Will Atlanta journalists miss boxing with Kasim Reed?

In this period between Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s last public address and Mayor-elect Andre Dickens’s first one, we took a moment to see if local media aren’t a bit disappointed that they didn’t get another four years of covering the former mayor.

Kasim Reed
Kasim Reed speaks at an event in 2017.

Photograph by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Universal Pictures

Even when he’s speaking softly, there is the low rumble of distant thunder in Kasim Reed’s voice—the threat that a routine speech could morph into a tirade at the drop of a hat. Wielding the spoken word like a judge’s gavel carried him from courthouses to the statehouse to the chief seat of City Hall, and those on the receiving end of his soliloquies learned quickly whether they were in for praise and support or a sharp left hook. Many of the folks who took Hizzoner’s shots to the chin were journalists, and in many ways, Reed’s combative nature made him the ideal subject for a story. Being blocked by Reed on Twitter almost became a badge of honor among the local press corps. But now, all of a sudden, Reed—who declined through an intermediary to be interviewed for this article—is quiet, regrouping after a devastating defeat in the race for his old job.

His confidence, of course, was an asset as both a leader and a candidate, according to Emory University political science associate professor Andra Gillespie. “The problem was in crossing the line in becoming arrogant and uncharitable to others,” she tells Atlanta in an interview. So when Reed, soon after entering this year’s race, sat down with his one-time nemesis, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Bill Torpy, to declare, “I’m a better person,” eyebrows understandably jumped.

“He was trying to be nice at first, I guess, because I was coming in as his arch enemy in the press—his opponent or his foil,” Torpy says of the June interview with Reed. “I think he figured, if I wasn’t there beating him up, that would show that he’s not the old guy.”

The old guy “was a bully,” Torpy says. “But he was also thin-skinned, and that was a beautiful thing for me. He definitely liked to scrap.” Both boxing fans, the two sparred for years over Reed’s mayoral leadership and Torpy’s printed interpretation of it. In one of more than a dozen press releases deployed to lambaste Torpy and call foul on his writing—including takes on pension reform, airport leadership, and electoral politics—the then-mayor’s office said Reed was the scribe’s “favorite target.” In another, the administration said Torpy “employs a worn and dishonest rhetorical formula throughout his work in which he attempts to obscure his ultimate motives of furthering a one-sided, unprovoked feud against City Hall.” Torpy and his editors stand by his reporting.

Torpy, who’s been an AJC columnist since 2014—and a reporter before that—says Reed is the only public official to ever issue a press release about his writing. “It was almost Trumpian before Trump was Trump,” he says. Still, Torpy adds, “I suppose I will miss him.”

Long-time journalist Maria Saporta, founder of news site SaportaReport, felt Reed’s wrath by way of press release and public diatribe, too. She wrote about Reed for her own site, as well as for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, and unlike Torpy, says she will not miss covering Reed. “At one time, I thought covering City Hall would be boring after Kasim,” Saporta says. “But honestly, I can say I’m so relieved that I won’t have to participate in his mind games anymore.”

“I don’t think Kasim ever understood the role of the press and what we do when we cover an elected leader,” she tells Atlanta. “We question things, and we hold them accountable.”

Reed, Saporta says, did not like his authority questioned, such as when she accused him in a column of selling Fort McPherson to film mogul Tyler Perry for a “pittance.” And as the two got to know each other over the years—her poking and prodding and him firing back with the raw power of his office—a sort of rivalry blossomed. In this, she and Torpy were kindred spirits. Saporta says she and Torpy “kind of had a running competition about who had the most press releases [issued about them].” Torpy won, she admits.

But Reed’s office rarely poked holes in Saporta’s reporting. In fact, his team’s press releases sometimes would link to her stories, sending a flood of web traffic her way. “Some people even accused me of trying to piss Kasim off so I would get more readers to SaportaReport,” she says.

Reed came into this year’s race haunted by the city hall bribery scandal that saw several of his closest advisors jailed or indicted by the federal government. For that reason, among others (he had the most name recognition among the candidates and was the presumptive front-runner for much of the race), headlines about him piled up, stacking higher than the copy filed on his competitors. That was inevitable, Gillespie says. No doubt, she adds, “he was newsworthy.”

Itoro Umontuen, managing editor at the Atlanta Voice, says his outlet enjoyed a cordial enough relationship with Reed—he even ran campaign ads in the publication—but the journalist also claims he was especially tactful when interviewing the politician. “As an attorney, Reed loves being challenged,” he says. “But the questioning”—particularly about the corruption scandal—“in his mind, was accusatory.”

Umontuen started covering Reed during the 2017 mayoral contest, which saw Bottoms topple then-City Councilmember Mary Norwood by a slim margin of just a few hundred votes. During an Election Night event at downtown’s Hyatt Regency, Democrat Jon Ossoff, who at the time was running for Congress against Republican Karen Handel, was speaking in support of Bottoms when Reed and his posse rolled in. “I could literally see Ossoff shrink on stage as Atlanta’s press corps began to coalesce around Kasim like an amoeba surrounding its host cell,” Umontuen says. Reed scowled when asked about the corruption investigation and told reporters, “I’m just here to support Keisha.”

Reed’s ability to command a room never faltered when he reemerged for his latest campaign, Umontuen says. Nor did his ego deflate during his time away from politics. “I’m not going to say he wanted to be king, but I think he’s similar to an athlete who is used to being cheered on in front of 90,000 people,” Umontuen says. “And then they retire; they can’t put on the uniform anymore and they have to find something else to fulfill that hit the fans give them.”

Like Umontuen, Steve Fennessy, host of GPB’s Georgia Today radio show and former Atlanta editor-in-chief, never had quite the adversarial relationship with Reed that Saporta, Torpy, and others had to navigate. He met Reed as a newly minted mayor. They developed a professional rapport that earned the reporter access to some of the chief’s final days in office. “I think there was no small part of many journalists who were secretly hoping that Reed would come back to office,” Fennessy says of the latest mayoral contest.

“[Reed] harkens back to the brawling aspect of politics, which you found a lot more in past generations, where city politics specifically was a no-holds-barred, bare-fisted kind of arena,” Fennessy says. “I think his instinct is to be that pugilist. He basically says, I won’t start it, but if someone taps me on the shoulder, I’m going to turn around and pop him . . .  I’m going to come back at you, and I’m going to bring overwhelming force. That’s his political style.”

No doubt, Reed’s effort to update his image—to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler, more mature politician, making nice with reporters and running ads featuring children on playgrounds—wasn’t as successful as he’d hoped. Perhaps the abrupt pivot back to his pugnacious ways, displayed during candidate debates, gave voters whiplash that confused and concerned them.

Gillespie adds, though, that at 52, Reed is “still young” in the political world.

“He still has time to remake himself,” she says. “But he’s going to have to think long and hard about what he wants to run for.”

For Reed, being mayor of Atlanta was, as Fennessy put it in a sprawling feature chronicling the end of his second term, “the only job he’s wanted since he was 13.”

“There’s a line in the movie Broadcast News where one of the characters says, What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?” Fennessy says. “The other character says, Keep it to yourself.

Fennessy echoed Gillespie’s assessment, too: “Never count Kasim out,” he says. “He’s really smart. He’s really ambitious. Eventually, though, he had to lose. So the question is, where does he go from here? I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him at all.”

Editor’s note: Author Sean Keenan has written for SaportaReport and currently covers housing affordability for Atlanta Civic Circle, a publication co-founded by Maria Saporta.