TUESDAY, NOV. 7, 2017
In the Coretta Scott King suite on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency, the 59th mayor of Atlanta was doing something he’s never enjoyed nor been particularly good at. He was waiting. Waiting—and this was the worst part—to be summoned. Downstairs, the supporters of Keisha Lance Bottoms, his heir apparent, were also waiting, but at least they were sipping $11 well drinks and, when the DJ played the right song, doing the Wobble. Not that the mayor drinks. Or wobbles. He’d taken off his navy blue suit jacket and was sitting at the chair positioned at the center of the rectangular table, itself positioned at the center of the suite. There were TVs switched on at both ends of the room, and his friends and supporters and staffers clustered about them, waiting for the results to come in. This being Fulton County, where election returns take so long you’d think they were counting votes on an abacus, there was down time. Someone put a cold can of Coca-Cola on the table in front of the mayor, and he popped it open. He pulled out his phone and started scrolling.
A mayor of a big city has a gravitational force. The closer you get, the stronger the pull, until you find yourself in an orbit, and the next thing you know, you’re measuring your path against those of all the other satellites. Who’s drawing closer? Who’s pulling away? Kasim Reed had spent the last 2,865 days of his administration taking a tactical pleasure in the jockeying around him. From the outside, it may appear enervatingly chaotic—the backbiting, the scrambling for his audience and approval—but to a certain personality type, it can be motivating. It can drive them to excellence. As well as to exhaustion. Talk to those who worked for Reed for most or even all of his years in office, and they’ll mention the vacations they plan to take and the lost hours of sleep they plan to catch up on when he leaves in January. You’d search for a while before you found Reed veterans who weren’t quietly relieved their boss couldn’t run for four more years. The fact of the matter is (“the fact of the matter” being one of the mayor’s favorite turns of phrase, no doubt because it telegraphs that what’s to come is simply irrefutable) no one ever could outwork Kasim Reed.
Which brings up the opposing force, also called term limits. The mayor of Atlanta can serve no more than two successive terms, though she or he is free to run again after leaving office for at least one term. Maynard Jackson famously did that. But today, most would agree that Jackson’s third term was anticlimactic, which it was probably doomed to be, since his first two terms were propelled in part by the moral and political force that came with being the city’s first black mayor. Jackson made the city—and, most notably, the airport—the kind of place where black contractors and vendors and professionals were not just tolerated; they were encouraged. Jackson made room for them—by statute but also by fiat. He changed the culture of a city. That’s a tough act to follow, even if it’s your own.
When Mike Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, a clock in City Hall counted backward the time left in office, down to the second. Reed never needed a clock. He’s known how much time he had left since he was sworn in on January 4, 2010. When he was a teenager, Reed began mapping out his life on three-by-five cards. Go to Howard. Then law school. Run for state representative. Win. Run for state senator. Win. Each accomplishment was a stepping stone toward the ultimate goal: becoming mayor of Atlanta. So, if you’re one of the people who soured on Reed during the past eight years (and they are legion, and include those who once called him friend), who find him too autocratic, a know-it-all, an egomaniac, consider this: He started planning for this job when he was in eighth grade. No, the real surprise would be if he cared what you thought.
Not that it hasn’t taken a toll. A few months before the general election, in front of a crowd of a hundred or so Atlantans, he was asked about what life will look like for him when he’s no longer mayor. He told the story about the three-by-five cards. “Obviously, I’m a damaged person for having executed on that plan, so I’m looking forward to just walking around,” he said. To read those words, it sounds like a joke, except he wasn’t smiling when he said it.
In the suite tonight were 20 or so guests of the mayor. New arrivals were carefully vetted by his security detail. Reed’s brother, Tracy, was there, along with Tracy’s wife. So was John Ahmann, the longtime ally of Reed who heads up the Westside Future Fund, the privately funded entity trying to resurrect the neighborhoods abutting the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Some of the other guests: Robert Ashe III, the chair of the MARTA board; Amy Phuong, the parks and recreation commissioner; Yvonne Cowser Yancy, commissioner of human resources; Mack Wilbourn, the airport franchisee who once hosted a fundraiser for President Obama at his house; Jeff Dickerson, the public relations consultant who’s a frequent guest on The Georgia Gang; Steve Brock, president of Brock Built homes; Michael Thrasher, founder of Thrasher Contracting & Trucking. The mood was subdued, as if no one seemed particularly sure how to act. Was this a happy occasion? A sad one? Even if Bottoms advanced, as she was expected to, it didn’t change the fact that Reed, whom they had worked for or supported for eight years, and sometimes more, was a short-timer.
Before midnight, Bottoms herself dropped by. She was on her way down to the ballroom to address her supporters. By now, the news was all but official: Bottoms would face off against Mary Norwood in four weeks. (Eight years ago, Norwood came just a few thousand votes short of winning the mayor’s seat outright in the general election, only to have Reed slip past her in the runoff, winning by 714 votes.) Everyone in the room stood and applauded when Bottoms entered.
Bottoms’s eight years on Atlanta’s city council overlapped precisely with the mayor’s two terms. In 2015, she was named executive director of the Atlanta and Fulton County Recreation Authority. By then—or since then, it’s not clear—Reed had settled on her as his designated successor. During the coming weeks leading up to the runoff, Bottoms would find out just how far the mayor’s support would take her, but right now, she was here to thank everyone in the room for their help. There was more applause, and she laughed nervously and said if she cried, it would wreak havoc on her fake eyelashes. She ducked out. A few minutes later, Reed slipped his jacket back on, straightened his tie in the mirror, exited the room, took the elevator, then an escalator, strode past the camera risers in the Regency ballroom, and introduced the woman who would succeed him in the only job he’s ever really wanted.
TUESDAY, NOV. 21, 2017
14 DAYS BEFORE
“Mayor Kasim Reed to make important announcement.” The advisory, proclaiming a 10 a.m. press conference in the mayor’s office, was tantalizingly vague. Or vaguely tantalizing. At precisely 10 a.m., the TV cameras were set up and white-balanced, the microphones positioned, and half of Reed’s cabinet, or so it seemed, stood shoulder to shoulder with a smattering of print and broadcast reporters. The minutes ticked past. At 10:20, we heard the mayor before we actually saw him. He was chuckling from down the hall. He strolled up to the podium and grinned. “Good morning!” he declared. “Wasn’t it nice of me to get you all together for a little fellowship?”
In any given week—on any given day—the mayor’s schedule is a mix of ribbon-cuttings, grip-and-grins, closed-door meetings, and countless phone calls. “I’m not a big user of emails,” Reed has said. Face to face is best, then phone. Emails are to be avoided. When the Braves announced they were leaving the city to build a new ballpark in Cobb County, City Hall released hundreds of emails to satisfy the various Open Records requests demanding all correspondence on the deal. There was just one email from the mayor’s account. Reed is an avid texter, though he does it on his personal cell phone, which presumably shields him from Open Records laws, and he rarely conducts business on his city-issued phone. Likewise, @MayorKasimReed, what you’d imagine would be his official Twitter account, has not been updated in more than six years. Not so for his personal Twitter account—@KasimReed—which boasts more than 414,000 followers (more than any other American mayor, he’ll tell you, except for Bill de Blasio in New York City). Reed’s approach is different from de Blasio’s, however, in that he uses Twitter not just as bullhorn, but as bludgeon. When, two weeks before the general election, WSB-TV reporter Richard Belcher tweeted a link to a story about corruption at City Hall, Reed responded, “You are working overtime to prop your candidates, Norwood & Aman up. A blind man with a blindfold on can see what you are trying to do.”
But today, the mayor was in a good mood. The city had closed on the sale of the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center to the Atlanta Housing Authority, which would work with a developer to convert the 20-acre site, just three blocks from MARTA, into a mixed-income residential and retail destination. Some 250 units in the $300 million development would be reserved for low- and middle-income tenants. It is, Reed said from behind the podium, “the largest commitment to affordable housing in the city of Atlanta in more than 15 years.”
Reed fielded a few questions, and all seemed fine, until one reporter asked him to comment on the news that morning that Ceasar Mitchell, the city council president, would endorse Norwood for mayor in the runoff against Bottoms. Just a few months earlier, the safe money had been on Norwood squaring off against Mitchell in the runoff. It was supposed to be Mitchell’s turn, after all. Eight years earlier, he’d sought out former Ambassador Andrew Young’s endorsement for mayor, but Young had already committed to Reed, and so, as Young tells it, the ambassador encouraged Mitchell to run for council president instead. Mitchell agreed, and in 2017, true to his word, Young endorsed Mitchell for mayor.
Fat lot of good it did Mitchell. Young may be a pastor, adviser to presidents, a civil rights icon, a former mayor himself, but his endorsement of Mitchell—rolled out during a brief lovefest at Paschal’s—was no match for Reed, who took visceral pleasure in using his bully pulpit to slag Mitchell. The list of Atlantans on Reed’s shitlist, and there really is no better word for it, is a long one—Egbert Perry (developer), Shirley Franklin (former mayor), William Perry (Georgia Ethics Watchdogs), Bill Torpy (Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist), Vincent Fort (state senator; failed mayoral candidate), Dale Russell (Fox 5 investigative reporter), Miguel Southwell (former airport chief, fired by Reed), maybe me after he reads this story—but at the top, arguably, is Mitchell. Why? Young told me that he believes it started back when the two men were teenagers, growing up minutes from each other in southwest Atlanta. Is Atlanta really that small of a town? Yes, it is.
Now, back to that question about Mitchell’s endorsement. Here’s something a different politician might have said: We’re here to talk about affordable housing, about how today’s announcement is delivering on a promise to make the most desirable neighborhoods in Atlanta affordable for all. There’s nothing more important.
Or, another politician: It’s a political season. The council president is free to endorse whomever he wants, but I’m confident the voters of Atlanta will see that his decision is motivated more by resentment toward me and disappointment at his sixth-place finish in the general election than out of any real belief that Mary Norwood will be the best mayor for all Atlantans. Endorsements should be just that—endorsements. Not settling grudges.
But Reed was never just another politician. This is what he said: “I’m totally unsurprised. It’s consistent with his career and why he’s getting ready to be fired. He’s a guy who doesn’t even have the decency to show up to work yesterday. Right? So, let’s follow that. He’s the council president, and yesterday, he turned over his responsibilities to [Councilmember] Andre Dickens, who did a fine job. What somebody who should have been mayor would have done is woke up, put on a suit, came to work, did their job. So, Ceasar Mitchell supporting Mary Norwood is one man, one woman—two losers.”
For precisely four seconds, there was silence in the room. Not even the click of a camera shutter. There are a lot of things that Reed will undoubtedly miss about being mayor—his security detail, his city-issued Yukon Denali, his courtiers, his spotlight, his power to shape an entire city—but these awkward silences . . . they are something else altogether. Because for him, they’re not awkward.
“Anybody have anything else for the holiday?”
• • •
The best thing that ever happened to Reed as mayor occurred just after he was sworn in on his first day. He’d taken a MARTA train from the Civic Center to City Hall—he paid more attention to optics in the beginning than toward the end—where the finance people were waiting for him. For his signature, to be precise. Without signing a stack of tax anticipation notes, Reed would effectively be the boss of a company that couldn’t make payroll. For the young mayor, just 40, it was a “crystallizing” moment.
“I wanted to know why we were in that shape,” he told me in his office on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. “The reason we were in that shape is that [the city] had approved bloated pension packages and had made them retroactive. So, it was like that Mission: Impossible scene with the fuse. It was absorbing 18 percent of our cash.” The need for pension reform wasn’t a surprise to Reed; it had been a fraught topic on the campaign trail. But the urgency of the situation, laid bare by his first official act as mayor, focused him.
The Atlanta outside City Hall wasn’t doing any better. Office vacancy rates were at 18 percent and climbing. There was so much empty office space that experts figured it would take 10 years to fill it all—and that’s with no more new construction coming online. Remember how we used to worry Charlotte would overtake us?
“We had developers come in here and offer us all of their property just to save their credit,” Reed told me. “Really proud and distinguished men were trying to save their banking relationships and would come in and ask for the city to provide some help or perhaps purchase real estate because of the distress. People don’t really remember that.”
One of Reed’s favorite books is by a British educator named Michael Barber, who served in former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government in the early 21st century. Called Instruction to Deliver, the book explores how a politician might bridge the daunting gap between a promise made and a promise kept. Barber’s title under Blair was “chief adviser on delivery.” Across 436 wonky pages, Barber explores the concrete steps that the technocrats under Blair took to improve government services on the most granular level, from identifying low-performing train operators to measuring hospital wait times. It’s not easy reading, but for Reed, the rare politician who knows every big picture is simply a collection of small ones, it became a guidestar for his administration. Weekly department head meetings, where Atlanta commissioners and cabinet members would give status updates on projects and priorities (and where Reed would occasionally dress them down), mirrored the periodic “stock-takes” that Barber describes Blair hosting.
“If you don’t get the fundamentals right in government, people won’t believe you for the aspirational aspects of government,” Reed told the Brookings Institution’s Municipal Finance Conference in Washington, D.C., last summer. “If I’m getting hit over the head [going to] my car, don’t come to me talking about a program for kids. If there are potholes in my street, don’t come to me talking about money for greenspace.”
But of course the issue of pension reform was more than just a balance sheet problem; it was political. Unions were appalled that promised benefits for their members might be in jeopardy. “They realized that I was crazy,” Reed said. “The friends who helped make me mayor came into my office and they said, if you put a pension bill on the floor, we’re gonna go get ourselves another mayor.”
Although Reed had won by just 714 votes, he was still early in his term. It was time to test the waters. To ignore pension reform was not an option; even if the city somehow had still managed to avoid bankruptcy by the time he was up for reelection, to let it go unaddressed would not only violate a pledge he’d made on the campaign trail, it would hobble him from doing other things he’d promised, like opening the city recreation centers that budget cuts brought on by the Great Recession had left closed.
Ultimately, the solution that the council approved unanimously in 2011 was a hybrid of several proposals from the mayor and from council members that included a 401(k)-like plan, increased contributions from city employees, a longer vesting time, and a higher retirement age. Everyone took a piece of the credit, because everyone deserved a piece.
Yolanda Adrean, a freshman city councilmember at the time, chaired the finance committee during the pension reform debates and met occasionally with the mayor. “He listened to me,” said Adrean, who didn’t run for reelection in November. “He was patient. I know he has a reputation for being elbows-out, but if you go to him and you’re prepared with facts and you’re working for the common good, he respects that.”
Pension reform set the stage for everything to come. “Our pension costs have gone from 18.5 percent to about 14.5 today,” Reed told the Brookings conference. “We’ve saved $270 million in cash over a 10-year period, and we’ll save $500 million over a 30-year period. It became a joy to come to work because people could now come and work on other things besides laying people off and having furloughs.”
Though “joy” was not a word I heard anyone but Reed use in describing life at City Hall under him, it’s also true that those in his inner circle, especially during the early days, felt a sense of mission and purpose that was unlike anything they’d ever experienced before. As a boss, Reed’s philosophy was simple: Hire smart people, give them autonomy, and always have their backs. In exchange, he pushed them. Hard.
“He bets on people—and potential,” said Duriya Farooqui, who was a rare holdover from the administration of Reed’s predecessor, Shirley Franklin. Since 2016, Farooqui has been executive director of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, a consortium of local business and civic leaders that acts as a kind of sounding board for the mayor. But in 2010, she was 33, deputy COO under Peter Aman, and assigned to negotiate with Delta on wrapping up the long-delayed international terminal.
“When I think about the initiatives and ambitions that the mayor had for the city that I was empowered to execute,” Farooqui said, “would I have given myself that charge if I was in his place at the time? Hell no.” In 2011, after COO Peter Aman left, Reed promoted Farooqui, and before she herself left in 2014, she negotiated for the city in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium discussions.
Reed and his team delivered results: The city’s credit rating is now AA+, one step below the highest ranking. He unloaded city-owned parcels—City Hall East, Underground Atlanta, Fort McPherson, the Civic Center, Turner Field—that were more trouble than they were worth, prompting some to label him the “real estate mayor.” He brokered a deal for the Falcons to build a new stadium. He partnered with Republican Governor Nathan Deal, a relationship that expedited the deepening of the Savannah port and made Reed more welcome in the city-hostile halls of the General Assembly.
Reed reopened every recreation center in the city, two-thirds of which had been shuttered when he took office, cleverly rebranding them as “Centers of Hope.” He championed LGBTQ rights, the BeltLine, sustainability, and mass transit. Under Reed, the police department hired its 2,000th officer, a goal articulated but not achieved by his two immediate predecessors. (It has since dipped back below that number.) All of this he did without raising property taxes while also building up cash reserves (as city law dictates he must do) to almost $200 million. Undoubtedly, he was helped along the way by national trends of falling crime rates and surging employment plus a generational renaissance of cities across the country, particularly in the Sun Belt, but Reed, a man who keeps careful score, does not need to grade his accomplishments on a curve.
There were losses. He campaigned tirelessly for the first T-SPLOST in 2012, a one percent sales tax referendum that would have funded $7.2 billion in transportation improvements across 10 counties. It failed miserably. And it was under Reed’s watch that the Braves negotiated with Cobb County in secret before announcing the franchise would build a new stadium there.
Atlanta’s rapid growth—$3.5 billion in new construction permits in 2016—has, paradoxically, focused a starker light on its failures. Four out of five black children in Atlanta grow up in impoverished neighborhoods, while just one in 20 white children do. The BeltLine has been a relentless engine for intown growth but increasingly at a cost to the homeowners and renters whose historic neighborhoods it transects. Unemployment rates for black Atlantans are three times that of white Atlantans. Atlanta remains the most economically divided city in the nation. The average credit score for a nonwhite Atlantan is 560—subprime—which makes them vulnerable to vulture lenders. To be black in Atlanta is, statistically speaking, to be poor in Atlanta. This phenomenon is far from unique to the administration of Kasim Reed, but as the percentage of white Atlantans begins to creep back to levels not seen since the early 1970s, and as the median price of a home hits record highs, the “Atlanta Way” has begun to look like the way to nowhere special.
• • •
Of course, there’s what Reed did in eight years, and there’s how he did it. “Kasim is like a bowling ball: Get the hell out of my way, or get knocked down,” said Andrew Young, who was first elected to lead City Hall in 1981. Young was hardly an accidental mayor, but he recalled being almost guilted into running after serving as former President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations. “I had no idea what I was going to do as mayor until I became mayor,” he told me. So, he read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Reed, on the other hand, is very much a deliberate mayor, and the almost desperate urgency he’s maintained while in office left Young in awe. “In terms of being productive, I don’t think there’s any mayor who’s done more that’s beneficial to the city than he did.”
It was an appearance by then Mayor Young at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in the early 1980s that gave a 13-year-old Kasim Reed, who was sitting in the congregation, his life’s mission. Said Young: “I was told back when he was in college that he was too arrogant to succeed. I said, ‘No. Doing what he’s trying to do, you’ve got to be arrogant to try it.’ They said Maynard was arrogant. I probably am, too. But I know how to conceal it.”
If Reed ever was inclined to conceal his arrogance, he pretty much abandoned that pretense during his last year. In July, both WSB-TV and Fox 5 aired stories on an April trip that 10 city employees, including Reed, took to South Africa. Six of the plane tickets were business class, and the total airfare was almost $81,000. (After the reports, Reed’s office said that an unnamed NGO would reimburse the difference between the cost of business class and coach.) Similarly, 12 days before the general election, the AJC reported that leftover money in a political committee funded by local businesses to drum up support for the 2015 transit referendum went to help fund the campaigns of seven of Reed’s allies on city council. A “slush fund,” one mayoral candidate called it.
But no shadow over Reed’s final year—indeed over potentially his legacy—looms larger than the federal government’s ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) investigation into corruption at City Hall. So far, it’s ensnared two contractors (who are each serving prison sentences on charges they conspired to bribe an unnamed person $1 million in connection with city business) as well as Adam Smith, who was the city’s chief procurement officer until Reed fired him the day the FBI marched into City Hall and seized Smith’s computer. (Smith admitted to taking bribes in exchange for helping an unnamed vendor win a contract with the city; he’s to be sentenced this month.)
At the October sentencing of the two contractors, an assistant U.S. attorney said that “this year has brought into clear focus that corruption in the city of Atlanta is prolific.” It was that word—prolific—that especially alarmed and appalled Shirley Franklin. “It’s abominable,” she told me, “that any city contractor—people who’ve been here for years and years—thought during the last eight years that they had to pay someone $1 million to get a contract.”
To Franklin, Reed’s response—that his office has been cooperating fully with the investigation—was insufficient. “‘Cooperating’ with the U.S. attorney?” she said, incredulous. “What fool doesn’t? The adequate answer is, ‘I’m getting to the bottom of this, and I want to know what the U.S. attorney knows that I need to fix.’”
In February, in one of the most passive-aggressive acts in Atlanta political history, Reed called a press conference to announce the release of 1.5 million pages of City Hall documents that his administration had turned over to federal investigators. Dozens of the 400 banker boxes served as a backdrop for the photo op. “What I wasn’t going to allow to happen was for y’all to question my commitment to sunshine,” he said. Thousands of pages were printed in a font so small they were illegible. Reporters spent hours randomly riffling through the documents. If that was Reed’s idea of sunshine, everyone left with melanoma.
The question on everyone’s mind was—and remains—how “prolific” is the corruption at City Hall? At the press conference, one reporter asked Reed directly if he had taken a bribe. “Absolutely not,” Reed said. “I have never taken a bribe. I have given my life to this job. For seven years, day in and day out, I have poured myself into this job. I’ve wanted to be mayor of Atlanta since I was 13. And if you think that I would throw my life away for some short-term gratification, you don’t know me well, and you don’t know the plans that I have for my own life.”
Adrean, the outgoing city councilmember, told me that it’s the job of the mayor to address the calcified and corrosive culture of how procurement is done at City Hall. “So many of our contracts are legacy contracts that go on for 25 years. There’s so little disclosure of who these people are. We’re a public company. We’re funded by taxpayer dollars, and yet, the majority of our vendors are private businesses who don’t have the disclosure [rules] that public companies do.
“Until we get a mayor who’s absolutely serious about changing business as usual, we are going to have this long shadow across the city,” Adrean said. “The next council has to take [reform] seriously, or it’ll bring us to our knees.”
• • •
The 2017 campaign for mayor lacked the urgency and energy of eight years ago, thanks in part to the preposterous number of candidates (13, at one point) running to succeed Reed. Debates felt less like robust exchanges than tedious table readings from an ensemble cast that had grown weary of one another. Up until late summer, the safe money had been on Mitchell to make the runoff against Norwood, who was back again, undaunted eight years after her razor-thin loss to Reed. But Mitchell was languishing. Meanwhile, Cathy Woolard was finding her voice and competing with Aman, Reed’s former COO. And Bottoms, the sole black female candidate in a city where black women are the largest voting demographic, was breaking free of the pack, at least according to a poll in early October. By the time Reed went on V-103’s morning show to announce his endorsement on October 11, Bottoms had found momentum.
“She led the effort on pension reform. She helped me reopen every recreation center in the city of Atlanta. She led when I was fighting to make sure that every woman in the city of Atlanta received equal pay. She led when I wanted to open a women’s entrepreneurship initiative,” Reed told Ryan Cameron, the V-103 morning host. “I’m gonna do everything I can to see that this woman wins. She deserves it.” Then, cryptically, he added: “I want folks to look out for her and stop letting folks be so reckless talking about this black woman. I’m trying to check that.”
Cameron didn’t follow up, but Reed didn’t need him to; the mayor had done what he’d come to do. He’d given a public (if not full-throated) endorsement in the race to succeed him, and he’d also launched a warning shot that Bottoms’s opponents should be careful what they say about “this black woman.” Reed’s comments were a kind of preemptive strike. From now on, anyone who looked at Bottoms—at, for example, the donations from airport contractors that were helping fuel her campaign as they had Reed’s before—and concluded, or even worried, that a Bottoms administration would be merely an extension of his own, and that she was in his debt or, worse, in his thrall . . . well, to have those concerns meant you were sexist. Maybe even racist.
Jeff Dickerson, who used to work at the AJC and now runs his own public affairs firm, is a strident Reed defender. He believes that at least some of the criticism of Reed stems from a deep-seated discomfort with a black mayor who’s unapologetically forthright. “It’s another form of racism. When you’re as effective as [Reed] has been and all people talk about is your confrontational style, something’s wrong with that. If he were white and pugilistic or confrontational, they’d just say he was being an assertive, strong mayor . . . I say to myself, it’s time that an African-American male mayor should have license to be able to say whatever the hell’s on his mind. Everybody can’t be Barack Obama.”
As the December 5 runoff approached, though, and with Bottoms catching flak for her association with Reed, the mayor eased up. One week before the election, he spoke with me for an hour in his office. The “losers” comment had clearly done Bottoms no favors. Still, he didn’t like muzzling himself.
“To never respond,” he said, “is exactly what is wrong with politics right now. People elect you to win for them and fight for them. What I understood very early was that I am responsible for governing the people of the city of Atlanta. Sitting right here, my job approval is [in the] mid-60s . . . and the city’s ‘right track’ number is 69. I know all of this because we monitor it constantly. I know who my market is.”
Simply put, Reed explained, if Atlantans disapproved of his combative approach, then his approval numbers wouldn’t be so high. “If there was something showing up in our data that said that people did not like this in our focus groups, trust me, I’m a decent politician. I would adjust,” he said. The metrics justified the means.
And yet, he added, “if you do your research on me, I’ve never picked on anybody. Never. You can mine all of the data on me, and you will not find one time where I walked up to somebody and tapped their shoulder. That’s not even who I am. But what I believe from my father is that when people engage you in a way that is negative, you have to make it so terrible for them that they decide to pick on someone else.”
Reed often invokes his record of never having any legislation rejected by city council. Why not, I asked, use that traction to once and for all reform the procurement process in the city to make it more transparent and less susceptible to corruption? “I’ve really wracked my brain about it,” he replied. He cited ethics laws that he described as the “toughest” already in place, plus he’d prevailed in every significant court battle from would-be contractors claiming the deck was stacked against them. “The regret I have is that I think it caused me to take my guard down a bit and to become less vigilant.” He said that he’d hired a “leading law firm” to review every aspect of the procurement process, and that the firm had conducted “more than 40 interviews” before making their recommendations. (Later, Jenna Garland, a mayoral spokesperson, told me the city had issued a Request for Proposal for a consultant to review the procurement process but had yet to make a selection.)
I asked if he was frustrated that he’d be leaving office without the federal investigation being resolved. “No. I understand the perils of this job. Men who are better than me have had to go through this exact same kind of review. I run an organization with 8,500 people, and I take this extremely seriously. It is heartbreaking to me that this is happening. Anybody that looks at the way that I’ve run this government knows that I was trying to build something special. I believe that at the end of the day, we’re gonna receive a fair judgment. My personality is to keep running hard. I’m still so glad that I won.”
When he came into office, Reed was a bachelor. He was, by his own admission, “driven in an unhealthy and selfish way.” “The life I delayed”—marriage to Sarah-Elizabeth Langford, who gave birth to their daughter Maria Kristin in 2014—“is really filling my life now. I’m not gonna mislead you and say it fully fills it, but it certainly is much sweeter and slower and happier. My daughter, she just owns me.”
Not long after the next mayor is inaugurated, Reed and his family will board a flight for the Bahamas. “I’m going to have a month or two months where I’m going to be pretty much unrecognizable. And I want to learn Spanish.” After that? He expects he’ll join a university or a think tank before he maps out his next move. President Donald Trump’s victory scuttled any plans he might have had for a job in a Hillary Clinton administration, so the man with the five-year plans is feeling . . . unsettled. I asked if he would consider running for mayor again. “I don’t know,” he said. But he seemed eager to put to rest any thought that he’d play a behind-the-scenes role in a Bottoms administration. “I really have a strong ‘leave’ personality. I never wanted to be the guy who went back to his high school with his varsity jacket on. If you look at my career, I haven’t gone back.
“I’m ready to leave.”
On December 5, clinging to a 759-vote lead (a margin almost as thin as Reed’s 714-vote margin eight years earlier), Bottoms declared victory. I met with Reed briefly in his suite after Bottoms’s victory speech in a Hyatt Regency ballroom. Boxes of pizza sat opened on a countertop. Sarah-Elizabeth sat beside him. “My goal was for Keisha to be in the runoff,” Reed said. “Once that goal was achieved, my role changed to gathering influencers and focusing on raising the money that was necessary in a very short amount of time.” Due in part to their exasperation with Reed, many of his rivals endorsed Norwood. They included Mitchell, Franklin, Aman, and Woolard. In turn, Bottoms trotted out endorsements from celebrities like Killer Mike and T.I., while Reed leveraged his contacts with national Democrats to bring in New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and California Senator Kamala Harris. “They came in to stem that momentum that had been created [for Norwood] out of those endorsements.”
Reed was taking a special pleasure in the WSB poll that had come out days before the election that had shown Norwood with a six-point lead. Reed suspected that the poll hurt Norwood. “It caused her voters on the north side to feel like the race was won.”
He said he’d told Bottoms after the general election that he knew Norwood was beatable when his former opponent went home early that night. “I believe that she never recovered from losing to me. It’s the demon. You can see it in her.”
Reed had taken off his suit jacket. He leaned back. “I have a lot of peace.”
This article originally appeared in our January 2018 issue.