Sometimes it feels as though Atlanta is living two different realities.
Our schizophrenia is surfacing during this mayoral election, and it’s not a healthy situation for our city or the next mayor.
Take last Wednesday. The top four mayoral candidates were part of a forum at the Temple. Listening to them, you would have thought the city has been at the brink of disaster for the past eight years and that it’s all doom and gloom. (In all fairness, City Council President Lisa Borders was far less negative than the others).
Then on Thursday, the Council for Quality Growth held its annual Four Pillars Award where it was honoring Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin for her distinguished leadership of the city for the past eight years.
So what is real?
Perhaps my memory is too long and so my perspectives are seasoned with history. Perhaps our mayoral candidates are trying so hard to out destroy each other that they are unaware of how harmful and unfair their attitudes are to our city.
Let me rewind the tape back to eight years ago. At the time, Atlanta’s mayor was Bill Campbell, a man who did more to bring down our city than any other mayor in recent history.
The Campbell administration was corrupt, something that many of us in the news business already suspected or knew, and the mayor would later serve time.
But worse than that was how Campbell managed to alienate almost every one in town. He would turn just about every disagreement into a racial rift demonstrating his mega chip on his shoulder.
He alienated the business community — giving local executives a great excuse to no longer be engaged in the city. Because of Campbell’s attitude or disinterest, Atlanta was unable to capitalize from the 1996 Summer Games in creating a post-Olympics boom.
That was the backdrop during Shirley Franklin’s campaign for mayor. Given how many people disliked Bill Campbell, she easily could have campaigned on an anti-Campbell platform.
But she didn’t. Although, those close to her knew she was unhappy with the Campbell administration, Franklin’s campaign took a far more constructive approach.
Instead of criticizing Campbell (which would have been totally understandable), Franklin adopted the slogan: “Make me mayor and I’ll make you proud.” The forward-looking message was that she would run an ethical City Hall that would work to improve the city.
It’s a campaign that worked. Franklin won the election outright —although the speculation had been that there would be a run-off.
In her eight years as mayor, Franklin has healed the rift between City Hall and the business community and many other constituencies. She was able to turnaround a city with a major deficit, rebuild the city’s sewer system and launch several initiatives — from the BeltLine, the Peachtree Corridor, Regional Commission on Homelessness, to name a few.
Unfortunately, timing was not on Franklin’s side. When Gov. Roy Barnes lost his re-election bid to Sonny Perdue, Franklin ended up without a friend at the state capitol. Couple that with a Republican White House, and the city of Atlanta could not get much traction or state and federal support to deal with its issues.
And then, the economy went south, the city’s revenues from sales taxes and property taxes also went down. Franklin had to cut or furlough city employees and then push for a property tax increase earlier this year so the city could balance its budget.
No, her administration has not been flawless, but it certainly does not deserve the kind of negativity being expressed by the leading candidates for mayor.
The most surprising criticism has come from former state Sen. Kasim Reed, who ran both of Franklin’s mayoral campaigns.
“There were bad decisions made over the last eight years,” Reed said at the forum. “We need new leadership.”
Ouch. With friends like these….. While Reed may have thought he was targeting City Council, it’s undeniable that his comments were broad enough to include the mayor and her administration.
City Councilwoman Mary Norwood has been Franklin’s most vocal critic, not just during the campaign, but for the past several years. It’s not a becoming trait. Of course, the ill feelings are mutual as both Norwood and Franklin have been openly critical of each other. Such an attitude is not conducive to creating consensus or a city with a unified vision.
Attorney Jesse Spikes entered the campaign as an outsider, taking on the other candidates who he refers to as part of the political establishment.
“Our town is a city in crisis. It’s really a crisis in management,” Spikes said at the forum, later adding: “Being in politics does not teach people how to lead. You need to know how to manage.”
Surprisingly, Lisa Borders has been the most generous to Franklin during the campaign — perhaps because they have a similar style in wanting to build consensus between City Hall, business leaders and the region at large. I say surprising because it is widely perceived that Franklin has been in Reed’s camp.
At Leadership Atlanta’s forum early in the campaign, Atlanta Business Chronicle Publisher Ed Baker asked each of the candidates to give a grade to Franklin and her administration. Borders gave Franklin a higher grade than did the other candidates.
But Borders, like her opponents, also is fond of saying that the city is broke and she can fix it.
At Wednesday night’s forum, an observer made a comment to me. He quoted former President Bill Clinton as saying that a candidate who offers the greatest hope in an election, wins.
“None of these candidates are hopeful,” the observer said of the field of top mayoral candidates.
None of us benefit by criticizing a mayor who has done her best to run Atlanta for the past eight years, someone who has worked hard to restore a level of dignity to the office of mayor — especially when we remember who preceded her.
So, with only three weeks left before the election, the top mayoral candidates have precious few days to change their tune and offer a sense of optimism, consensus and hope for our city.