Even as it heads into the final days before the election, the Atlanta mayor’s race remains, as it has for months now, a showdown between three well-funded, skilled politicians, who are followed some distance behind by an earnest outsider. Voters seem largely indifferent and indecisive — perhaps because there’s a tough choice here, but also some easy ones.
First, the easy. Jesse Spikes has an impressive background as a Rhodes scholar and a Harvard-educated partner in a well-connected law firm, and he’s picked up some support as a none-of-the-above candidate. But his entire message is that City Hall “needs to get its financial house in order,” while providing no evidence to suggest he has the skills to perform that task.
On the other hand, front-runner Mary Norwood is a small bundle of near-manic energy who’s spent the past four or five years tirelessly engaged in unofficial campaigning, visiting neighborhood groups and holding town-hall meetings across the city. She’s forged personal connections with voters from Buckhead to Ben Hill, who perceive the councilwoman as someone who truly cares.
Unfortunately, her skill as a campaigner obscures the fact that, during two terms on Council, Norwood has been strikingly ineffective. She’s never chaired a Council committee; she endlessly laments her inability to gain access to city documents; she concedes that Mayor Shirley Franklin has spoken to her only a couple of times in eight years; and she complains that her legislation is often ignored by city department heads.
Norwood’s cultivated image is that of a powerful rabble-rouser who’s been thwarted in her efforts to challenge the status quo. But the reality is that Norwood is considered a lightweight inside City Hall because she has a tendency to flit from one issue to the next, often taking reactionary positions based on superficial information, seemingly unable to maintain the focus needed to craft thoughtful civic policy.
And Norwood’s campaign platform is financially irresponsible. She calls for a large increase in public-safety spending, but dismisses the city budget as incomprehensible, readily admitting she’ll have no clue how to fund her initiatives until after she’s sworn in. However well-intentioned, Norwood lacks the temperament, analytical thinking, leadership skills, and, frankly, the vision needed to succeed as mayor.
Now comes the hard part. The thin sliver of the electorate that’s turned out for any of the dozens of mayoral forums have seen each event turn into a duel between Council President Lisa Borders and state Sen. Kasim Reed, both natural politicians who are well-matched in rhetorical skill and stage presence.
Borders, a former Cousins Property executive turned Grady fundraiser, and Reed, a partner at a national law firm, possess a seemingly encyclopedic grasp of city government and an impressive command of policy minutiae. Both have an unflappable professionalism that would serve them well as the city’s top executive. And both have laudable resumes and the kind of high-level connections in the public and private sectors that are essential to the position. In short, Borders and Reed are both highly qualified and capable candidates for mayor — plus, they have similar plans for boosting public safety.
But we believe Reed deserves the edge for several reasons: his strong record of leadership as a minority-party legislator; his solid relationships with state lawmakers; and his clear-eyed, pragmatic vision of Atlanta’s future.
If you’ve followed Reed on the campaign trail, you know he hasn’t promised any revenue initiatives of the scale of Borders’ point-of-sale tax collection proposal. But the Borders plan, while intriguing, could be well beyond any mayor’s ability to deliver. Reed, by contrast, has chosen to focus on cost-cutting reforms he could reasonably enact, such as scaling back Atlanta’s ruinous pension liabilities, reining in employee overtime and using fewer outside lawyers.
Nor has Reed shied away from offering specific changes he’d implement as mayor, from trimming the city’s IT department to replacing the private contractor handling worker’s comp claims for police. We’re confident Reed would make the tough decisions needed to fund his most ambitious proposal, to reopen the city’s shuttered recreation centers and expand their hours and programs to give Atlanta’s inner-city youth an alternative to the streets.
As a legislator, Reed has ranked among the most effective policymakers in the Senate. Despite being a partisan Democrat, he’s been successful working with — and sometimes around — Republicans to get things done, such as restoring tax allocation district funding and securing the low-interest state loans that allowed Atlanta to launch its sewer fix. It could be said that Reed has capably served as the city’s de facto floor leader.
By all accounts, Borders has been a strong and engaged City Council president, but the position is not one that lends itself to a tangible record of accomplishment that can rival Reed’s. And the relationship of mutual respect he’s cultivated with the state’s GOP leaders will be critical to helping move Atlanta forward on such vital regional issues as transportation planning, water resources and even Beltline funding.
None of the candidates are perfect or has the management experience that Franklin brought to the job. Borders is rightly criticized for supporting a tax hike to end police furloughs — after she opposed a similar measure aimed at preventing them. And Reed has been attacked as representing a potential continuation of the Franklin administration and Atlanta’s long history of political patronage.
Certainly, Reed has been close to Franklin, whose two mayoral campaigns he managed. But he’s also been critical of Franklin’s failings and seems intent not to repeat her mistakes, such as retaining an underperforming police chief. In fact, as head of Franklin’s 2002 City Hall transition team, he helped lay the groundwork for her successful first term and gained valuable insight into city operations.
Our main concern with Reed is that he can be too politically calculating, more interested in outmaneuvering his opponents than achieving a beneficial goal. You sometimes need to play that game to survive at the Capitol, but it won’t work at the city, where taxpayers demand transparency and honest communication.
If caring about people were all it takes to be mayor, then Norwood would get our vote. Borders also seems drawn to public service, as a continuation of her family’s legacy, while Reed seems motivated by personal ambition at times. Still, we believe that he has the strongest record of achievement and the right skill set for being an effective mayor of Atlanta.