Illustration by Oriana Fenwick
City Hall is literally across the street from Calvin Smyre’s office near the Gold Dome, but on a brisk Tuesday in March, the state representative made the visit to see Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms by car. At 72, Smyre has artificial hips, which make walking even short distances painful. Over 45 years, the Democrat from Columbus has gone from being the youngest member of the General Assembly to its longest serving. Not coincidentally, he’s also a throwback to a time when politicians of both parties crossed the aisle to find common ground. Although Democrats haven’t held a majority in the state House since 2004, Smyre hasn’t seen his influence diminish. When Nathan Deal fled the Democratic party in 1995 to become a Republican, one of the only state Democrats to not shun him was Smyre, who saved Deal from being gerrymandered out of his Congressional seat. As governor, Deal never forgot it. Amid the complex machinations of state politics, there is no one more connected, and more willing to pass on credit, than Calvin Smyre. And so, for every Atlanta mayor since Maynard Jackson, Smyre has made this short trip to give advice and offer up some wisdom. But until now, arguably none had ever needed his counsel more than the city’s 60th mayor.
Two weeks earlier, the state Senate had done what even a year ago would have seemed unthinkable: It agreed to a plan to wrest control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport from the city. Although the bill still needed to navigate the state House, not to mention earn Governor Brian Kemp’s signature, the Senate vote constituted the most audacious attack on Atlanta’s identity since Sherman dropped a match on the place 134 years ago. After all, the airport—the busiest in the world—is more than just marketing for the city. It represents raw power, with billions of dollars of concessions contracts that have made their winners, like Mack Wilbourn, Dan Halpern, and the late Herman Russell, rich(er). And for Atlanta elected officials, grateful millionaires mean campaign contributions.
But the city, argued Burt Jones, the bill’s sponsor and a Republican state senator from Butts County, had ruined a good thing. A federal investigation into City Hall that began in 2015 and continues to this day had yielded (so far) five guilty pleas and thrown a spotlight on how the city doles out contracts, including those at the airport. That was just one investigation. The Federal Aviation Administration was also launching an audit of the airport, presumably examining how and why Bottoms’s predecessor, Kasim Reed, used airport funds to pay for attorneys representing his administration in the ongoing federal investigation, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Confused? Jones didn’t seem to be. The airport, he declared from the state Senate podium, had become a “blight” upon the state.
For an Atlanta mayor to lose control of the airport would be catastrophic. The Braves may have left town under Reed’s watch, but that’s a pittance compared to losing control of the airport. Ever since Maynard Jackson had guaranteed black-owned businesses a portion of lucrative construction and concessions contracts, the airport had also become a symbol of black political power. Which made unavoidable the optics of a bunch of white legislators from outside the city stepping in to lay claim to the treasure. “This was major,” Smyre says of the attempted takeover. “No question about it. When you put the top five things down, this is one and two and three and four of those.”
Smyre and Bottoms sat down in her conference room. The groundbreaking shovels and magazine covers collected by Reed during his eight years in office were gone. In their place, Bottoms was leaving her own mark: a framed album of her late musician father’s greatest hits, copies of Congressman John Lewis’s graphic novels, and a mix of books about cities finding solutions in an increasingly divided country.
For three hours, Smyre wargamed with Bottoms and her advisers on how to prevent the legislation from moving any further—or at least mitigating the damage if it passed. First, the city had no immediate legal leverage. And politically, it made little sense to go on the offense against Kemp, a new governor who so far hadn’t even staked out a public position on the measure. A few weeks earlier, when it became clear how real the threat was, Bottoms had decried Jones’s bill as “attempted theft” and an “act of war.” Bottoms could crank the dial further by bringing up the race aspect—white patriarchy stealing yet again from black Atlantans—but Smyre and Bottoms saw that tactic as counterproductive. No need to make it a public fight. Instead, it was decided Bottoms would play up the airport’s consistent ranking as the world’s most efficient; it simply didn’t need fixing. Still, Bottoms needed to prepare for some very real possibilities, Smyre told her. Even if the takeover attempt failed, state lawmakers could still appoint an oversight committee, which would be sort of like having your parents tell you how to manage your household.
It was easy to imagine Reed, an old-school pugilist politician, relishing this battle. But Reed was gone, the victim of term limits. In his place was Bottoms, who’d won Reed’s endorsement but appeared to have none of his taste for blood. Bottoms had cultivated a reputation as both warm-hearted and cool-headed, the kind of mayor who’d post pictures of macaroni-and-cheese casseroles and Thanksgiving pies on her Twitter feed and who smiled from the cover of Ebony magazine next to Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. But here, just over a year into her first term, was a full-on crisis. For a mayor who had yet to clearly articulate a consistent narrative around her administration, events were threatening to define her. This was a mayor killer.
Atlanta is one of the most economically divided cities in America, and in few places is that more evident than along Campbellton Road, where dying strip malls, fast-food joints, and past-their-prime apartment complexes give way to manicured suburban subdivisions that are home to much of Atlanta’s black upper-middle class, including families like the Bottomses. In her 49 years, Keisha Lance Bottoms has lived both sides of this dichotomy up close.
Bottoms’s father was Major Lance, a soul singer from Chicago. In the 1960s, Lance had a string of hits, touring the country and Europe, where he once opened for the Beatles and was backed by a band that included a young Elton John. But by the end of the decade, with America convulsing amid Vietnam and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Latin influences and carefree rhythms of Chicago soul were eclipsed by rock. In 1972, Lance moved to England with his wife, Sylvia Robinson, whom he had met at the Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue, and their three children: Tracey, Darrian, and Keisha. It was in England where Keisha spent her earliest years, making daily trips with her mother from their modest home in Essex to the market to buy groceries. “Probably my most vivid [memory] is watching my dad perform and watching women jump on stage and tear his shirt off,” she says. Lance’s music had found new fans within England’s Northern soul scene, and his success allowed the Lances the opportunity to travel throughout the continent. “That lifestyle was something very different from anyone we knew at the time,” she says. “Especially black families.”
Homesick for Atlanta, Sylvia in 1974 persuaded her husband to move back to America. The Lances settled in an apartment near Atlanta’s Collier Heights community, a tony enclave that was home to Atlanta’s black elite, including developer Herman Russell and Ralph David Abernathy—and five miles west from where Robinson’s family lived for generations in and around English Avenue. Bottoms still recalls her surprise as a preschooler at seeing a white woman working at a grocery store. Up to then, she’d thought only black people lived in the United States. England was for whites.
Like many black musicians from the 1950s and 1960s, Major Lance had signed away his master recordings and was earning next to nothing in royalties. Desperate and addicted to cocaine, he started dealing and, according to a former producer of Lance’s, would sometimes make thousands of dollars a night. “He still wanted to have the same lifestyle and provide for his family the same way, and he started making the wrong choices,” Sylvia Robinson recalls. “He was a good person who made bad decisions.”
Keisha Lance was eight when she came home from school to a house filled with police, her father being led away in handcuffs. It wasn’t until years later, watching him on Soul Train, that Keisha came to know just how famous her dad—Little League coach, a fan of the Piccadilly Cafeteria at Greenbriar, friend of Curtis Mayfield—had once been. Now, he was gone, their family without its source of income. Ballet rehearsals were no more. When he was sentenced to four years in prison, it was, as Bottoms says, “the death of our family.”
“I didn’t want to be in prison. I didn’t want to have to struggle like my mother struggled. I didn’t want to run out of gas or have our lights and water turned off.”
Sylvia was now effectively a single mother. She took a job at an apartment complex rental office, the post office, the Internal Revenue Service. She enrolled in cosmetology school and in 1981 opened a salon in Vine City. Over the next five years, the family moved to as many different apartments. On the weekends, Sylvia and her three children would pile into the family’s temperamental Mustang and drive to prisons across Georgia where Lance was serving his sentence. Around the time he was released in 1982, the couple divorced. Major Lance was now a presence again in his children’s lives, albeit an intermittent one. Bottoms recalls him chartering buses to take her seventh-grade class to visit him at a recording studio. As Keisha grew older, he’d slip her a hundred-dollar bill occasionally. Once, she used the money to buy a pair of Sebago shoes, which she still owns today. Lance attempted a comeback and even remarried, but a heart attack in the early 1990s kicked off a series of health problems. In 1994, he died in his sleep in Decatur.
Lance’s addiction had driven him to desperation, Bottoms came to understand. “I never wanted that to be my life,” she says. “I didn’t want to be in prison. I didn’t want to have to struggle like my mother struggled. I didn’t want to run out of gas or have our lights and water turned off.” To this day, she says, the gas tanks of the family cars are always kept full.
Her childhood affected her in other ways, she acknowledges. “I am often very guarded and very difficult to read at times. That likely comes from being a child that was used to hiding what was going on behind closed doors. [But] I also think it’s given me compassion and empathy that I otherwise wouldn’t have known.”
At Frederick Douglass High School in northwest Atlanta, Keisha Lance cultivated what she would later call an “extreme conscience.” When classmates from third period would pass answers at lunch to their friends preparing for the same test, Keisha wanted no part. “There were popular girls who talked to me when they wanted to cheat off my test,” recalls Cici Carter, who was in homeroom with Bottoms for all four years. “Keisha was not one of those. She studied for herself. She was both popular and smart.”
Technically speaking, Bottoms probably shouldn’t have been going to school there. Right before her freshman year, Sylvia remarried and moved to Austell. But to her adolescent daughter, southwest Atlanta was home—a “cocoon of protection,” as Bottoms calls it. At Douglass, her schoolmates included Michael Julian Bond, Maynard “Buzzie” Jackson Jr., and Richard Cox, whom she would hire as the city’s chief operating officer. Bottoms ensured she’d continue at Douglass by registering her home as her grandmother’s address in Collier Heights, a bit of uncharacteristic legerdemain.
Growing up, one of Bottoms’s favorite poems was “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the son of formerly enslaved people:
Why should the world be over-wise
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
“For a lot of your youth,” Bottoms says, “you always put on the face that people wanted to see.” As a 10-year-old elementary school student, Bottoms’s first job—one that she now acknowledges would likely earn a visit from child protective services—was selling malt liquor and cigarettes at her uncle’s package store on Stewart Avenue, now Metropolitan Parkway. In high school, while other classmates were in band or cheerleading practice, young Keisha got dropped off at her mother’s hair salon, Backstage. There, she swept up the hair, answered the phone, gave the customers rinses. Her mother ran a thriving business, but it didn’t keep her from having her car repossessed. “Those moments stay with you,” Bottoms says.
A client at the salon convinced Bottoms to study broadcast journalism at Florida A&M University, an HBCU. Her childhood friend Chiquita Dent joined her, and they roomed together. Bottoms, a scholarship student, was the first to go to bed at night and the first to wake up. More than once, Dent recalls, a red-eyed Bottoms would plead for her giggling dormmates to keep their voices down. College gives a young person the chance to redefine herself, to think beyond her circumscribed life. But Bottoms, a tireless evangelizer for Atlanta and an unapologetic homebody, was eager to get home. That meant bypassing the journeyman life of a typical TV journalist. Instead, she applied to Georgia State University’s law school, where she caught the eye of Derek Bottoms, six years her senior.
The day after his 28th birthday, the two went to dinner at St. Charles Deli in Virginia-Highland, where they shared Keisha’s first pitcher of mimosas. When Derek took her home, he sat on the couch. She put on her pajamas and fell asleep. When she returned from a two-week study program at Cambridge University, he gave her a ring, and they married in 1994, the same year Bottoms graduated from law school and joined a small firm handling contract disputes, divorces, personal injury, and some criminal defense cases. Derek’s own job as an attorney kept the lights on, Bottoms liked to say, while she “did the people’s work.”
But unsettled by fighting for a client’s position when it wasn’t necessarily her own—“I carried that home with me,” she says—she took a job as a speechwriter and spokeswoman for Thurbert Baker, then the state attorney general. In 2002, Al Thompson, the chief state court judge of Fulton County, tapped Bottoms to serve as a part-time magistrate, signing warrants, presiding over small-claims court, and filling in for state court judges. Magistrate judge offers a young jurist an opportunity to preside over a courtroom and build connections. For Bottoms, its flexible schedule allowed her and Derek time to spend with a growing family. That same year the couple adopted a six-month-old baby after learning Bottoms was unable to conceive. Today their family includes four adopted children, the youngest of whom, boy-and-girl twins, are eight.
Bottoms’s career trajectory has been marked by what she calls “up-or-out moments.” In 2008, after six years on the magistrate bench, she set her sights on a Fulton County Superior Court seat held by T. Jackson Bedford, whose backlog of cases made him vulnerable. While traveling around the county to campaign, Bottoms was struck by the disparity between the south side of Atlanta and the affluent north. “She’d say, I’d like to see our neighborhoods like this,” says Sylvia, who attended campaign events with her in communities with more amenities, cleaner streets, and greater civic engagement. If I don’t make this, I’ll run for City Council, Bottoms told her mother. Sure enough, she lost, and sure enough, her campaign the next year for a City Council seat representing southwest Atlanta was triumphant. On the same day Bottoms took the oath of office, so did Kasim Reed as mayor. Reed would become one of her biggest supporters, and she his.
“It didn’t matter what people thought I was doing. I knew what I was doing.”
Bottoms practiced retail politics, focusing on the needs of her district. During her second term, when BeltLine officials were plotting where the project’s streetcar should run, Bottoms sent them back to the drawing board by insisting on a line along Campbellton Road to Greenbriar Mall, an impoverished corridor running through her district to the city limits. The line was added to the long-term transit vision. In 2017, after a six-year-old boy was killed by a loose pitbull outside her district, Bottoms successfully pushed legislation imposing harsher penalties on owners of dogs that attack people.
Bottoms is deeply religious, and when discussing her motivation to enter politics, she will always mention God. After losing her race for superior court, she had sat crosslegged on her living-room floor, surrounded by credit-card bills she had racked up during the campaign, and asked God why he’d told her to run, only to end up losing. Shortly after winning reelection to Council in 2013, she decided the four-year term would be her last. On a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard—where she and Derek, who is now a vice president at Home Depot, purchased a $1 million vacation home in 2016—she told her friend Chiquita Dent that, despite not being an obvious frontrunner, she felt compelled to run for mayor. On November 30, 2015, she sat in Impact United Methodist Church in East Point, after months of praying over the decision. “I wanted clarity and to feel comfortable.” After the service, she says, “I immediately knew I had the confirmation to run for mayor. I was so overcome that day when the service was over, I couldn’t even get up out of my seat.”
By the time the qualifying period ended, she enjoyed a distinct advantage amid a crowded field of 12: She was the only black female candidate in a city where black women make up a plurality of registered voters. Among her rivals were Ceasar Mitchell, then the Council president; Vincent Fort, an unabashedly liberal state senator; Cathy Woolard, a wonkish former City Council member and Council president; and Mary Norwood, the Buckhead community activist who came just 714 votes short of being elected mayor herself in 2009. Thanks to Reed, who in 2015 ensured that Bottoms was named executive director of the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, which operates Turner Field and Zoo Atlanta, she now had administrative experience on her resume (in addition to a $135,000 paycheck, on top of her $60,000 council salary—a lucrative case of double duty that required her to recuse herself from Council votes involving the authority). Bottoms received not only Reed’s endorsement and campaign expertise, but her campaign got tens of thousands of dollars from airport contractors and people affiliated with them. Reed, a fan of Bottoms’s steadiness and measured approach to issues, not to mention her loyalty, made sure she was on hand for photo ops to help raise her visibility. “I’m doing 40 barbershops and beauty salons all weekend,” Reed said when he announced his endorsement of her on V-103 the month before the November general election. “I’m gonna do everything I can to see that this woman wins. She deserves it. And I want folks to look out for her and stop letting folks be so reckless talking about this black woman.” The endorsement helped push her to the front of the pack and, ultimately, into the mayor’s office. Of course, Reed’s support would prove to be a double-edged sword.
Howard Shook, a City Council member from Buckhead, compares the City Hall that Bottoms inherited to a “low-level malarial episode.” Even though the city was on firm financial footing—nearly $200 million in reserves, a AA+ bond rating, more than $1 billion in new tax funding for transit and streetscapes—corruption at City Hall under Kasim Reed had been, in the words of one federal prosecutor, “prolific.” The city’s chief procurement officer, Adam Smith, accepted bribes from a contractor in the bathroom of a Midtown restaurant. Katrina Taylor Parks, Reed’s deputy chief of staff who muscled his agenda through City Council, also was on the take, accepting roughly $15,000 and trips to Mexico and Chicago from a businessman jockeying for city contracts. Mitzi Bickers, a political operative whom Reed credited with helping him win in 2009 and who had a job in his administration during his first term, faces federal charges of accepting $2 million to help steer $17 million of city work to two contractors. Heck, even Reed’s former spokeswoman, Jenna Garland, is facing state charges of violating the Georgia Open Records Act—the first time the statute has ever been cited in a criminal complaint—for allegedly ordering a fellow city employee to stonewall the press. (Bickers and Garland have each pleaded not guilty.)
Toward the end of his term, Reed’s victory laps included showering more than $500,000 in bonuses to cabinet heads and top staffers, handing out tax-funded cash prizes for an ugly-sweater contest, and charging roughly $150,000 on his city credit card—more than his annual salary—on airfare, hotels, and chauffeured car services. Hardly a week went by, it seemed, without the Atlanta Journal-Constitution disclosing another example of Reed’s free-spending last year in office.
“Nobody gave her credit for having a brain. They thought she was a puppet for Kasim.”
For Bottoms, being seen as Reed-adjacent posed a conundrum. On the one hand, she—arguably—owed her razor-thin victory to Reed, whose endorsement and behind-the-scenes politicking were enough for her to overcome Norwood in the general election. (This was despite the endorsement of Norwood by many dismayed former Reed allies, including Shirley Franklin.) On the other hand, who wants a low-level malarial episode?
During one of her first cabinet meetings as mayor in 2018, she met with her department heads, nearly all of whom were holdovers from the Reed administration. It quickly became clear that the new sheriff in town was not like the old one. “If I tell you to jump off a bridge, don’t just do it,” she said, according to an official who was there. “Somebody needs to stop and ask questions. You’re all here to give me advice. Don’t just go along with what I say. Push back.”
Brian McGowan, who worked as Invest Atlanta chief and Atlanta BeltLine CEO for three years under Reed and six months into Bottoms’s tenure, says the new mayor was more collaborative. “She’s not the type of politician who thinks they have all the answers” says McGowan, now an economic development official in Seattle. “She’s open to ideas and people and different perspectives. She’d fire question after question—not giving orders or directives, but asking questions . . . It’s almost like maybe Atlanta needed a woman mayor [after Reed]. She’s much more conducive to, ‘Let’s talk this out. Let’s figure this out.’”
Says Andrew Young: “Nobody gave her credit for having a brain. They thought she was a puppet for Kasim. They thought I was a puppet for Maynard. ‘He’s telling you what to do.’ I wish that were the case.”
At her inauguration in the chapel of Morehouse College on January 2, 2018, Bottoms acknowledged that she had not spent her life aiming for the second floor of City Hall. She promised a transparent government that would regain residents’ trust. Most importantly, though, she envisioned a city where a child born into poverty could have a better than—according to a 2016 study by Harvard University economists—4 percent shot of reaching its richest quartile.
Two months after taking office, Bottoms was hit with her first crisis. A team of hackers—Iranian, federal officials say—paralyzed City Hall’s IT network with a virus, demanding the equivalent of $51,000 in bitcoin as ransom. Bottoms never paid, arguing that “I just have some fundamental issues with paying somebody to get my stuff back.” The attack, which ended up costing an estimated $17 million, wiped out years of dashcam videos from police patrol cars and forced city officials to fill out forms by hand.
Roughly 100 days into her tenure, Bottoms surprised her cabinet by asking for the resignations of 26 of her top employees and department heads—nearly all of whom were holdovers from Reed’s administration. By year two, after rejecting some of the resignations, only four cabinet officials from Reed’s tenure remained. “I think it’s important for me to establish my team,” Bottoms said at the time. “It’s important for the public to know that the team going forward is a team I selected, not inherited.”
Bottoms felt most comfortable pushing social justice issues. In addition to launching a reentry program to help inmates at the Atlanta jail find work, she signed legislation to give the city jail the authority to release nonviolent offenders who lack the means to post bond, eliminating a long-standing practice that the year before had kept a man accused of panhandling sitting in custody for nearly three months before he saw a judge.
“When advocates first began talking about [bail bond reform], she wasn’t familiar with it,” says Tiffany Roberts, a civil rights lawyer who works for the Southern Center for Human Rights and serves as cochair of Bottoms’s commission to suggest criminal justice reforms. “When she learned more, she was receptive of implementing it. Lawyers often say judges are teachable. That’s something I saw in her that, in the eight years before [under Reed], I did not see at all.”
Say what you want about Kasim Reed, but the man loved being mayor. The office—with its relentless schedule, its endless ribbon-cuttings, its courtiers and sycophants—energized him. From the age of 13, every move he made was tactical, leading him toward the mayor’s office. But Reed was also single and childless when he took office and so could clock a 14-hour day without worrying he was missing out on someone or something at home.
Last August, nine months into her first term, Bottoms was asked at Emory University whether she enjoyed being mayor. “Not yet,” she said. A few months later, a day after Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl, the months of preparation had clearly fatigued her. “We are grateful that it will not be here next year,” she said at a press conference.
The paradox of Bottoms as mayor is reconciling her own undeniable ambition with her innate introversion. Reed used to describe himself as an introvert, but he was clearly disingenuous. Bottoms truly is one. “You’re much more likely to find me in the back working on something than out front talking about it,” she says. “I do recognize in 2019 that people want to see me more and want to hear my voice more. But that’s just as much me getting comfortable with that role as anything. It’s not that I don’t have the ability to do it. It’s just not who I am. I hope City Hall feels different. If it didn’t, then that means my leadership isn’t being felt there.”
Despite lacking Reed’s nod squad on Council, Bottoms has, perhaps implausibly, racked up significant accomplishments since taking office. In addition to bail reform, she authorized a 30 percent pay raise for police (called the largest single raise in history for them); partnered with local CEOs to create a new job-training center at Atlanta Technical College to teach the next generation of airline mechanics, plumbers, and coders; and pushed through the biggest real-estate deal in city history—a nearly $2 billion incentives package to redevelop the Gulch, the 40-acre wasteland of parking lots and railroad tracks next to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, into a $5 billion, mixed-use mini-city. On top of that, she focused on the basics of municipal government: City workers have filled nearly 19,000 potholes since she took office in 2018—16,000 more than were filled in all of 2017. (That the city could afford the police raises and pothole repair is due in no small part to Reed’s financial stewardship of the city, which his defenders are quick to point out.) She also introduced a raft of transparency measures, including creating a position to oversee Open Records requests, overhauling the procurement process, and putting all city spending online.
And after the scorched earth left behind by Reed, Bottoms set out on a mission of replenishment. She took steps to resolve a long-running property dispute between the city and Atlanta Public Schools. She dropped a lawsuit filed by the Reed administration against Egbert Perry of the Integral Group, an affordable housing pioneer in Atlanta. The suit had claimed that the developer enjoyed a sweetheart land deal with the Atlanta Housing Authority. As Shirley Franklin had been the Sewer Mayor and Reed the Real-Estate Mayor, Bottoms’s staff began joking their boss was the Fix-It Mayor. Still, she thinks that the narrative during the campaign—that she was an extension of Reed—has unfairly followed her into office, when she feels she should have been allowed to create her own. Clearly, almost 50 percent of people in the city didn’t want me to become mayor,” she says. “In many circles, especially the media, that has never gone away.”
During her campaign, she pledged that Atlanta under her leadership would do what a city that sells itself on being a place for all people arguably should have been doing all along: undoing the policy knots and eliminating the systemic injustices that keep the poor poor and Atlanta at or near the top of cities with the worst income inequality. More than half of Atlantans were spending more than one-third of their incomes on rent. Neighborhoods that were hollowed out by the foreclosure crisis now boast listing prices inching over $450,000, far surpassing pre–Great Recession prices.
Bottoms’s vision had a name: One Atlanta. Last May, “One Atlanta” actually became a city department, tasked with reducing homelessness, reforming the criminal justice system, and enhancing affordability. Bottoms created the position of chief housing officer and kicked off a blight removal program to eliminate eyesores that are magnets for crime; as of January, the city says it’s knocked down 74 neglected and abandoned properties. Bottoms has also said she wants to convert the city jail into a community center that offers daycare around the clock. “All of our department heads are talking about equity and doing something about it,” she says.
Of course, Atlanta’s inequity took root over decades, the result of policies at the local, state, and federal levels. Some factors a mayor can influence—property taxes, transit options, job training—but others are beyond any mayor’s control, such as corporate hiring decisions, or how much a piece of property fetches on the open market. Bottoms wants to raise $1 billion to “produce and preserve” 20,000 affordable housing units by 2026. Thus far, she says, the city has committed $160 million toward that goal. But such a target requires finding new sources of cash, not just co-opting existing pots of money. In addition, Bottoms has been criticized for a lack of urgency by community and housing activists who opposed the mayor’s support of billions of dollars in incentives for the Gulch deal. In late April, some Spelman College students protested the selection of Bottoms as commencement speaker over what they considered to be her lack of action on gentrification. One student, Eva Dickerson, posted on Facebook that Bottoms “manipulate[d] her Black Aesthetic for power without allowing herself to be held accountable to the same Black population she panders to.” (Bottoms’s office says the mayor has had conversations with Dickerson and other students.)
Making measurable gains on a visible but amorphous issue like equity requires laser-like focus from the legislative and executive branches, says Matt Westmoreland, an at-large city councilman. He wants Bottoms and the 15-member city council to all get on the same page when it comes to staving off gentrification and reducing income inequality. “Atlanta is undergoing an incredible amount of transformation really quickly. And if affordability and equity are going to be all our hallmarks, we need a plan, and we need to act with a sense of urgency.”
Burt Jones is not the first state politician to covet Hartsfield-Jackson airport. In 1998, after then mayor Bill Campbell fired Angela Gittens, who’d been hired in part to clean up the airport after a contracting scandal ensnared the general manager and a councilmember, two Republican state representatives proposed a state takeover of the airport. The measure went nowhere. A similar attempt in 2002 also fizzled, as did a trial balloon the following year to privatize the airport. There were a few reasons. Most obviously, Democrats controlled the state House then. There were also fiscal reasons. The Georgia Constitution prohibited the state from taking a local government’s property without compensation. The deal the city and Delta struck in 2016 to extend the airline’s lease at Hartsfield-Jackson contained a provision that essentially said any transfer of ownership of the airport would require renegotiating approximately $2.4 billion in outstanding bonds at a higher interest rate, which in this case would be under the state’s name. And that could potentially damage the state’s sterling AAA bond rating—which Chris Riley, who served as Deal’s chief of staff, calls “the third rail of Georgia politics.”
For years, the relationship between Reed at City Hall and Deal at the governor’s mansion was mutually beneficial. Deal relied on Reed’s access to the Obama White House for federal funds to deepen the Savannah port and for transportation projects across the state; Reed knew Deal, in return, would be a check on any attempt to usurp the mayor’s power and expedite state dollars for the city. Even when Reed left office and Deal had a year left, the airport issue was never on the table. “I said, on behalf of the governor, this is not a topic of conversation,” says Riley.
Then, on December 18, 2017, roughly two weeks before Bottoms took office, the lights went out at Hartsfield-Jackson. An electrical fire—whose cause Georgia Power is still investigating—in an airport tunnel knocked out its main power system and the nearby backup, leaving the terminals and the tens of thousands of passengers inside literally in the dark. Flights across the country and overseas were canceled. Reed, who apologized for delays to passengers, said the city did not immediately know what sparked the fire. His focus, he said, was on getting the airport back up and running.
But to Jones, watching the news, the mayor did not sufficiently own up to the city’s responsibility. “That was when I said, this might need a little closer look because this is too important of an entity not to have a little more accountability in instances like this,” Jones says.
Working in Jones’s favor and against Bottoms was the changed political calculus under the Gold Dome. Casey Cagle—the former lieutenant governor—and Deal were gone, replaced by Geoff Duncan and Kemp, who was pushing a legislative agenda that included a controversial bill virtually banning abortion in Georgia. Where Cagle and Deal were demonstrated allies of the city, Duncan and Kemp were unknown variables.
Simmering beneath any debate over the airport’s future is race. In the state Senate and state House, where the GOP enjoys strong majorities, there are precisely zero black Republicans. Politically speaking, the city of Atlanta—the economic and cultural engine of the state—is often at the mercy of forces beyond its control, and those forces are made up of almost exclusively white men. During debate over Jones’s bill in the Senate, Nan Orrock, a white Democrat from Atlanta, said, “There’s an old trope here that’s quietly bubbling beneath the surface. And that is the old trope that black people can’t run things. ‘It’s just going to be a mess if you let those black people run something. We’ve got to put the state over there in charge. ’Cause they’ll never straighten it out.’”
The day after Calvin Smyre made his visit to City Hall to meet with Bottoms and her staff, House leaders did exactly what Smyre had told Bottoms to anticipate: They downgraded the takeover authority into a state oversight committee, which would scrutinize procurement, finances, and public safety issues at Hartsfield-Jackson, along with nine other airports in Georgia. Under the new model, the city would still maintain control and manage the airport but would be subject to a board’s scrutiny. In addition, the measure was combined with an airline fuel tax break that Kemp wanted, along with legislation to boost rural transit that the Senate had resisted. It was now a “Frankenbill,” a bloated piece of stitched-together legislation with elements aimed at appealing to disparate groups of lawmakers, thus making it harder (or sometimes easier) to kill.
Asked at town halls held in Buckhead, Cascade, and south Atlanta about when she would “stand up to Governor Kemp,” Bottoms deflected. “It’s our hope that the relationship that we’ve had with the state, that’s been a very productive relationship, will continue. And we’re continuing to work and pray with where we go with the airport. We are continuing to work all angles. Stay tuned.” What she didn’t tell the crowds was that she had talked multiple times with Kemp, Duncan, and even Jones on the phone and in quiet Gold Dome visits. After meeting with Smyre, Bottoms spoke with Ralston to tell him that she could not accept the oversight proposal. She would hold firm and continue lobbying state officials. She would not make a high-profile Gold Dome appearance, similar to what Reed might have attempted.
As midnight approached on Sine Die, the final day of the 40-day legislative session, a conference committee assigned to iron out the differences in the Frankenbill was deadlocked. For an issue so large, commingled with so many other important measures, time was too short. The night ended without any action being taken on the Frankenbill. But bills in the General Assembly live on two-year cycles. Though on the surface Sine Die seemed like a small victory for the city, the takeover bill is nowhere near dead, just resting until lawmakers return in January. “It’s just a conference committee within being on the governor’s desk,” Jones later said. “We’ll see.”
Or not. In the weeks after Sine Die, it became more evident that the appetite to take over the airport was limited to Jones and some legislative backbenchers. In April, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan told the AJC that he has no appetite for a state takeover—he just wanted Bottoms to clean up any corruption. And six days after Sine Die, Kemp broke his silence on the airport, telling a Rotary Club crowd that “sometimes you can be thankful, as Georgians, that nothing actually happened.”
Of course, if the federal investigation into the airport continues to yield indictments—especially indictments of current city officials or for corruption at the airport—the state’s patience might be exhausted. The ongoing FAA investigation into the city’s use of aviation funds could give Jones and other senators new ammunition for their argument.
Bottoms eagerly hears out advice from her predecessors. It came fast and furious in the weeks when the airport’s fate was uncertain. Reed, for example, advised his own plan of attack. But the strategy she ultimately chose, she says, was her own. “That airport [fight] wasn’t going to be won standing outside the door of the Senate,” Bottoms says. “We prevailed because of the countless meetings and conversations I had about where we were. I’m a workhorse, not a showhorse. It didn’t matter what people thought I was doing. I knew what I was doing.”
This article appears in our June 2019 issue.