October 2010

If, as Tip O’Neill famously said, all politics is local, is there an elected office in America more complex, more perilous, more political, than big-city mayor? Take a city with a history of racial division, in an agricultural state that is Republican red, and add in pension obligations that are draining the city’s coffers by $125 million a year. Now remove the bottom from the economy. Don’t forget to include a demoralized city workforce, with underpaid police and clamoring unions.
This is what Kasim Reed walked into when he was sworn in last January as Atlanta’s newest mayor. A brutal job, its effects can be inspiring (see Andrew Young), enervating (Shirley Franklin), history-making (Maynard Jackson), legacy-building (Sam Massell), or just plain corrosive (Bill Campbell). The big-city mayor is allowed a vacation, of course, but the job is all-consuming. If a cop has been shot, it is our mayor we expect to see outside the hospital on the six o’clock news. If we’re angling to host the FIFA World Cup, it’s our mayor we want leading the delegation. If the feds are handing out buckets of money for streetcars or sewers or schools, we want our mayor at the front of the line. And even if our city makes up just a fraction of a vast metro area, we know it is the mayor who is the region’s figurehead, its heart, its spokesman. The big-city mayor must mediate, lead, console, dream, and twist arms. In Atlanta, we pay our mayor $147,500.
You’ll recall that Reed won the job by fewer than a thousand votes. My job requires I be pretty well-informed, but as the results came in, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know much about Kasim Reed. Sure, I knew his resume, thanks to the daily paper, but I had no grasp of who he was as a person. I don’t consider the question an academic or indulgent one, especially when we’re talking about the man who is leading the most influential city in the South.
Not long after his inauguration, we began work on the first truly comprehensive profile of Reed. Thomas Lake, our writer, talked to Reed’s family, his classmates, his former colleagues in the General Assembly. He talked to Reed too, of course—first for just an hour, then while he tagged along with him for two very long days. The result is the fullest picture yet of Kasim Reed, a forty-one-year-old bachelor for whom there is no line between work and what the rest of us would call a regular life.
As it turns out, this is Tom’s final story for Atlanta magazine. Sports Illustrated scooped him up last month, making Tom the latest in a tradition of our staffers called up to the journalistic big leagues. In his two years here, Tom’s articles have introduced us to a fallen war hero, a stymied developer in Buckhead, and a deadly flu virus. With his story beginning on page 72, Tom introduces us to Kasim Reed, our mayor.
Contact Steve Fennessy at sfennessy@atlantamag.emmis.com