the polling that showed Reed in the low 20s wasn’t necessarily wrong. What likely happened, she said, was that in the late stages of the race, a high number of undecided voters broke to Dickens and Moore.

Moore dominated in north Atlanta areas where Reed struggled in his 2009 bid, while Dickens finished in first or second in many of the majority-Black districts where the former mayor was expected to run up his tally.

“This was a reckoning for Reed,” Gillespie said.

It completes a stunning fall for a veteran politician who failed to convert his high visibility and financial firepower into a runoff slot. And it raises questions about whether Reed, who announced his campaign at his 52nd birthday party, will ever return to politics.

He has said little about his future since Tuesday, when he spoke of his passion for public service.

“I ran for mayor again because I love Atlanta. And it was breaking my heart to see what was happening to a city that had given me everything as a young man,” he told supporters late Tuesday, pleading for patience. “We have won close elections before. Just remember, it is not easy. But the city of Atlanta is worth it.”

Of emojis and celebrities

Just a few years ago, Reed was seen as a sure-fire candidate for higher office, perhaps for the U.S. Senate seat that Jon Ossoff ended up winning. He stoked that possibility repeatedly during his second term, remarking at various times that he expected to run statewide.

It wouldn’t have surprised anyone. While he was Atlanta’s mayor, Reed was a dominant force in Democratic politics. His close ties to Republican Gov. Nathan Deal — and frigid relationship with the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Jason Carter — was the stuff of political lore. He was a mainstay of proxy fights over the state Democratic Party’s leadership.

When he was the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, left, was a force in the state's Democratic politics while also sharing a close working relationship with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal that produced benefits for the city and the state. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

But that was before his political career took a sharp turn with the federal corruption investigation spanning his time running Atlanta City Hall. Seven Reed officials and four city contractors have been implicated, and prosecutors netted bribery convictions against two of his senior aides.

After he left office, Reed retreated so abruptly from the spotlight that a local TV station declared he was in “hiding.”

Reed was never charged with wrongdoing, and his attorneys say prosecutors consider the inquiry into him “closed.” But the probe relegated Reed to the sidelines in the 2018 and 2020 campaign cycles, as Raphael Warnock, Abrams and Ossoff took the reins of the ascendant Democratic coalition.

Reed resurfaced late last year, when he brought attention to Atlanta’s rising crime rates and scrutiny of his successor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, whom he endorsed in 2017. An emoji he posted on Twitter in December that implicitly criticized Bottoms set tongues wagging at City Hall.

Once Bottoms announced she wouldn’t seek a second term, Reed seemed certain to enter the race. He made it official at a soiree at Tyrese Gibson’s Buckhead mansion in June, declaring to supporters: “Tell L.A., tell New York, tell Charlotte, tell Dallas, tell Chicago and definitely tell Miami: I’m back.”

‘New and different’

On the campaign trail, Reed’s swagger was on vivid display. He painted his opponents as “all losers” and berated Dickens about his financial troubles whenever the councilman would swipe at him. His experience, he promised supporters, would make him the best candidate to stop rising crime, prevent a Buckhead City split and “get us through this difficult time.”

Rather than run away from his combative reputation, he embraced it. In one memorable debate moment, Reed nodded to an old campaign saw about likability.

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed speaks at the Atlanta Regional Mayoral Forum in October. While campaigning for his old job, Reed stressed that his experience made him the best candidate to stop rising crime, prevent a Buckhead City split and “get us through this difficult time.” But Reed had an image problem with many voters, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found. That included a federal probe into corruption at Atlanta City Hall while he was in charge, even though he himself was not under investigation. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

“I may not be the person you want to have a beer with,” he said. “But I am the person who can get you home to have a beer with the person you want to have it with.”

His problem was that many Atlanta voters couldn’t get past his divisive image.

“I think all of their policies are similar, but I think we need somebody new and different and I don’t think Kasim Reed is the person,” said Jessica Camerata, a 34-year-old Moore supporter in north Atlanta.

Reed had won close scrapes before. He narrowly defeated Mary Norwood in a 2009 runoff by 714 votes, the first of her two near misses. But the most recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll indicated why this race was bound to be a different sort of challenge.

Half the Atlanta electorate had an unfavorable view of the former mayor, along with two-thirds of white voters and a slight majority of Republicans. Only about one-third saw him in a positive light.

Complicating matters for Reed, about 61% of the poll’s respondents said the ongoing corruption probe made it “less likely” for them to support him. That included 85% of white voters and two-thirds of Republicans.

At his election watch party, Reed told reporters that he was keeping in mind sage advice from his late father — “don’t get too high or too low” — as the returns rolled in. Addressing his allies a few hours later, he tried to put a brave face on his lackluster support.

“When we started this journey more than 140 days ago, I said that it will be worth it,” he said. “I didn’t say that it will be easy.”

— Staff writers Anjali Huynh, Adrianne Murchison and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.