ATLANTA – Black political and economic power have long defined this Southern metropolis, which created a generation of middle-class and wealthy professionals and entrepreneurs and is a magnet for Black entertainers and creatives.
But recently, Atlanta’s image as the “Black Mecca” has been challenged by concerns over a spike in violent crime, gentrification crowding out affordable housing and a movement by the largely White and wealthy Buckhead neighborhood to secede from the city.
Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms declared in May that she’d had enough and would not seek reelection. As residents prepare to go to the polls on Nov. 2 to select her replacement, crime is center stage. But another major issue has emerged: former mayor Kasim Reed.
Reed’s bid to win back his old job has been dominated by questions about corruption that surrounded his tenure in city hall. A half dozen of his aides have either pleaded guilty or are awaiting trial on charges ranging from accepting bribes to tax fraud.
The former two-term mayor has not been charged, and his lawyers have insisted that Reed is not under federal investigation. But his opponents in the race, as well as some influential Atlantans, say the lingering ethical questions make him unsuitable to lead the city as it seeks to calm roiling economic, social and political crises.
The question of who can lead and protect Atlantans – including a Black population that has been a backbone of its progress over the past 30 years – dominates discussions as the city is at what some say is a political and cultural crossroads over its future.
“We really need a mayor who is a visionary,” said Oscar Harris, 78, a retired architect who over the past 40 years has helped design more than $4 billion in projects that helped Atlanta transform itself from a sluggish Southern town into powerhouse American city.
“The growth is happening so fast,” said Harris, who is Black. “We’ve got to know where we are going, and the next mayor has to be in front directing that.”
There are 14 candidates vying to replace Bottoms, but most polls show Reed and City Council President Felicia A. Moore, both of whom are Black, as the front-runners. Yet many voters remain undecided, and in recent days there have been signs that Council member Andre Dickens, who also is Black, gaining momentum.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 2, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff election on Nov. 30.
Atlanta has recorded at least 125 homicides this year, a 15% increase compared to the same time last year and a 63 percent increase compared to two years ago. Several of the killings were especially heinous, including the brutal stabbing death of a 40-year-old woman who was walking her dog in a popular Midtown park.
Residents also have been rattled by an increase in rapes, assaults and car jackings, and Reed has argued he is the candidate who has the experience and resolve to address the crime problem. He noted that crime hovered near 40-year lows when he was mayor from 2010 to 2018, and he has vowed to increase support for the Atlanta Police Department, which he believes was unfairly maligned during last year’s racial justice protests.
Earlier this month, he was endorsed by the city’s police union.
But Moore and the other candidates argue that Reed cannot be trusted to restore residents’ faith in city government. And the head of the city’s NAACP chapter, which historically has not taken sides in mayoral contests, recently issued a statement urging residents to consider one of the 13 other candidates.
“Atlanta can and must do better than elect Kasim Reed again,” chapter president Richard Rose said, adding he was worried about Reed’s ethics as well as his close relationship with the police union.
Rose apologized this week after being rebuked by the national NAACP, saying he should not have used NAACP letterhead to condemn Reed.
Rose’s decision to wade into the race comes as the tension between Reed, 52, and Moore, who is 60 and has served on the council since 1998, is palpable.
“Mr. Reed you headed the most corrupt administration in Atlanta history,” Moore charged in a recent televised debate. “People jailed. Indicted. Awaiting trial . . . The tone is set from the top. Criminals like your melody. Why should Atlanta voters believe that you are singing a different tune?”
Reed responded, “I am not singing a different tune at all. What I am offering voters is a clear choice.
“I am here because Atlanta is in a crisis that occurred under your watch,” Reed continued. “You are attempting to smear my name despite the fact I am not under investigation. And you are doing that to distract from your own record . . . A record of not funding police officers when they need help. A record of allowing the police department to shrink and a record of allowing people to be murdered, all on your watch.”
Moore, Reed and Dickens all said in interviews that this election also represents a referendum on Atlanta’s future, including whether it will remain a symbol of opportunity for African Americans.
Moore said she is alarmed that Atlanta increasingly appears “dirty,” reiterating residents’ concerns that even garbage pickup has become sporadic. Homeless encampments clutter downtown blocks that 30 years ago represented the pride the city felt when it hosted the 1996 Olympics.
“I think our service delivery apparatus is broken . . . and our facilities are in bad shape,” Moore said. “Mismanagement is rampant, and this has been going on for a while, and this has been a cumulative effect, and the Band-Aids we have put on it over the years are not tough enough to hold it back.”
Reed, meanwhile, compares the choice before Atlantans to the one that voters in Washington wrestled with in the early 1990s when the nation’s capital struggled with soaring homicide rates and poor city services. He noted that city government will lose more than $100 million annually – and its schools could lose more than twice that amount each year – if Buckhead residents vote next year to form their own city.
“We either have to meet the challenge around crime and violence right now or I think Atlanta will change permanently,” Reed said. “Washington, D.C. went through a similar moment during the drug wars and it ended up emerging stronger, and I think at the end of the day, once we work at this, Atlanta will be what it is known for, the dominant city in the Southeast.”
Yet, Reed’s comparison to Washington provides opportunity for his critics to ask whether Black Atlantans can feel proud if they return him to office. Washingtonians wondered the same when Democrat Marion Barry was elected to the D.C. Council and then mayor a second time in 1994, after being convicted of cocaine possession following an FBI sting.
“I think it would be an embarrassment to African Americans and everybody who calls Atlanta home who has endured the shame of federal investigators coming into our city to arrest people . . . that reported to him,” said Dickens, 47. “It means there are crimes in the suites of city hall, and we are only focused on crime in the streets of Atlanta.”
The ethics questions surrounding Reed are part of the reason that former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin, who served as the city’s first female mayor, has endorsed Dickens. She supported Reed during his first bid for mayor in 2009.
“My issue is very simple on politics: You have to be honest, and you have to have integrity,” said Franklin, who, as mayor from 2002 to 2010, was praised for addressing the city’s long-standing infrastructure problems, including fixing its sewer system. “Kasim cannot be an ethical and effective leader because he doesn’t meet that basic test for me.”
Reed has the support of other influential Black leaders, including former mayor Andrew Young, who is credited as helping shape Atlanta’s image as a beacon of Black economic opportunity and political empowerment.
The late-Maynard Jackson, the city’s first Black mayor, who served from 1974 to 1982, and returned to the office in 1990, winning about 80 percent of the vote, was heralded across the country for opening city contracting to minority businesses, particularly for the new international airport.
Franklin served in both administrations.
But Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University, said Reed doesn’t have the same credentials his predecessors have as trailblazers, and neither can he point to “any sort of large legacy effects” during his tenure. Earlier mayors were “doing big things, adopting policies that had, I would say, big effects with regard to what Black civil society looks like, Black economic opportunity, some degree of Black wealth . . . They were actively trying to build new things.”
Owens said none of the candidates in this year’s contest are offering bold, new ideas.
“They just seem so dull,” Owens added. “All of which cuts against this idea of Atlanta, you know, being vibrant and Atlanta being forward-thinking.”
Interviews with voters in southwest Atlanta, an area of city that has defined African American economic and political success, also revealed frustration with city government.
A resident in the city’s Cascade Heights neighborhood recalled being one of the first Black families on the block when she and her husband, a physician, moved there after graduating from Howard University in the 1970s. For a while, baseball legend Hank Aaron was their next-door neighbor.
Today, despite being home to many current and former Atlanta leaders, streets in Cascade Heights are marked with ruts and potholes, she said. The neighborhood’s parks are not as well maintained as those in affluent Buckhead.
Carolyn D., who spoke on the condition that only her last initial be used, said she plans to vote for Reed because she worries that the city’s crime wave could hinder progress, even though it rarely spills into Cascade Heights.
“When he was in power, he did all right,” she said, adding that she fears federal investigators unfairly targeted Reed’s administration.
“Especially if you are Black, you are going to be investigated, and if he had done anything wrong, they would have found something, and he would already be in jail,” she said.
But at a nearby roadside market where a farmer from south Georgia was selling muscadine grapes, tomatoes and sweet potatoes, Wanda Walker explained why she intends to vote for Moore. Walker said she doesn’t think Reed “was a bad mayor,” but she believes Moore is more honest and hard-working – two traits the next mayor must have to be effective in addressing the city’s surging crime rate, she said.
“With the robberies and the carjackings, there used to be a time, you were just afraid to be out of a night,” said Walker, 68. “But now they are getting bold, even in the daytime.”
Kiyomi Rollins, who runs a southwest Atlanta community cooperative, said many Atlanta residents also fear that they will be driven out of their homes by high property taxes and gentrification. Southwest Atlanta residents report receiving up to a half-dozen calls a day from pushy real estate agents or investors trying to buy their homes.
“We are called the ‘Black Mecca,’ which sounds catchy, but I think we are really at that point where that is no longer the reality,” said Rollins, 46. “That is why this election is super critical – especially for legacy folks like myself. Ten years ago, I could afford to buy into and live in this neighborhood, but today, if I tried to move in, I could not afford to live in this neighborhood.”
Another emerging fault line is the Beltline, a redevelopment project that includes a 22-mile loop of transit, multiuse trails and parks that will eventually connect 45 neighborhoods that ring downtown. Real estate prices have soared along its path.
In Midtown, where many of the city’s new skyscrapers are being built, 50 major redevelopment projects have been completed over the past decade, and 16 major projects are under construction.
The new development has helped spur an influx of White residents, who now make up 38 percent of the population, according to census data. African Americans account for less than 50 percent of Atlanta residents for the first time since the 1960s.
As she walked near a Trader Joes in Midtown recently, Susan Abramson, who is White, said the city is experiencing “growing pains,” so she understands why its Black residents might feel they have an especially important stake in this election.
“They are seeing it morph into something else, and it’s not going to be the community that it was many years ago,” said Abramson, 69, who has been active in Midtown community since she moved to the neighborhood in the 1970s.
“The Black community has been really active in the stability of a lot of these neighborhoods . . . They went to school together, took care of each other, and now we are seeing an influx of non-African American families into a lot of these neighborhoods,” said Abramson, who is supporting Moore for mayor.
Indeed, some Black residents in neighborhoods not connected to the Beltline say they already feel left out.
Harris, the retired architect, noted that some outer Atlanta commercial districts still don’t have sidewalks – a legacy of when some White developers refused to build them to try to keep African Americans out. Fancy restaurants and organic grocery stores have also largely bypassed Atlanta’s outer Black neighborhoods, despite residents’ relative wealth.
“As Atlanta has grown, our community has not had the investment that it should have had over the years,” said Harris, who declined to say who plans to vote for. “The parks are underserved. The services are underserved and we have just been underserved, in terms of the city.”
But Moses Blankson, 80, remains optimistic that Atlanta will remain as good for his children and grandchildren as it has been for him.
Fifty years ago, after he graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit on a student visa for African immigrants, Blankson moved to Atlanta to start a new life as a financial analyst. By 1980, he was able to buy a three-bedroom house for $66,000 in Cascade Heights. His home sits at the end of a long driveway near a park.
Blankson, an undecided voter, concedes the city lacks the boosterism vibe it had 25 years ago in the run-up to the Olympics, but lots of “people are still running from other places and coming here.”
“It’s because they know here is still better than the places they are running from,” he said.
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