Why top contenders for Atlanta mayor want to repair city-state rift



The latest clash between Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was sharp, headline-grabbing and not at all surprising. After the mayor revived a mask mandate, the governor called the decision “ridiculous” and a fresh war of words ensued.

The now-predictable squabbling served up a fresh reminder of the tense city-state dynamic over the past 2 1/2 years of Kemp’s tenure — and underscored how the race to succeed Bottoms in November could offer a chance to rekindle cozier ties between the Gold Dome and City Hall.

It’s hard to imagine the relationship getting much worse. Kemp, a first-term Republican, has stoked his conservative base by framing Bottoms as a do-nothing mayor who has let crime get out of hand. Bottoms, a Democrat who was a campaign surrogate for President Joe Biden, has hit right back, calling Kemp’s pandemic response “reckless” and deadly.

The leading contenders for mayor promise a fresh take at city-state relations and, in some cases, a total reset of a dynamic that has important implications for the state and its capital city.

At stake are coveted economic development prizes and big federal projects that are easier to win if leaders are on the same page, along with a chance for a more unified approach to challenges ranging from the coronavirus pandemic to severe weather crises.

A closer kinship also pays other dividends for the city, namely in the form of fewer threats of interference from the state. As ties between Kemp and Bottoms fray, momentum builds behind new efforts in the Legislature to give the state control over Atlanta’s airport and a push to carve out a city of Buckhead.

The candidates, however, must also figure out how to deal with a governor who has tried to curry favor with conservatives by throwing elbows at Atlanta’s mayor, especially on issues of crime — and a 2022 election that could extend Kemp’s tenure or end with a Democrat in the job for the first time in two decades.

Few know the challenges better than former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat who enjoyed a close friendship with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal over two terms in office.

Now making a comeback bid, Reed said he’d focus on rekindling that partnership to protect Atlanta’s interests by taking a nonconfrontational strategy with the governor. The public sniping, he said, would come to an end.

“We focused on the 20% of things we agreed on, and when you are rowing in the same direction, you can achieve great things,” Reed said. “And in areas you disagree, you can take positions and maintain them without taking a direct oppositional approach.”

He’s not alone in the strategy. Each of the top contenders for City Hall committed to improving the relationship with state leaders, though they varied on how aggressively they would pursue a recalibration.

City Council President Felicia Moore, one of Reed’s most formidable rivals, said she’d build on the solid footing with Kemp that she’s established through work in civic organizations such as the Georgia Municipal Association.

“I don’t come to this starting with a bad relationship with Kemp,” Moore said. “I’d work with him to make sure we keep it respectful. We don’t always have to agree, but if you don’t agree, there are ways to disagree. And the best thing is to make sure no one is caught off guard.”

Burying the hatchet

Roughly 300 steps divide the Gold Dome and City Hall, but sometimes it seems like the two buildings are miles apart. No matter the political party, state politicians stuck to a principle that paid dividends at the ballot box: Feuding with Atlanta helped energize their base.

That stressed relationship turned toxic during the 1960s, when the rivalry between Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen and Gov. Lester Maddox affected the state’s reputation and complicated gains in the civil rights movement.

The contrast between the business-friendly mayor and segregationist governor was never sharper than during the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968. The governor called out 160 state troopers to cordon off the state Capitol during the procession. Allen ordered City Hall to be draped in black bunting.

Credit: AJC Staff

Credit: AJC Staff

Allen’s successor, Sam Massell, took steps to ease tensions by doling out free tickets and advice to legislators. When legislators voted to allow DeKalb and Fulton counties to levy a sales tax to fund the MARTA transit system, Massell triumphantly buried a small hatchet in the lawn outside City Hall.

“I’ll admit that at one time I lost patience with (Maddox) and called him some profanity publicly,” Massell said. But when it came to a reconciliation, “I had to make it happen. The moral of the story is, you overtly work to build a relationship.”

Still, local officials and state leaders were often at odds with one another. Perennial efforts to privatize the airport proliferated at the Capitol, as did proposals aimed at blocking the city’s expansion as Republicans took the reins of power.

Some of the iciness seemed to thaw as Gov. Sonny Perdue, the first GOP governor in Georgia since Reconstruction, and Mayor Shirley Franklin established a working relationship.

“We talked offline, just face to face, on more than one occasion on issues that were a joint concern,” especially water and sewer issues, Franklin said. “We had open lines of communication.”

Over the years, though, the tensions never fully went away, even as the city’s leaders found ways to collaborate with governors to promote international investment in the city and state, and attract landmark events, such as the 1996 Olympic Games.

Credit: Chris Seward

Credit: Chris Seward

The past decade saw a new era of cooperation between Deal and Reed that was the toast of the city’s business community. The two headlined a push for the $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, tag-teamed the lobbying to deepen Savannah’s port and helped close major economic development deals.

The two were so cozy that Deal’s longtime chief of staff, Chris Riley, donated to Reed’s reelection campaign in 2013 — and Reed predicted Deal would win a second term over a Democrat 18 months before the vote.

Riley said the alliance paid behind-the-scenes dividends as well. When Deal and then-Delta Air Lines Chief Executive Richard Anderson couldn’t see eye to eye, it was Reed who helped negotiate a truce.

And Reed served as a key liaison to the Obama administration for Georgia when every statewide office was controlled by Republicans.

“When the two went to Washington together, the takeaway was: How in the world can anyone tell you two no when this is how people think government is supposed to work?” Riley said.

‘Stay on it’

Politics, though, seem even more polarized and partisan now. To Deal’s chagrin, Kemp took repeated shots at Bottoms during his 2018 campaign, while the mayor fired back saying she doesn’t “take advice from people who hold shotguns at children.”

The sparring only accelerated during the pandemic, leading to a brief legal battle that sought to block the city’s mask mandate. And they bickered over the state’s deployment of the Georgia National Guard on Atlanta’s streets.

The war of words has shifted since then, with Kemp and other Republicans blaming Bottoms for a spike in metro Atlanta crime — a preferred talking point for GOP figures ahead of the 2022 elections.

At a press conference Tuesday, Bottoms said solving issues of crime and public health falls to the governor since Kemp is the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

“The governor and I work on things we can agree on,” the mayor said. “Those things that we can’t, we’ll lead as we always have.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Even with the testy ties with Kemp, Bottoms can claim accomplishments at the state level. She fended off recent attempts to weaken the city’s control of the airport, and secured the public framework for a $5 billion overhaul of the Gulch in downtown Atlanta with state backing.

Her aides note that city and state agencies work well together despite the tension at the top. And Bottoms has used her rapport with Biden to help lock in millions of dollars in direct stimulus funding to the city.

Cathy Woolard, a former City Council president and third-place finisher in the 2017 mayoral race, said she doubted it’s possible for any mayoral candidate to repair the relationship.

“Frankly, in this atmosphere, I’m not even sure it’s possible with this governor,” she said.

The top mayoral contenders acknowledge it won’t be easy. Sharon Gay, an attorney, said she’d leverage bipartisan groups such as the Georgia Municipal Association and the Metro Atlanta Mayors Association to promote broader initiatives to the Legislature.

Councilman Antonio Brown said he’d push “beyond partisan politics” by meeting monthly with the governor and state legislative leaders to discuss city priorities. And Councilman Andre Dickens promised a muscular approach to the city’s priorities.

“We need to work together with the other side when possible but not be afraid to oppose them on things like voter suppression and interfering with local control — whether it’s the city’s approach to COVID-19 or the takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and the county election board,” he said.

Reed, who served with Kemp in the state Senate in the 2000s, said the bonds between the city and state don’t have to be a “love fest.” But even a marginal improvement would reap rewards for both the city and the state, he said.

“If the relationship was half as good — even a third as good — as it was when I was in office, it would be better,” Reed said. “It’s a relationship that might be hard. But we’ve got to stay on it.”

A look at how the top candidates for Atlanta mayor would approach city-state relations:

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Councilman Antonio Brown:

“A healthy relationship between a governor and mayor should be expected in the interest of its citizens. Protecting our fellow Atlantans falls beyond partisan politics. That said, the mayor of Atlanta’s job is to fight for what’s in the best interests of the citizens of Atlanta. I would gladly welcome a collaborative partnership with the governor’s office and coordinate monthly meetings along with our cabinets as mayor. Additionally, I will attend monthly briefings with the state House of Representatives to discuss business with the city along with speaker of the House.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Councilman Andre Dickens:

“As mayor, I will stand up for city voters’ values while also committing to thawing relations with whoever is governor —Republican or Democrat — to do what’s right for the city. We need to work together with the other side when possible but not be afraid to oppose them on things like voter suppression, and interfering with local control — whether it’s the city’s approach to COVID-19 or the takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and the county election board.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Attorney Sharon Gay:

“My priority would be to promote the best interests of the city of Atlanta. No matter who occupies the governor’s seat, a solid working relationship between the mayor and the governor is important for the vitality of the city and the state, particularly when we have policy and political differences. Additionally, believing that there is strength in bipartisan numbers, I would work closely with the Georgia Municipal Association and the Metro Atlanta Mayors Association to promote the collective, nonpartisan interests of metro Atlanta and urban centers throughout Georgia.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Council President Felicia Moore

“I’ve made many relationships at the Capitol. That doesn’t mean you always agree with each other. But the question is how do you disagree. And that’s kind of where we’ve gone off track. No matter who the governor is, there’s no reset button to push. I have a respectful relationship. I’d work with him to make sure we keep a respectful relationship. And if we disagree, we do it in a way to make sure it doesn’t boil over.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed

“You’ve always got to remember the city is a creation of the state. The number of things the state can do to harm the city you’re responsible for — visible and invisible — is too many to count. You’ve got to remember you’re not the mayor of San Francisco or Chicago. You’re the mayor of Atlanta, and your job is to deliver for the people of Atlanta. And if you don’t spend time in the state’s crosshairs, you don’t end up with a referendum for the city of Buckhead in 2022.”