Atlanta mayor juggles national profile, local aims

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Posted: May 28, 2011 11:41 AM
Atlanta mayor juggles national profile, local aims

Mayor Kasim Reed spent a recent morning in Washington announcing the results of a transportation survey of the country's mayors before flying back to Atlanta to lead a nighttime rally for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. That week he was also fighting to sell a city budget that could cut 130 employees and pushing an unpopular pension proposal for firefighters and police.

For his first 18 months, Reed has juggled the city's day-to-day business with frequent travel outside of Georgia to promote the country's ninth-largest metropolitan area. He enjoys high approval ratings, but it's a precarious balancing act. While his efforts in Washington helped the city win more than $100 million in federal support, his tough stance on issues at home has earned him some detractors.

While Reed's predecessor made her name as a hands-on manager of local issues, his mentor marked his term as mayor by selling the city to the rest of the world. Reed wants to do both.

"Atlanta is not driven organically," the Democrat said in a recent interview. "Atlanta happened on purpose. Our city needs energy. You've got to be doing things that are interesting."

Reed says he wants to bring back the kind of imaginative leadership that helped the city lure the South's first major league baseball team, build the world's busiest airport and land the 1996 Summer Olympics. And while he was part of a failed bid for the U.S. to land the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Reed is lobbying for a Super Bowl. He's also helped convince Porsche to keep and expand its North American headquarters in the area.

"The national attention Atlanta received was driven by our work," said Reed, now 41. "But if you start focusing on the attention and get away from the work, it'll get away from you very quickly."

Still, time spent away working on the Atlanta's image will pay off in its competition with other cities, said Georgia State University urban policy studies professor Harvey Newman.

"To have a mayor who is well regarded is extraordinarily important. That translates into investment. It says that Atlanta is perceived as a good place to do business," he said.

Reed is "the hot guy" of the moment, the local figure who takes the national stage every few years, said Johns Hopkins University political science professor Lester Spence.

"There's really him, Rahm, and Cory _ and that's it," Spence said, referring to Reed and mayors Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and Cory Booker of Newark. "What that translates into is a lot of favorable attention for Atlanta. It puts the city back on the map in a positive way and gets people thinking about investing in it."

Reed's name-recognition has soared since an early poll in the 2009 mayor's race indicated only about 3 percent of local voters knew who he was. He won that November by a mere 714 votes.

But a year later he was the subject of a complimentary column by Tom Friedman of the New York Times that described him as a "young, progressive new leader." Since then, he's appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and met with Prince Charles in London.

Reed says it's all part of his strategy to solidify Atlanta as the most important city in the South.

Up at 5 a.m. most mornings and catching his second wind with an afternoon soda _ Coca-Cola of course _ Reed moves through town with purpose, as if he's stalking his goals.

On the campaign trail, Reed had a reputation for being more intimidating than gregarious, but these days, he flashes an easy grin, whether he's promoting recreation centers for underserved youth or talking to business leaders in the tony Buckhead neighborhood.

Much of his time this year was spent at the state Capitol _ where he served 11 years in the Legislature _ lobbying his former colleagues to support a bill giving Georgia's Republican governor the authority to remove and appoint members of the embattled Atlanta school board. He's the only mayor in his lifetime to have served as a state legislator.

Decisions on the pension reform proposal he's pushing and approval of the 2012 budget are expected in the coming weeks.

The schools issue has earned him critics such as Atlanta Sen. Vincent Fort, who supported the Reed during his campaign. The mayor took his case to all 83 Democratic legislators _ placing letters on their desks and making personal visits _ only to get six of them to vote for the bill.

"He was rebuffed," said Fort, who voted against the proposal. "He had to depend on Republicans to get what the business community wanted. If that's how he gets things done, then fine."

Elected in 1998 as the youngest member of the Legislature at the time, he earned a reputation in the House and Senate as a consensus builder while representing an Atlanta district, said his mentor and former Mayor Andrew Young.

"Quite often, he was the only African-American legislator who was there," said Young. "That said to me that he was trying to get along with everybody in the state. He realized there were some things (Atlanta) couldn't do without Georgia. And there are some things Georgia can't do without Atlanta."

Reed first met Young as a teenager growing up in Atlanta. The two crossed paths again when Reed was a Howard University student trustee serving on the board alongside Young.

Impressed by his ambition and ease among older colleagues, Young encouraged him to pursue a goal he'd had since age 13 by running for mayor. Two decades later, the civil rights icon was among the first to endorse Reed's candidacy.

"People thought I was crazy talking about an international city," Young said. "He'll still do a lot of that. But what he's had to do is get the nuts and bolts of the city back in place."

Reed made plenty of other contacts in Washington. He's been back dozens of times as mayor to push for projects that benefit Atlanta and the entire state _ such as the deepening of a port in Savannah.

Reed said his trips helped win $134 million in federal support for Atlanta.

"The president was very clear that (federal support for local governments) was going to wind down, which is why I went to Washington so many times," Reed said. "I understood this was a finite window. If it was going to happen, we had to get it now."

The city's share is considerable in the down economy, said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic lobbyist who ran Reed's mayoral campaign and served as an adviser during his first year.

"To have a mayor that can fly to D.C. to meet with the chief of staff, and can get three, seven, 10 minutes with the president is invaluable," said Johnson, who dismisses the idea that Reed has been distracted from the city's day-to-day needs.