Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed flexes political muscle on stadium deal

By Maria Saporta

When Invest Atlanta voted 8-to-1 Thursday morning in favor of a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed almost broke out into an end-zone victory dance.

Yet the dynamics behind the two-and-a-half year effort to get all the necessary governmental approvals for a new stadium involved a series of twist and turns, handshakes and broken promises, unusual alliances and political intrigue that set off waves in this year’s city elections and next year’s state elections.

So many issues about how the stadium will be designed to fit in with the surrounding neighborhoods and how the communities can benefit from this $1 billion investment will hinge on the ability of the various personalities and entities to work together for the greater good. (More next week.)

First to the twists and turns.

For more than two years, the Atlanta Falcons negotiated with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority on the nitty-gritty elements of a new stadium deal. All options were explored — renovating the Georgia Dome, building a new open air stadium and keeping the Georgia Dome (the two-stadium solution) to the current option of having one stadium with a retractable roof built adjacent to the GWCC campus.

There was a handshake deal between the Falcons, the NFL, the governor and the mayor that the state would take the lead to issue bonds for about a third of the cost. (The City of Atlanta’s hotel-motel taxes already had been allocated to the project).

But state leaders got cold feet when polls showed a lack of support for tax dollars going to build a new football stadium. State leaders were particularly nervous about taking a stand that could hurt their own re-election chances in 2014.

So the City of Atlanta took the lead, eventually agreeing to issue $200 million in revenue bonds that would be backed by the hotel-motel taxes.

Here was the intrigue.

Mayor Reed, who is running for re-election this year, seemed nonplussed by the opposition to the stadium project. He was confident that his popularity was strong enough to withstand a hit, plus he knew he could get the votes on the Atlanta City Council.

And he knew that in the long run it would be far more important to his legacy to be a mayor who kept the Falcons in Atlanta through 2050 than be the mayor who lost the professional football team to the suburbs or to another city.

Now here’s the irony. The members of the Atlanta City Council whom Mayor Reed views as his opposition actually have been his most helpful allies.

Before the details of a deal were made public, City Council President Ceasar Mitchell and Finance Committee President Felicia Moore began holding work sessions to familiarize the Council and the public with the issues around the stadium.

In fact, when asked at the Invest Atlanta meeting about the lack of public input into the stadium decision, Reed mentioned the five City Council work sessions called by Mitchell and Moore. (He also mentioned an Invest Atlanta board meeting, a press conference and a GWCCA board meeting — all sparsely attended by the general public).

I would venture to say that if Mitchell and Moore had not called those work sessions, the stadium deal would not have passed council with an 11-4 vote.

Partly because of Council’s work in providing ideas on how the deal could benefit the City and giving the public a voice for its concerns, the stadium deal ended up being far better than it was originally.

The pivotal moment actually happened during the Council work session of March 14, hours after the official deal had been handed out to councilmembers. Members of the administration were not permitted to make a presentation to Council, which infuriated the mayor.

As a result, the decision was made to call a floor vote on the stadium deal on Monday, March 18 without the deal going through the normal committee channels. It was the mayor’s way of showing who had the most political juice.

Despite Moore’s best efforts to get the deal fully vetted through the Council committee process, she knew she had been outgunned by the mayor.

But if the mayor had been willing to give Moore two weeks for the stadium deal to go through the committee process, he may have won a unanimous vote out of City Council.

It is not the first time the two have found themselves at opposite sides of an issue. Remember pension reform? Mayor Reed’s plan had run into serious opposition from unions. Moore came up with an alternate plan. After much negotiation, there was a compromise between both plans.

Now Mayor Reed often points to pension reform as major victory of his administration — saying pension reform passed with a unanimous vote from Council and was supported by the unions. But that would not have happened without Moore.

In many ways, that’s how government is supposed to work — a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.

Mayor Reed, who at his core is a political street fighter, has matured tremendously in his first three years in office by highlighting areas of consensus with state Republican leaders including Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston.

As the saying goes: “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Reed seems to know that at the state level, but he seems to forget that at the city level.

Still, Reed’s political leadership skills certainly were on display during the passage of the stadium deal through its twists and turns.

As he was doing his end zone victory dance, Reed said he knew the real test would depend on him being re-elected so that over the next five years he’ll be able to fulfill the opportunities the stadium project holds for Atlanta and the adjacent communities.

“We have a five-year runway of accountability,” Reed said. “I’m hopeful that I’m fortunate to be re-elected to serve.”

And then Reed added that most members of the Atlanta City Council also likely will be re-elected to serve another term giving them all that five-year runway to be accountable to the community.

For Reed, it also will be an opportunity to turn his perceived enemies into allies.

Next week: How to define success in five years.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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