The morning after of the city of Atlanta’s run-off election, I received an email from a veteran player in local government — George Berry.
Berry served under four different Atlanta mayors — Ivan Allen Jr., Sam Massell, Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young. As the city’s aviation commissioner, he oversaw the building of Atlanta’s new airport. Berry also served as commissioner of what is now the Georgia Department of Economic Development. More recently, he served as an executive of Cousins Properties until he retired a few years ago.
In short, Berry has a long memory, great insight combined with decades of exemplary public service.
So after the run-off on Dec. 1 showing that former state Sen. Kasim Reed had been elected Atlanta’s new mayor, Berry reached out to me.
“I woke up this morning thinking about a relatively young, African-American attorney with a good reputation, well educated with a well-known law firm who was going to be Atlanta’s new mayor,” Berry wrote in his email.
“I suddenly had a déjà vu feeling. It was that morning in 1993 when we learned that a well-educated, well-spoken attorney named Bill Campbell had been elected mayor of Atlanta,” Berry continued. “It occurred to me that Reed is standing at the same ‘fork in the road’ where Campbell stood 16 years ago. He can travel down the road he chooses. He can choose the road of bitterness, of revenge, of getting even. Or he can choose the one of inclusiveness, of generosity in victory.
“We saw where Campbell’s choices led the city. I think it would be constructive to remind Reed of the lessons of recent history in the way he approaches the mayor’s office.”
The ghost of Bill Campbell has haunted this city for the past eight years. After he completed two terms as mayor, Campbell was convicted of federal tax evasion and spent a couple of years in prison.
With the exception of Campbell, the city of Atlanta has had the good fortunate to have exceptional mayors — at least from the time when William B. Hartsfield was first elected in 1937.
When Shirley Franklin was running for mayor nearly nine years ago, her critics often said she would be a continuation of Campbell. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Interestingly enough, Reed was Franklin’s campaign manager during both her mayoral races.
Franklin immediately pledged to run an ethical and professional City Hall, and she was able to reverse a deficit of more than $80 million.
Thanks to the help of the Bain & Co. consulting firm along with partner Peter Aman, the Franklin administration was able to overcome that initial deficit. Aman and his team also thoroughly analyzed best-in-class cities around the country with the goal of improving operations at Atlanta’s City Hall.
In his first few days as mayor-elect this week, Reed announced that Aman would serve as his chief operating officer.
That move gave Berry comfort that Reed “is in the Shirley mold rather than the Campbell mold.”
Reed also has sent other encouraging signals that he would rather take the high road than be vindictive and divisive.
After the general election, Reed reached out to City Council President Lisa Borders, who came in third. She endorsed Reed, and in return, Reed invited her into his inner circle.
But Reed’s behavior since the run-off election is even more significant. During this past month, the run-off election between Reed and City Councilwoman Mary Norwood became increasingly bitter and intense.
Reed came out ahead with about a margin of about 700 votes, such a close election that Norwood said there should be a recount.
Although Norwood had not conceded, Reed told WAGA-TV a day or two after the run-off that he “would like to have Mrs. Norwood involved in an important way if she would like to continue to be involved in municipal government.”
Reed added that he thought Norwood “has an important voice, and I think that it’s vital that we work together to unify the city that we both love.”
Norwood responded in kind, saying: “Any way I can help this city I would definitely consider it.”
It reminds me of the book: “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” written by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book described how Lincoln put together his cabinet with people who had run against him.
President Barack Obama, an admirer of Lincoln, used the same strategy. He named Joe Biden, a former rival, as his vice president; and he turned to his top rival, Hillary Clinton, to serve as Secretary of State.
Although being mayor of a city of 520,000 people is a far cry from being president of a country of nearly 309 million. But a mayor and president can share the same leadership instinct.
As we look forward to the next four or eight years, we can only hope that Reed will join the ranks of Atlanta’s greatest mayors — someone who puts the good of the city above his or her ego and self interest.