A departing administration stained by corruption charges. Campaign issues such as inadequate infrastructure, police shortages, and gentrification’s effect on housing prices. A candidate who’s cozy — maybe too cozy — with the city’s political establishment; who’s dogged by questions about personal tax liens in her personal life; who resorts to accusing her opponent of being a Republican and worse; and who ultimately prevails by less than a thousand votes.
Of course, I’m talking about Atlanta’s mayoral election. In 2001.
This is a city of transplants and, sometimes, short memories. So it’s worth recalling how history unfolded once before, and worked out generally for the better. There’s an opportunity here for the apparent mayor-elect, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and for Atlantans.
In late 2001, the mayor about to leave City Hall was Bill Campbell, and the victorious candidate was Shirley Franklin. Then, as now, the feds were hauling people out of City Hall on corruption charges — though, to be clear, there’s a difference in that Campbell himself was accused of wrongdoing.
There are differences, too, between Franklin then and Bottoms now. For one, Franklin had more experience in city government, having served in the administrations of both Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, under whom she was chief administrative officer. For another, she wasn’t endorsed by the mayor she sought to succeed, as Bottoms was by Kasim Reed.
But, reading through the AJC’s archived stories about that 2001 race, some similarities between that campaign and this one are striking.
Two days before the 2001 election, a Metro column described a “shameful” Franklin radio ad that portrayed her closest rival, Robb Pitts, who is black, as “the tool of white racists.” In one of her mailers, the column continued, “Franklin appears as the ‘Democrat’ in the legally nonpartisan race and Pitts as the ‘Republican.’” An Opinion column on Election Day itself bemoaned the narrative that “Pitts’ apparent tolerance toward Republicans makes him a closet knuckle-dragger.”
All of which must sound awfully familiar to Bottoms’ run-off opponent, Mary Norwood.
(The world does come full circle: On Tuesday, Franklin backed Norwood, and Pitts was elected chairman of the Fulton County Commission.)
If none of this jibes with your perception of Franklin today, that’s because she deserves credit for how she actually governed. Therein lies the opportunity for Bottoms, and for us.
If Bottoms doesn’t want to be tainted by the corruption that precedes her, which prosecutors have called “prolific” and which surely isn’t fully exposed at this point, she will move swiftly and decisively to separate herself from the current regime. That may mean changes in staff, procedure, policy, and contracts already under bid.
She must also develop policies that are more concrete — literally and figuratively. Atlantans remember Franklin fondly in part because of her “pothole posse” early in her administration. Motorists who today must dodge the city’s many holes, bumps and dreaded steel road plates might wonder if this hasn’t become the City Too Busy to Pave.
And Bottoms can no longer get by with “proposals” such as a pledge for a $1 billion boost for affordable housing. That one was really just an idea to figure out: how much spare land various public agencies in Atlanta hold; whether that land is worth the $500 million in public investment she’s promised; whether it would be suitable for affordable housing projects; whether it would interest private developers if it came with affordability requirements; and whether their efforts would amount to the other $500 million.
That’s not a plan. It’s barely an aspiration. It’s time to get real.
Franklin didn’t follow Reed’s lead in backing Bottoms. But the new mayor can find success by following Franklin’s example.