VIA: Creative Loafing
Last Wednesday, a few hours after a vote recount had sealed his status as Atlanta’s mayor-elect, Kasim Reed dropped into a local bar. But he wasn’t there to celebrate his victory.
Reed was making a personal appearance at a small fundraiser for an Atlanta police officer who’d suffered spinal injuries in a car crash while on duty. As he mingled with the cops in a private room at Manuel’s, Reed’s cell phone rang, but no number popped up, so he didn’t answer.
Within minutes, Reed was informed by excited aides that he’d accidentally blown off a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama.
“I guess you gotta know that when it says ‘unknown caller,’ it could be the White House,” he says a little sheepishly as he recalls the oversight.
But Atlanta’s next mayor has no time to dwell on lost opportunities. Save for a few more minutes of sleep here and there, Reed’s post-election schedule nearly matches the breakneck pace of his come-from-behind campaign. Since the night of the Dec. 1 runoff, his days have been a blur of community meetings, business breakfasts, press conferences and interviews with the private-sector achievers Reed aims to lure into joining his administration – one he promises will be staffed by the best and brightest.
Some of those conversations have been successful: His choice for the city’s chief operating officer is Peter Aman, managing partner of the Atlanta office of Bain & Co., a global consulting firm that specializes in advising Fortune 500 companies. Others, not so much: After serving for months as a punching bag for the Mary Norwood campaign, Jim Glass, the city’s highly regarded chief financial officer, politely opted to retire rather than accept Reed’s invitation to stay.
By the time you read this story, Reed may have announced his pick for “pension czar,” a top-notch financial wizard who will – fingers crossed – prevent the city from being swallowed in red ink, GM-like. That appointment will be one of many new hires that Reed believes will convince doubters he’s serious about improving the management culture in City Hall.
“I’m going to bring in people who never would’ve considered working for government,” Reed says. “I want to be judged on the quality of my selections and my performance.”
Reed also hasn’t afforded himself the luxury of holding grudges.
Although he and City Council President Lisa Borders were often at odds during mayoral debates, he says he grew to appreciate her intelligence, communication skills and dedication to public service.
“Lisa can have her pick of opportunities within the administration,” he says.
Reed says he also plans to offer Norwood a “high-profile role” in the city, despite their bruising runoff battle that had its share of nasty moments.
Keeping former rivals so close would worry some politicians, because it increases the difficulty of getting away with anything unscrupulous. But Reed says that’s the idea.
“My administration is going to have so much openness and transparency, it’ll be frightening.”
A serious man
These days, Reed is doing a lot of smiling, and it’s not simply because of the election results.
During his 11 years as a state lawmaker, Reed was widely considered to be accessible, fair-minded and forthright, but you’d hardly say he was jolly. Where some politicians win over a room with glad-handing and friendly asides, Reed strives to reach people through the strength of his argument. Even in private conversation, he seldom strays from the formal, deliberate phrasing that’s served him well as a corporate attorney.
Midway through his campaign, Reed’s advisers delivered the bad news: Focus groups found him to be too sober-sided, even angry. To some, he seemed arrogant. In other words, he was the guy nobody wanted to have a beer with.
Reed, who turned 40 in June, realized he needed not simply to project a different image, but to consciously change an aspect of his personality.
“When you’ve done the stuff I do at the pace I do it, it tends to harden you,” he says. “But people don’t give a damn about what you know if they don’t think you care.”
Borders, for one, noticed his subtle transformation.
“In this environment, you need to be able to feel people’s pain, and at first I thought Kasim wasn’t empathetic,” she recalls. “But as we spent more time together on the campaign trail, I saw his warmth. It really kicks in when he’s dealing with young people. He cares about making sure they have the opportunities to reach their potential.”
Reed, as you may have heard, is a bachelor with no children. But this bachelor is careful that no article describes him as “available.”
“If that showed up in print, I’d be in a world of hurt,” he says, referring to his girlfriend of two years whose name he’s scrupulous about keeping private. Still, he opens the door to the possibility that he could get married before the end of his first term.
Addressing an early-morning gathering of downtown business leaders, Reed opens with an admission that’s become a dependable laugh line: “I realize I’m not cuddly.”
But then he quickly gets down to business, hitting the high points in his plans as mayor: He’ll step up enforcement of anti-panhandling ordinances to protect the city’s valuable convention business. He’ll try to win a $300 million federal stimulus grant for the Peachtree Streetcar project in an effort to create local construction jobs. He’ll deal with a crushing pension burden that now claims one of every five dollars of the city’s budget. He’ll lobby his former colleagues in the Legislature to pass a referendum for a regional transportation tax to help save MARTA. And within his first year in office, he’ll fix Atlanta’s much-maligned permitting department – permanently, he adds.
Hearing that last assertion, developer Jerome Russell smiles animatedly from the back of the room.
Reed has one more pledge: that he will make Atlanta a safer city by expanding the police force and hiring a chief who leads by example.
“I’m going to bet my first term on public safety,” he says
Difference in style
One of Reed’s pet sayings is, “At the end of the day, I’m a legislator at heart.” It’s a subtle nod to his skills as a deal-broker, a practiced hand at the art of political compromise. It’s also, he acknowledges, one of the differences between his style and Mayor Shirley Franklin’s more executive-minded approach.
By all accounts, Franklin doesn’t suffer fools gladly. As mayor, she rarely engaged with councilmembers who hadn’t earned her respect and she largely left the task of consensus-building to Borders.
Reed, however, says his administration will be more collaborative. It’s not simply that he needs the support of Council for his initiatives; he genuinely enjoys the horse-trading involved in passing legislation.
Another difference between himself and Franklin, Reed says, is that the outgoing mayor felt too much personal loyalty toward her hires. It’s a weakness that led her to keep a police chief who’d lost the confidence of his cops, a finance chief who blamed her underlings for screwing up the city’s books, and a media-relations officer who despised reporters.
“I’m not afraid to fire people,” Reed promises. “If people do not meet the expectations I set and the citizens of Atlanta deserve, they will be fired.”
And that bar is set high, not because candidate Reed made extravagant campaign promises, but because of the challenges the city faces. Apart from untangling the pension mess, Reed will be forced to deal with the approaching collapse of commercial real-estate values, a slump he predicts will likely cost Atlanta an additional $20 million in tax revenue. He believes much of that money can be recouped by more vigorous collection of fees and fines, from business licenses to parking tickets.
He’s also determined to address an environment in which calling one’s district councilmember is considered the only way for a resident to get anything done. If that means replacing City Hall employees with better trained, more qualified workers, so be it.
“We’re going to radically change the culture of customer service,” Reed says. “Everyone in city government needs to work harder. I know I will.”
Mohammed Kasim Reed grew up the youngest of four boys in the upper-middle-class Cascade-Utoy neighborhood just outside I-285, a stone’s throw from Atlanta city limits. His father, Junius, now retired, had a long business career, at one time serving as a vice president at H.J. Russell, the politically connected construction firm. His mother, Sylvia, worked at Morris Brown College before taking her current job at the United Negro College Fund, whose president is former Fulton County Commission Chairman Michael Lomax.
Reed’s friends and colleagues have known for years that his life was leading up to an eventual run for Atlanta mayor. As with Borders, that bug bit early, when he was still attending Utoy Springs Elementary School. Assigned a book report, the 11-year-old decided to read about one of his father’s heroes, Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve as a Supreme Court justice.
Although Marshall didn’t engage in marches or sit-ins, he greatly advanced the cause of civil rights in America through his work as legal counsel to the NAACP, Reed learned.
“That book report in sixth grade is what got me seriously interested in public service,” he recalls.
When it came time to choose a college, Howard University, the nation’s pre-eminent historically black college, in Washington, D.C., was a no-brainer – it was Marshall’s alma mater.
At Howard, Reed didn’t simply excel academically. He paid all his college expenses, including tuition, with a jewelry-selling business he’d started in high school. He worked as a Capitol Hill intern for Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy II. He was elected as the student representative to the school’s board of trustees. And, as a senior in 1991, he proposed adding a small fee to students’ bills to create a fund to be used for financial aid for low-income students and to improve academic programs.
Reed campaigned hard for his initiative, which was approved in a vote of his fellow students. To date, the fund has raised more than $12 million. By the time he graduated, Reed had been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post and Black Enterprise magazine.
It was at Howard that Reed made many of the relationships he now credits with his career success, as well as his slim victory in the mayor’s race. As an undergraduate member on the Howard board of trustees, he first met Andrew Young, who encouraged the 20-year-old political science major to return to Atlanta and go into politics. Other fellow trustees included the late New York Congressman and one-time presidential nominee Jack Kemp; Time-Warner CEO Richard Parsons; ex-Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, the first black governor in U.S. history; and D.C. super-lawyer and Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan.
In 2002, Reed rejoined the board as a permanent trustee, the youngest in the history of the university.
Among his classmates, he befriended future big names in music and entertainment, including Sean “Diddy” Combs; Ryan Glover, now a consultant with Turner Entertainment in Atlanta; and others who went on to become successful record executives, agents and producers.
After Reed earned his law degree at Howard, he returned to Atlanta, where he was able to draw upon his personal connections to attract high-profile entertainment clients to his eventual employer, Holland & Knight, a national firm that specializes in business and government law.
Those connections came in handy again when Reed was raising money for his mayoral campaign. He shocked his opponents by out-fundraising them, thanks in part to the willingness of West Coast music moguls to write hefty checks to support someone they like.
“These people don’t care where you are in the polls,” he says.
During this fall’s rough-and-tumble campaign season, Reed’s critics tried to paint him as another Shirley Franklin and, far worse, as the second coming of Bill Campbell.
But Reed will be satisfied if his performance draws comparisons to Andy Young.
During his two terms and the years that followed, Young was renowned for being a friend to business in Atlanta – and not just minority businesses. Reed describes with admiration how Young would help developer John Portman close a major lease deal by visiting with the prospective client, then catch a plane to Singapore to drum up more trade business for the city. The former U.N. ambassador’s coup de grace, of course, was in helping Atlanta win the 1996 Centennial Olympics, a watershed event that is still paying dividends to the city’s business community.
Reed’s approach has already been noticed. After he left last week’s police benefit, retired Deputy Chief Lou Arcangeli was visibly energized.
“I’m thrilled that, with all the things that Kasim must have to do, that he found time to attend our small gathering,” he says, recounting a story from years back about how then-Mayor Young attended a public fundraiser for two officers who’d been shot.
“Andy even climbed into the dunk tank to help us raise money,” Arcangeli says. “Here was the mayor, soaking wet with snot running down his face. As far as cops were concerned, he could do no wrong.”
One of Reed’s first tests in office to win the admiration of police will be to meet his campaign promise of restoring the annual pay raises that Franklin abandoned six years ago. The move will cost the city another $5 million, but Reed believes it’s necessary for repairing morale in the department.
He pledges to meet daily with whoever is selected as the permanent replacement for embattled Chief Richard Pennington, and to be responsive to citizen concerns about public safety. Reed still defends his campaign promise of adding 750 officers over the next four years by pointing to federal grants that can be used to build up the force and the predicted effect of pay raises to stem attrition.
“Crime should be personal to the mayor of Atlanta,” he says. “Once the police tell me what they need to do their job, I’m going to find the resources and expect results. My administration will make this city palpably safer; you’ll never wonder if this person cares.”
Despite all the endorsements candidate Reed collected from fellow politicians, civic leaders and rappers, Mayor Reed will take charge of a city that’s divided in many ways. His margin of victory was a mere 714 votes in a race where the result was determined largely along racial lines.
Reed understands that he’s still viewed with suspicion by the Atlanta business establishment, Buckhead power brokers and the naysayers who view him as the latest product of Maynard Jackson-era machine politics. Anyone who reads comments on blogs and websites already knows that there’s widespread concern, justified or not, that Reed will open the doors of City Hall for cronyism, corruption and, yes, “business as usual.”
“I’m not going to go crazy trying to prove that I’m not Bill Campbell,” he says. “This is a new day for Atlanta. I’m determined that Atlanta will become one of the best fiscally managed cities in the country.”
Longtime Reed-watchers acknowledge that at least part of his agenda as mayor is driven by his political ambitions. While a state legislator, Reed had mentioned possible runs for Congress, the U.S. Senate, perhaps even governor. If he’s got his next office in mind, he certainly isn’t talking about it.
Right now, he says, he’s focused on being a mayor who’s able to unite all parts of the city while addressing the gap between the haves and the have-nots through his plans for Atlanta’s neighborhood rec centers. He plans to use connections in Washington to lobby for federal transportation grants, a resolution of Georgia’s water wars and other big-picture endeavors, but he also says he’ll make sure the streets are clean, “because that’s personal to me.”
“Atlanta will be a well-run city by objective standards,” he promises. “I think a lot of people will be surprised.”