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Mayor's race stakes are simple: Saving Atlanta

Kasim Reed vows to tackle fraud and waste, and become a regional leader



First of an occasional series on the candidates for mayor

John McCain is right about one thing: The national debate is less about left-right divides than it is about America either going forward or back. That McCain would see his aping of George Bush's lethal and ruinous policies as "forward" is just another proof that we are descending into an "idiocracy."

And, of course, when you think of idiocracies, Georgia immediately comes to mind. What often saved the state from a total descent into how-much-damage-can-we-do-to-ourselves stupidity was an Atlanta leadership that occasionally bordered on enlightenment. As former Mayor Ivan Allen once told a Boston University researcher: "We had a really strong business civic community. Not everyone, not always."

Allen said that just before the 1996 Olympic Games, when then-Mayor Bill Campbell still elicited "ooohs" and "ahhhs" of admiration, before he joined the criminal scalawag wing of the idiocracy.

As Allen described, the bidness leaders were the city's backroom government. As Campbell's disgraced regime imploded, they huddled and decided Shirley Franklin could polish up the city's reputation. She was, so the patter of conversation went, corporate and competent.

Sorry, that was wrong. Since her 2005 re-election, Franklin has been busy globe trotting and otherwise uninvolved in being a hands-on manager. The fallout from her laissez-faire style has been the $140 million budget train wreck, the billions of dollars in cost overruns in the sewer project and airport expansion, an incredibly ill-conceived purchase of the Beltline's northeast quadrant that will eat up most of the project's first bond issue, the demoralized police force, etcetera etcetera. In short, Franklin isn't likely to be on any magazine covers again soon. Competency has fled City Hall.

So who will be next? In this and coming editions, I'll talk to the bold adventurers who are seeking the city's top job. The stakes are high. Atlanta could well be at the end of its reign as the South's economic capital. Charlotte – with its new transit systems, high-tech companies galore, world-class education and, most of all, progressive and sane state and local leadership – is eating our lunch. Breakfast and dinner, too.

Meanwhile, the state's Republican potentates don't even blush as they conspire against Atlanta. Much of our own civic leadership is, on a good day, petty. The schools fester with nonachievement, the streets are clogged, water supplies are threatened. The election is a year and a half off, but the race is humming. Will it be state Sen. Kasim Reed or City Council President Lisa Borders or council members Mary Norwood or Caesar Mitchell? Or maybe a dark horse?

First at bat is Reed. The quick handicapping: He's a partner at one of the nation's most powerful law firms, Holland & Knight. He's an able state senator who won re-election this year without opposition. He has championed the region's transportation needs, among other things. In the short time since he formally started his campaign, he's raised close to $200,000. He'll likely dominate the city's southside, with the northern tier a battleground between Borders and Norwood, and Mitchell bringing up the pack.

As opposed to the generally introverted nature of city government, Reed says Atlanta must become a regional leader, and he offers as a role model Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.

"The Denver region includes no less than nine municipal governments that have put aside local political interests to aggressively address the redevelopment of military bases, sustained annual funding of the arts, transit mobility, water resource management and education reform," Reed says. "They have worked through these issues as partners and have made extraordinary progress on issues that mirror many of the challenges we face."

With Churchillian resolve, Reed proclaims: "Atlanta will lead where appropriate, as our infrastructure and economic contribution to the region and state is irreplaceable. But we must also be a helpful partner to other local governments to ensure regional cooperation and sustained economic growth."

OK, OK, a lot of pretty words. Is Reed tough enough to tackle City Hall? For a start, he blasts much of what's going on in Atlanta government as "fraud and waste" – a comment not aimed at, but which certainly reflects on, his mentor, Mayor Franklin. On the massive cost overruns, he says, "I have to be ready to fire people. If they can't do what they're supposed to under budget and on time, they must leave, no matter who they are."

Reed is political-caliber handsome and elegantly tailored, but on a recent afternoon, he quickly shifted gears from the corporate lawyer to the handshaking, "Things going well for you?" candidate at a Peachtree Starbucks. He pointed to passers-by. "That lady," he says, "if someone knocks her down and steals her purse, that will be a big deal when I'm mayor. But it's more than just the crime itself. It's what it does to the fabric of the city, what it does to our economy and economic development."

Although Franklin claims openness, her administration is marked more by murkiness than transparency. Reed says that's not his style, that he will spend his first two years righting the city financially, bringing in auditors to dissect what's gone wrong. "And the people at the table, I want 35 or 40 percent of them to be the ones who think I stink and hate my guts, who will criticize everything we do," he says. "That's how you build strength."

When asked what are his aspirations and his worries, he doesn't pause a microsecond. "When you walk in the door on day one, you have to confront the elephants in the room," he says. "The [airport] international terminal, $1.6 billion. The water and sewer project, $4 billion. The civil rights museum, which is critical for tourism, $250 million. The Beltline, which they say is $2.8 billion but I'd bet is really more like $4.8 billion. Fort McPherson [redevelopment], $2 billion to $4 billion.

"Anyone who thinks that's a traditional list of campaign issues isn't living in reality. You might survive getting one of those things wrong, but not two. My goal is to get them all right."

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