If you stick around long enough, you see some surprising things.
Forty years ago, I saw a man walk on the moon; five years ago, I watched the Boston Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years. Heck, I’ve even seen a black man elected president.
But early next month, we’ll be treated to something just as unlikely. When they go to the polls Nov. 3, Atlanta voters will see three smart, experienced, honest and hard-working candidates for mayor on the ballot. Given the dearth of leadership that has plagued the city, that’s something to be celebrated.
The city faces a lot of serious problems, and many of those problems are self-inflicted. But the fact that it can produce mayoral candidates of the quality of Mary Norwood, Kasim Reed and Lisa Borders has to bode well.
(A fourth candidate, Jesse Spikes, is a successful corporate lawyer who is also smart and honest. What he lacks is political experience, which matters more than many people think. Michael Jordan was a great athlete, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time. But when he tried his hand at baseball, he barely hit .200 at Double A level. The skills that make you a star in one field don’t mean much in another.)
The tone of the mayoral campaign and the reception the candidates have received also suggest that Atlanta has matured. All three major candidates — a white woman, a black woman and a black man — have built impressive coalitions across boundaries of geography, race and class. As a result, the divisiveness that might mark such a campaign in many other diverse cities — and in the Atlanta of previous years — hasn’t really played out yet. If the pattern holds in the remaining days of the race, that too bodes well for the city’s future.
Choosing among the three is difficult, in part because all three agree in general terms about the major tasks facing Atlanta’s next mayor. They each stress making the city bureaucracy work better, solving its stubborn financial management issues and improving public safety. But each brings something different to the race.
Norwood is a veteran City Council member with extensive business experience. Through a lot of hard work, she has made herself familiar with every corner of the city, and every corner of the city is familiar with Norwood. Her energy and networking skills are legendary.
Norwood is also the candidate focused most intently on resolving the city’s significant financial management problems. Given the state of the city when she took office, incumbent Shirley Franklin has accomplished an awful lot in her two terms as mayor, but fiscal reform largely eluded her. Norwood pledges to give that issue the deep attention it clearly demands, and she has the tenacity to see it through.
Kasim Reed, an Atlanta attorney and veteran state senator, stresses the importance of public safety in his campaign, promising to hire 750 additional police officers by the end of his four-year term. Given the city’s financial situation, that is a hugely ambitious and probably impractical goal, but Reed says he is committed to achieving it.
Reed also highlights his record of consensus building in the state Senate, where he served as a minority urban Democrat in a chamber dominated by rural and suburban Republicans. As Reed tells it, he was able to build relationships across party lines that allowed him to buck the odds and serve effectively on behalf of his Atlanta constituents.
That ability, he says, will allow him to build support for his policies with members of an often fractious City Council. Perhaps just as important, he says, those relationships with state legislative leaders will pay dividends for the city as metro Atlanta seeks assistance and cooperation from an often antagonistic state government.
Like her opponents, Lisa Borders has an extensive record both of public service and private-sector leadership. As City Council president, she too knows the city and its problems, and she too pledges to improve the efficiency of the city bureaucracy. She evinces a deep passion for the city and the intellect and energy needed to make it a better place. Her main advantage over Norwood, with whom she serves on the City Council, may be her ability to build council support for the tough financial and personnel decisions that lie ahead.
Trying to choose among such well-qualified candidates is a welcome chore, but at this point, I’ll cast my vote for Reed. The record of legislative consensus-building that he describes is very real. Given that some of the metro region’s biggest challenges cannot be solved without the assistance of state leaders, an Atlanta mayor with such connections would be a major asset.