Fixer, Charmer, Builder, Mayor
Fourteen hours with Kasim Reed, the man who can't stop trying to fix our city
By Thomas Lake
Photograph by David Walter Banks
The mayor of Atlanta lives alone on a hill at the edge of the city, in a five-bedroom house that serves as a hotel. He is rarely seen there, except on Sundays or when he’s asleep, four to six hours a night, and even then police watch the house in rotating shifts. No wonder he keeps the blinds drawn.
August 10 is a Tuesday, the 219th day of his administration, and a white sun lights the pines on the crest of the hill. In the driveway, two men fiddle with their BlackBerrys next to a black Ford Taurus with tinted windows. One is the mayor’s deputy press secretary. The other is a bodyguard, with barrel torso, dark suit, earpiece. The men wait for the mayor because it is their job to wait for the mayor and also because these are the only minutes all day he will truly have to himself. And so, although Delta is the largest airline in America, and although Delta’s presence in Atlanta has been a crucial part of the city’s rise to international prominence, and although the mayor has an eight o’clock meeting with the CEO of Delta, and although the mayor is in moderate danger of being late to that very meeting, nobody tries to hurry him up.
Educated guesses can be made about what he’s doing in there. Drinking his breakfast, in all likelihood—twelve ounces of straight Coca-Cola. Reading the New York Times and the Financial Times. Putting on his tailored Tom Ford suit, black, with a jacket that broadens his shoulders, and tying the tie with a four-in-hand knot that sweeps from his left to his right. In any case, he is preparing. The mayor has said that he is neither particularly smart nor particularly talented—whether or not he believes it, this self-deprecation is obviously false—and that he has made his achievements by working harder and preparing more thoroughly than everyone else. “I think you should work as hard as you can humanly withstand when you’re young,” he has said, and there is no doubt he lives by these words. Kasim Reed is forty-one years old, fifteen years younger than the average mayor among the ten largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Of those ten, the only one younger than Reed is Adrian Fenty, age thirty-nine, of the District of Columbia, with whom Reed regularly exchanges text messages. But Fenty is a triathlete with a wife and three young children. Reed has no wife, children, pets, or discernible hobbies other than the occasional late-night jog. (He used to enjoy swimming, but he has no time for that anymore.) Thus, he can serve the city with a single-minded dedication that borders on monasticism. He worked fifteen hours on Monday and will work twelve more on Wednesday. Today’s workday will last fourteen hours. This is not an especially busy week.
The black Ford Taurus makes a granular hum as it idles in the driveway. The temperature will rise to ninety-five degrees by late afternoon but now the air is cool, if a little heavy. At 7:41 a.m. the front door opens and the mayor swaggers down the front walk. He stands six feet tall, 210 pounds, thirty-five pounds softer than he was in college, with minuscule threads of white in his short black hair and a crease near his left eye from the day more than thirty years ago when a Coke bottle shattered and a shard of glass pierced his cheek.
“Need to stop anywhere, sir?” asks the bodyguard, Investigator Craig Cooper, driving out of the subdivision with the mayor in the backseat. He asks this question even though it’s 7:44 and they have twelve miles to go through rush-hour traffic and only sixteen minutes to do it.
“No,” Reed says, scanning the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Reese,” he says, handing one of his two BlackBerrys to Reese McCranie, the deputy press secretary in the front seat, “would you plug that in, and turn up the air?”
McCranie complies, and Reed turns to his other BlackBerry. Investigator Cooper guides the Taurus onto Interstate 285 and presses the accelerator. The speedometer approaches 90 miles per hour. Cooper drove Mayor Shirley Franklin before Reed, and Mayor Bill Campbell before Franklin, with a brief side job as Mike Tyson’s bodyguard. Now he drives with ruthless precision, weaving from lane to lane, inches from rear bumpers, always in control. If you’ve ever been cut off on a road in Atlanta by a black Ford Taurus with tinted windows, there is some chance you’ve just come close to meeting the mayor.
At 7:55 the Taurus pulls off Interstate 20 to wait at a red light in a long line of cars. The mayor pauses his telephone conversation.
“Coop,” he says, “would you go around this? I wanna go!”
Coop goes around it. He pulls into an empty right-turn-only lane, drives parallel to the thicket of cars, and sweeps past them in a wide left turn. It’s 7:58 when he passes through the gates to a garage under City Hall. Reed gets out of the car and enters a secure elevator. McCranie hands him the freshly charged second BlackBerry. Reed gets off the elevator and walks toward his office. He has an eight o’clock meeting with the CEO of Delta Air Lines, and he arrives at exactly eight o’clock.
There are days when the mayor eats nothing until 4 p.m. This happened a week earlier, when he had a press conference in the noon hour and then sat at his desk signing papers between one and two when he should have been eating lunch. He keeps the papers in neat stacks, and they move in a C-shaped pattern: newest at the bottom right, oldest at the top right. So he sat there going through them and thinking about lunch—soul food from the Busy Bee Cafe? Beefsteak tomato salad from Morton’s?—until it was too late because his two o’clock appointment was there. Eventually, a little before his four o’clock, McCranie offered to bring him a bag of chips. “What kind?” Reed said. “Miss Vickie’s jalapeño,” McCranie said. Reed accepted them, along with an apple and some chicken someone else brought, and thus he powered on, despite complaining that his staff members sometimes approach his care and feeding as though he were a pet dog or a zoo animal. They leave food in the kitchen behind his office and expect him to eat it when he gets hungry enough. On this Tuesday morning, someone has done just that. The mayor finds a Styrofoam tray of bacon, toast, and grits; when there’s a gap in his schedule around ten because someone else is late, he brings the tray to his office and has a real breakfast.
“Hey Reese,” he says. “Will you come and fix my collar?”
For Reed, the west wing of the second floor of City Hall Annex is both an office and a home. It was commissioned in the eighties by Mayor Andrew Young, one of Reed’s mentors, who modeled the annex after the city hall in Toulouse, France. It has a library, a bathroom with a shower, a balcony overlooking the lawn, and a half-moon-shaped living room with floor-to-ceiling windows where Reed conducts most of his meetings. On the lower level of a glass-topped end table he keeps a copy of Life magazine from March 6, 1964, with a grinning and perspiring Cassius Clay on the cover, and on a table against the opposite wall he has a hardcover book called The Official Treasures of Muhammad Ali. The mayor may very well idolize Muhammad Ali, but this cannot be the only reason he has two artifacts glorifying the champion boxer in an otherwise sparely decorated living room. Cassius Clay chose the name of Allah’s prophet. Kasim Reed had it given to him.
Kasim is the mayor’s middle name, but it has been his unofficial first name since childhood. His three older brothers rarely used his real first name except in moments of playful severity. His brothers were named Charles, Carlton, and Tracy. Charles is a Germanic name. Carlton has roots in northern England and Scandinavia. Tracy comes from the Irish. The future mayor was born in the late spring of 1969, when his father was terribly displeased with the Europeans of America. They had shot Dr. King. They were bombing Laos and Cambodia. They had slaughtered three students under color of law in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and gotten away with it. The future mayor’s father was Junius Reed, a Baptist by upbringing but a radical in 1969. He looked around for something radical to name his fourth son—a rejection of the Euro-American power structure. He named the boy Mohammed.
Kasim’s mother, a United Methodist minister’s daughter, never liked the name, and in an interview for this story she said Kasim never liked it either. When asked about that, however, Kasim said his mother must be projecting. Even though he has always been a Methodist himself, he liked the name just fine because he liked Muhammad Ali. The evidence was there in his ceremonial living room. This episode proves the earlier point. Reed may work hard, but in politics he is quite talented.
No appointment on this Tuesday is more important to Reed’s mayoral strategy than his 10 a.m. at the Central Park recreation center. Reed has said he believes in doing a small number of things very well, and one of those things has been his effort to reopen sixteen recreation centers that were partially or completely shut down because of budget cuts during the Franklin administration. Rec centers cost money, of course, but Reed pledged not to raise taxes. Instead he laid off more than 100 employees from other city departments and persuaded several of the city’s corporations to lay out their own cash. He has even tried to sell corporate naming rights to his so-called Centers of Hope, as professional sports teams do with their stadiums. Reed is a terribly practical mayor.
“I thought Sharon had the scissors,” McCranie says into his BlackBerry as the Taurus cruises up Mitchell Street. “Hey, Coop? Can you hold two seconds? We need the scissors for the ribbon.”
“I’ve got a knife,” Cooper says.
McCranie laughs nervously.
“You’ve got a knife?”
“That’d be great,” Reed says, enjoying himself. “That’d be a great scene. Cut the ribbon for the reopening of the children’s facilities.”
“It’s like a Rambo-style knife?” McCranie says.
“Yes sir,” Cooper says. “Keep it with me, brother.”
“Never know when you hafta shank somebody,” the mayor jokes.
“That’s awful,” McCranie says.
“A knife is quiet,” Cooper says.
“I’m never gonna make you angry,” McCranie says. A moment later someone calls to say the scissors are already at the recreation center. Cooper guns the Taurus toward the Old Fourth Ward as Reed reviews the notes for his speech.
“So Mayor,” McCranie says, “you know, we’re gonna start with the ribbon-cutting, right at the front? We’ve got a big banner, actually, that’s on the side of the building that’s got a picture of you and two kids with the word Hope written across it. I think you saw it yesterday.”
If Reed is listening, he shows no sign of it. He’s making a phone call.
“Hey, how are ya,” he says. “Getting ready to cut the ribbon. The one at the recreation center.”
“I am. I told you, last night was bananas. This morning wasn’t any better. Yeah. Really contentious.” (He must be referring to his meeting with Richard Anderson, the CEO of Delta, after which he walked out shaking his head.)
“I thought that I was very kind, in respecting that.”
It’s clear from his tone of voice that he is not addressing a subordinate.
“I think you like to lecture me. You must like to lecture me. I was just callin’ to say good morning.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I think that it’s kinda ridiculous, but it’s okay.”
“That’s not what I’m saying at all. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I thought I was listening to you.”
“I think you just wanna be offended. I think you wanna be offended.”
The Taurus approaches the recreation center, but a double-parked Mercedes blocks the road. Cooper activates the loudspeaker.
“PULL OVER TO THE RIGHT,” he says, and the Mercedes does.
“Offended,” the mayor says. “I think you wanna be offended.”
“I’m not! I wasn’t doing that.”
And then, without pausing for a second, he looks out at the recreation center and asks McCranie, “Where’s the mural for Tupac?”
For a long moment, McCranie is speechless. Suddenly Reed bursts out laughing. Everyone else does too.
“I’m just joking with you,” he says, and then, back into the phone, “I’ma call you right back.”
“Got me on that one,” McCranie says.
“Did you see that face?” Reed says, still pleased with himself.
The mayor steps out of the Taurus into a throng of children and cameramen. He smiles, cuts the ribbon, and walks into the rec center. It smells like fresh lacquer. The wooden floor shines, and there are good nets on all six basketball hoops. Children pack the bleachers, making a wild racket with their inflatable thundersticks. The mayor gets a standing ovation.
Reed attended about 550 public events in his first six months as mayor, and he gave more than 125 speeches of at least seven minutes. Each event was important in its own right, but his presence was part of a larger strategy. Reed won the mayor’s race by just 715 votes. He hoped his extraordinary visibility would raise his approval rating, sending a message to the City Council that the public stood behind his budget proposal. “The council senses weakness,” he said. The strategy apparently worked. His approval rating soared above 70 percent, and the council passed his budget by a 12–1 vote with $3.7 million for his precious Centers of Hope.
“So today, young people,” he says, “if nobody ever tells you this again, the mayor of your city is telling you, and your City Council is telling you: You all are valuable, you’re important, and the long-term success and vitality of this city is tied to what you become. So I need you to work harder than you’ve ever worked. I need you to prepare yourself right now. Because you are the future of this city, and I look forward to the day you lead it.”
“Let’s play, Atlanta,” he says. Someone pulls on a length of fishing line. A net opens on the ceiling, releasing a shower of red and white balloons. Children stream to the floor. The popping balloons sound like gunfire. Reed stands in a crush of children, autographing their thundersticks and leaning in close to speak with each one over the roar of the music. He poses for innumerable pictures, smiling his special camera smile that makes him look slightly less dignified than he actually is. Former Atlanta Hawk Dominique Wilkins is here too, signing autographs of his own, but even a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame can’t draw the crowd away from Kasim Reed. He stays until the end, until almost everyone is gone, missing no chance to shake a hand or touch a shoulder. Reed has given a lot of thought to these public events. He says the day will come when he gets punched in the nose, and he wants to make sure there are a lot of people out there who will see it and say, “Hey, that’s my guy you’re punching.”
When it’s over he gets in the Taurus, and Cooper drives him away. Reed gets on the BlackBerry again. His college friend Charles King is in town. King is a film agent who represents Tyler Perry, and he has come with Ari Emanuel, perhaps the most famous agent in Hollywood, the basis for the character Ari Gold in the HBO comedy Entourage, brother to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. The two agents want an audience with the mayor, preferably today. The mayor gets seventy-five to a hundred requests for meetings or appearances every day. He has four people managing his calendar, including two who mainly send regrets, and he does his best to evenly distribute his appearances throughout the city’s 132 square miles. Nevertheless, he can make or break appointments however he sees fit.
“Charles King,” Reed says on the phone. “It’s Kasim. My man. How are ya.”
“Just lemme know when you wanna come through. It’s not a shot in the dark. It’s easy work.”
“Just come by the office before you meet with Tyler. It’s 55 Trinity Avenue, and you need to park under the building.”
Here are the fifth and sixth verses of a seven-verse poem that Reed keeps in a frame in his office:
Nothing can replace watching the days, where
From my distant sideline vantage, I watch
Promise meet achievement, one after another, and
Feel a father’s tears, roll down my aging face
While you set out to make men move, and
Put smiles on the faces of children, remember
Though the sojourn is sometimes thankless,
Sometimes lonely, it is always worth the climb
Junius Reed wrote this poem for his youngest son, the one he named Mohammed in his radical season, and it would not be unfair to say Kasim got more attention than the others. The first three sons were all born by the time Junius was twenty-two, when he was working three jobs to pay the bills. By the time Kasim was old enough to have his own interests, Junius had become a successful manager for the Mead Corporation, a paper company with offices on Marietta Street. He bought Kasim golf lessons and expensive camera equipment. His brothers were so much older that they didn’t see him as a rival; in fact, as Kasim remembers it, they spoiled him too. His mother taught him compassion and proper English, and as an accomplished singer and actor, she also gave him his stage presence. The Reeds lived in the middle-class Loch Lomond neighborhood near Niskey Lake in southwest Atlanta, where parenting was a collective responsibility and almost everyone seemed to be friends. He attended the old Westwood High School, which by several accounts was as good as a costly private school. By traditional definition, Kasim Reed is a self-made man. There is no such thing as a self-made man.
But the boy was always preparing. At age nine he canvassed the neighborhood with business cards that said Kasim’s Lawn Care Service. Kasim Reed did not mow lawns. He was pragmatic enough about hard work to know that good leaders delegate responsibility, which is why he personally won the contracts and sent older friends to do the actual mowing while he reinvested the profits in the entire stock of irregular sneakers from a failing business on Fulton Industrial Boulevard and then sold them at a markup until he had a pile of money on the bed. He memorized Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech well enough to perform it in public. He listened to his mother, Sylvia, who prayed when she got out of bed every morning and believed that God tapped her on the shoulder to wake her up. He internalized the teachings of the Reverend Cornelius Henderson at Ben Hill United Methodist Church, where Sylvia took the boys every Sunday, so at around age ten he could stand before the congregation and deliver a riveting and hilarious children’s sermon on the importance of telling the truth. He studied the harsh dynamics of power in Machiavelli’s The Prince and incendiary attacks in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He asked older boys from the neighborhood for their counsel on important decisions and weighed it against what he already knew. He might do what they said, or he might not.
Junius loved to talk politics at the dinner table. He inspired Kasim with tales about Thurgood Marshall, the African American attorney who won twenty-nine of his thirty-two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually became a Supreme Court justice. Junius told Kasim that Marshall was a necessary partner for Dr. King because he brought King’s dreams to life through legal action. Kasim wrote a book report about Marshall and decided he would be a lawyer and a politician. Somehow he acquired the notion that politicians must live cleaner lives than everyone else. This was one reason he decided to stay away from alcohol. By the time he discovered the truth—in college—he was used to being the only guy in the room drinking straight Coca-Cola.
Kasim Reed paid for his education at Howard University with profits from a 14-karat-gold jewelry business he’d started in high school. He also sold Howard-themed boxer shorts and arranged delivery of student possessions for off-site storage over the summer. Then, as now, he crammed more activities into each day and night than twenty-four hours would seem to allow. He and his new friend Chip Joyner raced to see who could read the most books and newspapers. They both favored Michael Korda, author of Power! How to Get It, How to Use It. Joyner helped Reed get elected as the undergraduate member of the board of trustees—Reed would eventually become the youngest general trustee in the university’s 143-year history—and Reed helped Joyner write an acceptance speech when Joyner became president of the Republican club.
Reed had no trouble taking precise positions on dangerous topics such as the first Gulf War, which the first President Bush was selling to America when Reed appeared on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in November 1990 to join the debate.
“If he satisfies the constitutional requirements,” Reed, then twenty-one, said on television, “and satisfies the concerns of all Americans, not just African Americans, then at that point, then we should put the moral will of this country behind the president and support him in his actions.”
Reed put his political capital at risk again the next spring, when he persuaded fellow students to approve a surcharge of $15 per semester to boost Howard’s endowment and decrease its reliance on federal funds. He thought the students were too accustomed to taking, and he wanted them to practice giving back. Over the years, money from his Independence Fund helped renovate a reading lounge, buy new equipment for the fitness center, and provide $1,000 debit cards to students who came to Howard from schools in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. The fund now holds more than $12 million.
“Who’s the largest alumni donor to Howard University?” said Artis Hampshire-Cowan, senior vice president and secretary. “It may be Kasim Reed.”
In March 1989, when Reed was a sophomore at Howard, the students revolted. Their uprising lasted seven days and encompassed several figures of national repute, including Bill Cosby, whose convocation speech at the nation’s most prominent historically black university was canceled when a throng of demonstrators took over the stage. The students pulled down an American flag and replaced it with one of African liberation. They seized the administration building and refused to leave until the university met their demands. They wanted better campus security, swifter access to financial aid, and a more Afrocentric curriculum. Above all, they wanted the board of trustees to banish a new member named Lee Atwater.
You may remember Atwater. He was the wily and ruthless Republican strategist who helped defeat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign by linking him with Willie Horton, the African American convicted murderer who went on a crime spree after being let out on a prison furlough while Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts. Atwater never lived down the charge that he had won votes for George H.W. Bush by stoking the fires of racism. And yet, when Howard appointed him to its board of trustees in the winter of Bush’s inauguration, it wasn’t hard to see why. The university paid nearly 70 percent of its education costs with money from the federal government, which was now led by a Republican, and Atwater was among the party’s most powerful men.
Reed was friends with Ras Baraka, chief architect of the revolt, and they remain friends today. The revolt ended peacefully, with Atwater’s resignation. Two years later he died of a brain tumor. But Reed took no part in the revolt. He thought Atwater’s appointment to the Howard board was a smart, strategic move that would help keep the university financially solvent. He even said so in the Washington Post.
This pragmatic approach continued during Reed’s eleven years in the Georgia General Assembly, first as a representative and then as a senator. He made Republican friends at an astonishing rate for a Democrat. This spring, with the future of Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure riding on a bill in the legislature that would let voters in each region decide whether to raise sales taxes to pay for capital projects, Republican Speaker of the House David Ralston saw Reed walking the halls of the statehouse to rustle up votes for the bill. Ralston loaned Reed his conference room and stood by him when Governor Perdue signed the bill.
“The mayor has a great sense of fair play,” says Joe Wilkinson, an old-fashioned Republican representative from Sandy Springs who campaigned for Reed in the mayor’s race. “He can put party aside and say, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ And I saw him do it time after time.”
In fairness to Reed, the Republicans have not always loved him. In 2006, State Senator Eric Johnson released a statement condemning Reed and other Democrats.
“Their proposal makes them modern-day Pharisees,” he said. “This is election-year pandering using voters’ deepest beliefs as a tool.”
Johnson could be forgiven. He was insensible with jealousy. Kasim Reed was making headlines for cosponsoring a bill to let Georgia high schools teach an elective class on the Bible.
There were more than sixty debates in the 2009 mayor’s race. Reed studied his two main opponents until he was confident he could judge their temperaments by the clothes they wore on a given day. He came to respect them, and the feeling was generally mutual, and they all ran clean campaigns, mostly. Reed began the race nearly unknown to city voters but he gained ground every day. In the November general election, he surged past Lisa Borders and took just enough votes to force a runoff with Mary Norwood, the frontrunner, who was making a somewhat apologetic bid to become Atlanta’s first non-African-American mayor since 1973.
Cold rain fell the day before the runoff election but it tapered off by late afternoon and the stars came out. Fog rolled in overnight but when it lifted by ten the next morning, Sylvia Reed looked on the clear blue day and thanked God for making His face shine on her youngest son. Research has shown that rainfall on Election Day drives down turnout, shifting the outcome a few percentage points toward Republicans and away from Democrats. Turnout was heavy for a runoff election, which Reed won by 715 votes—less than one percent. His mother was not the only one convinced that sunshine put Kasim Reed in the mayor’s office.
Which may be true. Except the mayor’s race is supposed to be nonpartisan. And belief in the sunshine theory requires the belief that Mary Norwood was a Republican, and this belief on its own may have proliferated just enough to swing the election. Yes, it was a clean campaign, mostly, but Mary Norwood did suffer an incendiary attack that would have pleased Sun Tzu. The Democratic Party of Georgia mailed out flyers that accused her of being—oh, the horror—a Republican, even though she had run as an independent. The accusation was doubly pernicious, like a flaming arrow. Her Democratic supporters had to reconsider their positions. And the Republicans in her stronghold of Buckhead must not have appreciated the campaign of denial that reached an unseemly conclusion when she disavowed her previous Republican leanings by telling Atlanta Progressive News, “Just because you did cocaine once doesn’t make you an addict.”
If Norwood had wanted to fight fire with fire, she could have leveled the closet-Republican charge at Reed. Some evidence did exist. (According to Reed, Norwood supporters did send out some accusatory flyers, although they received little or no media coverage.) She could have talked about Atwater, the Republican friends, and the time the Washington Post (incorrectly) identified Reed as a Republican in college. In fact, Reed’s father was intellectually curious enough to join the Republican Party for a brief period in the eighties.
“You never overcome your father,” Kasim Reed has said, describing his father’s strong influence on the course of his life, and he’s right. Kasim Reed is not a closet Republican. He’s a pragmatist, like the man who gave him the name Mohammed. This has helped him succeed as a Democrat.
“Mayor Reed is the type of leader who can reach across party lines to get things done,” says Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “He’s a strong Democrat, but he is willing to work with folks on the other side of the aisle to achieve the greater good. That record has given him a very broad appeal and a bright future within the Democratic Party.”
If Reed has political aspirations beyond the mayor’s office, he won’t admit them now. He says being mayor is like playing golf: Look up too soon and you hit it in the trees. Besides, he’s getting tired.
“I’ve been at this a minute,” he said one day in the Taurus. “You write down the pace of this thing, it’s been something. I mean, eleven years. I’ve been spending—I got out of school in ’95, ran in ’97, won in ’98, sworn in ’99, two terms, and then ran a mayoral campaign, you’re thirty. Then ran a transition at thirty-one? Ran for the senate at thirty-two? My whole life has been about twos and fours.”
But when he needs a lift, he remembers these six words from his father:
Passion is the enemy of fatigue.
The biggest agent in Hollywood pays Reed a visit just after noon. Ari Emanuel wears khakis, a baggy polo shirt, and blue canvas shoes that look to have cost about ten dollars. With him is Charles King, agent of Tyler Perry, classmate of Reed’s from Howard University School of Law. The three men have a private conversation in Reed’s library for about half an hour, and Reed leaves the meeting with fresh energy.
“That was amazing,” he says. Emanuel told him the city could create jobs by providing tax credits for the filming of television commercials. Reed loved the idea. It was a social call that became a business meeting; for Reed, there is often no distinction. When he flies to other cities on business, he sends out a group text message to see which of his friends are in the vicinity. Jamie Foxx? Jamal Crawford? T.I.? Chris Tucker? Sean “Diddy” Combs? Reed has many famous friends. He met some through the Howard alumni network; others came from his years as an entertainment lawyer. (His legal career ran concurrently with his time in the legislature, and he used to sleep even less then. Sometimes he’d work all day in Los Angeles, catch an overnight flight back to Atlanta, stop by his condo to freshen up, and head to the office.) Reed made a lot of deals in the music business, where his clients included the hip-hop quintet Nappy Roots, the female rapper Solé, the former Destiny’s Child member LeToya Luckett, and the record executive Shakir Stewart. As an attorney, Reed didn’t pretend to be a crusader for justice. It was enjoyable work that made him a lot of money. And he used some of that money to help get himself elected. Reed estimates that he has spent more than $100,000 of his own cash on his political campaigns over the years; his rich and powerful friends have kicked in quite a lot more.
“I believe in doing good and doing well at the same time,” he said in a recent interview. “For me, it all runs together.”
It all runs together: His Centers of Hope are part of a larger strategy to steer children away from crime, thus helping keep his foremost campaign promise—making the city safer. Zooming out even farther, the centers figure into Reed’s postracial worldview that says assigning blame for the plight of minority groups is less important than making sure America stands unified against rising economic challenges from India and China.
It all runs together: Getting elected to office takes money; staying effective in office takes political capital. And so, although some people have called for him to take personal control of the Atlanta Public Schools, which would theoretically let him prepare many young minds to beat our competitors in the Far East, he has no intention of doing so. In the hallway between meetings on this Tuesday afternoon, he declares this non-intention to a small gathering of staff members. His friend Adrian Fenty took over the schools in D.C., and now Fenty is in danger of losing his job. There’s principle, and there’s political suicide. It’s not enough just to do the right thing. You have to put yourself in position to keep doing the right thing.
It all runs together: At 6:17 p.m., as he leaves the office to vote in the primary election and then attend a community meeting at a church in southwest Atlanta, he is joined by a lovely woman in a polka-dot dress. He is working tonight. It seems he also has a date.
Tonight’s meeting at Mount Carmel Baptist Church on Campbellton Road will include a speech by Police Chief George Turner, whose selection caused as much public debate as any of Reed’s mayoral decisions. The episode is worth recounting for its lessons in the slippery nature of political capital.
After his 715-vote win in the mayor’s race last year, Reed tried to build unity and popular support by asking his defeated opponents to serve in the new administration. No one had heard of such a thing in Atlanta. He put Mary Norwood on the search committee for fire chief. He put Kyle Keyser—a bartender inspired to run for mayor after he was robbed at gunpoint outside the Pizza Hut on Boulevard—on the search committee for police chief. He named Lisa Borders cochair of the transition team, giving her charge of all the executive searches. Crime had saturated the news during the mayor’s race. Police Chief Richard Pennington sought refuge in the numbers, insisting that actual crime was down even if the perception of crime was up, but hardly anyone seemed to believe him. Reed had made crime-fighting the cornerstone of his mayoral campaign. He’d pledged to install more surveillance cameras, increase police pay, and add 750 cops to the force. Now he was in an odd position. He had to keep the city safe despite giving up his mayoral right to unilaterally choose its top crime fighter.
The police chief search committee had an impressive range of members, including two pastors, a campus police chief, a police union boss, a former police whistle-blower, a public defender, the chief executive of a public corporation, a community advocate, and the owner of a gay bookstore. It would take several months to pick a police chief by committee, and in the meantime Mayor Reed had to put someone in charge. For interim chief he chose Turner, a deputy chief whose twenty-eight-year disciplinary file with the Atlanta Police Department consisted of a single oral admonishment for showing up late to a training session. Besides having a clean record, Turner was born in Atlanta. This was an advantage. As Mayor Shirley Franklin’s campaign manager, Reed had run the search for the department’s last chief, Pennington, an outsider from New Orleans whose tenure in Atlanta was generally seen as a disaster. He could be hard to find when the city needed him most.
Interim Chief Turner did not act much like an interim chief. By June he had cleared 363 internal-affairs complaints, fired six bad cops, and deployed a narcotics team that made more than 1,000 drug-related arrests. No, he didn’t simply mind the store—he redecorated it. One day Deputy Chief Carlos Banda was the longest-serving officer in the department; the next day he had gone into sudden retirement. One day Major Elizabeth Propes was a respected commander in the zone that included East Atlanta and Inman Park; the next day she’d been shipped off to Siberia, otherwise known as the airport. Meanwhile Chief Turner renovated the command staff, promoting lieutenants to majors and majors to deputy chiefs. These moves sent a clear message to any outsider who thought of applying for the chief’s job: If you wanted to bring in your own command staff, you’d have to start by demoting people.
The search committee interviewed six candidates. Turner was the only internal one. The citizens say they were told to deliver three to five finalists. They analyzed and ranked the candidates and delivered three finalists. George Turner was not among them.
It may have been an honest mistake, a miscommunication, an inevitable consequence of delegated responsibility. The citizens will never know. What they do know is that they thought they were done. They were not done. It turned out Mayor Reed wanted five candidates, not three—in fact, he had always wanted five, to ensure a robust variety—so they had to reconvene and deliver five. In other words, all their interviews had been spent eliminating just one candidate from a field of six.
The committee members were dismayed. Their friends had told them the whole thing would be a sham, but the members had gone on believing otherwise and had worked diligently for no pay because they wanted a good chief. Anyway, they reconvened and delivered the list of five. And when the mayor announced that he and his chief operating officer had done their own interviews and cut the list back down to three finalists, George Turner was back in the running.
According to Reed, the truth was more complicated than the conspiracy theorists believed. One of the final five had dropped out of contention after getting a different job. Another had most recently been chief of security for a school system and was therefore not a serious candidate to lead a major city’s police department. That left three legitimate and available finalists. No matter what the search committee had done—and in essence, no matter what Reed had done—Turner was destined for the final three. The field narrowed itself.
The other two finalists were Louisville Metro Police Chief Robert White and Cedric Alexander, federal security director for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Each finalist had a different appeal. White had the most experience as a chief. Alexander had the most education. And Turner knew Atlanta better than his opponents ever would. Reed finally chose Turner, even though that meant overriding the wishes of the very citizens he had asked to help him find the chief.
“He wasted our time,” said Lou Arcangeli, the respected former Atlanta Police deputy chief who served on the search committee. “He tried to trade on our credibility and our good names. And ultimately, I think Kasim Reed has spent some political capital.”
Maybe. But Reed saw the way Interim Chief Turner behaved and it reminded him a lot of how Permanent Chief Turner ought to behave—appearing at community meetings all around the city, taking charge during the Screen on the Green crisis, cutting the crime rate, seeming just as omnipresent as his predecessor had seemed invisible. If Kasim Reed had been named interim police chief, he would have behaved a lot like Interim Chief Turner did. He would have tried to win with an abundance of hard work and preparation. And so Reed spent some political capital (angering a few citizens on the search committee) in the hope of gaining far more (making the city safer for everyone). Just as he worked himself into the job of mayor, he let George Turner work himself into the job of police chief.
The mayor has a girlfriend. He will say nothing about her for public consumption, except that they’ve been together two years and she is a great lady. He divulges her first name but says it’s off the record. A man kept under twenty-four-hour watch must guard his remaining secrets.
The woman looks several years younger than him, with a model’s cheekbones and a delicate frame, and they ride in the back of the Taurus, leaning close together over the center armrest. Their voices are nearly inaudible from the front, but the tenor of their conversation suggests that she’s in control—that the boss of 7,000 people is not above being bossed himself.
At 6:50, ten minutes before the meeting starts, Reed asks the driver to make a detour for the Starbucks on Cascade Road.
“I need something warm,” he says, preparing himself for the citizen complaints he will surely receive. “I need comfort, because I’m getting ready to be torn apart.”
On command, Senior Patrol Officer D.S. Bell pulls up to the drive-thru and orders a tall caramel macchiato, stirred, with whipped cream. Make that two. The lady would like one. This will stand in for dinner.
They are eighteen minutes late to Mount Carmel Baptist Church, but the mayor stays in the car when it stops at the curb. “I need a minute,” he says, by which he means he needs to finish his macchiato, because it would not make political sense to walk late into a community meeting holding a Starbucks cup.
“I think you should go in first,” he says to the woman, and she giggles at his joke. He goes in first and sits down at the head table with his fellow city officials. She waits a few seconds until the entourage has dissipated and then sits alone in a corner, at least fifty feet from her date.
The meeting will follow a simple blueprint. The Reverend Timothy Flemming Sr. will go down a list of unacceptable conditions along the Campbellton Road corridor, and then the mayor will have to face a crowd of about 100 good churchgoing people and tell them how he’ll fix things. So the pastor says a woman was raped and killed, her body thrown in the woods, and it might not have happened if they had better lighting on this road. He says frequent power blackouts are disrupting the computers. He says they hardly ever see a street sweeper. He says a concrete wall up by the Krystal has collapsed, creating a public abomination, and no one will take responsibility.
The mayor stands and receives his applause, looking as fresh as he has all day.
“First of all, pastor,” he says, “I want to start by saying thank you. Not just for the town hall meeting tonight, not just for what you did yesterday or the day before, but for what you have done for years. And that’s why I’m delighted to be here. But I wouldn’t start this meeting without acknowledging you for being an exemplar for this community. Since I’ve been a boy, I have looked up to you and admired you for the work you do at Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel, thank you for sticking with Campbellton Road, for being a part of what makes it special. So I am profoundly grateful to all of you. I live off of Campbellton Road, so I’m no stranger here.”
He gets to the list.
“Poor lighting on Campbellton Road,” he says. “I have my Public Works commissioner, Richard Mendoza, here tonight. So that’s something that we’re gonna have to work on together. Because I don’t wanna just high-five you and give you a fake answer. I’ve got to find out how much it costs. Now in the 2011 budget that was supported by Councilwoman [Keisha] Bottoms, we put $11 million in for infrastructure investment. So what we need to do right now is to identify the lighting problems on Campbellton Road—Keisha and I will work together—and then we need to find out what it will cost, and determine from the $11 million that we’ve set aside for infrastructure what we can do there. So that’s something we have to partner on.”
Reed is not just a young and energetic mayor. He has hired a team of young and talented idealists, and many of them are here tonight, taking notes, planning action.
“Now, the constant power blackouts. I will personally, and any member, including you, Pastor Flemming, any group of parishioners that you designate, can accompany me to a meeting with Georgia Power where we hash out the blackout issue. I don’t know the answer to the blackout issue, but I know that Atlanta is one of Georgia Power’s most significant clients. And I believe that I can get an honest answer as to why blackouts are occurring. And I’m willing to do that in partnership with you, with members of the church in the meeting, so that there can be no doubt about a couple of things: one, that we asked for the meeting; two, that we got the meeting; three, that Georgia Power responded to the concern; and four, that an answer was brought back to this church, and that this community was respected. So that’s what I’m prepared to do as it relates to that. And I didn’t have this list in advance, by the way.”
Watching Reed in the spotlight, it’s tempting to believe that he is not only better in public but somehow more real: that the audience has a way of bringing forth his best and most genuine self.
“The fact that no street sweeper comes down Campbellton Road, no Public Works support. Give me one week. And if no street sweeper comes down Campbellton Road within a week, I will come back and clean the streets myself.”
Applause and cheers overwhelm his voice.
“The wall at Krystal’s restaurant,” he says. “When this meeting is over, if the pastor has time, I’d like for him to take me and show me the wall. And then I will direct my chief of staff, Candace Byrd, to meet with this owner and determine who owns the wall. And at least tell the church the truth. If the city owns the wall, the city will fix it.”
He stays another ninety minutes, answering questions about foreclosures, vacant houses, people waiting for buses without proper shelter, a family of seven thrown out on the street by a bad landlord. At the end, when a church deacon brings up Krystal once again, he says this:
“Oh, we’re going to the wall together, sir.”
And they do. The lady sneaks out in front of him, and they get in the Taurus and drive in a caravan up to the Krystal, where Reed and his team get out in the warm night to look at the tumbledown concrete wall.
“Candace,” he says.
“Yes,” says his chief of staff.
“Let’s move,” he says, and she pledges to take care of it, and the deacon is convinced that everything will be all right, and he thanks the mayor and shakes his hand. Reed gets back in the Taurus with his date. Her perfume is in the air. He directs his driver back Downtown, where her car is parked. He walks her to the car. They hug for a few seconds, and then he opens the car door for her and she drives south toward the interstate. It’s 9:33 p.m.
“Home, sir?” the driver says.
“Yeah,” the mayor says. He has removed his tie.
“Let’s go home.”
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