Updated at 8 p.m. Sunday:
After a long sabbatical, crime has reclaimed its traditional role in Atlanta mayoral politics.
We forget how unusual the last eight years have been. Shirley Franklin won her first term on the issue of integrity — and the fact that she was not Bill Campbell, whom federal investigators were already chasing.
That 2001 contest was waged in the weeks after 9/11. Murder was a concern, but it was the imported variety that had us by the lapels.
Four years later, as a popular incumbent, Franklin was able to dictate the terms of debate: jobs, sewers and schools. Her two under-funded and underwhelming opponents on the ballot — a utility rate consultant and a food stand vendor — were hardly in a position to object.
But events and an open seat have conspired to bring back both cops and robbers as issues in the current contest for mayor.
Seven-year Councilwoman Mary Norwood has declared that her election would mark the end of Richard Pennington’s tenure as police chief. Council President Lisa Borders, who was in her downtown Atlanta condo when burglars crashed through the door last month, has declared herself “a poster child for crime.”
Of three front-running candidates, state Sen. Kasim Reed may be pushing hardest on the issue. He’s to present a petition this morning to the City Council, demanding an end to furloughs in the police and fire departments.
Reed places responsibility for the force reductions on the council — and by extension, Norwood and Borders — for its rejection last year of a property tax hike proposed by Franklin to avoid the cuts.
As with big-city politics anywhere, crime is a double-edged sword. Race and class are a subtext of the discussion, because every crime has its own neighborhood constituency. Ask students at Georgia Tech.
The voters most outraged by the death of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston of Vine City, gunned down in an illegal police raid three years ago, aren’t necessarily the same voters angered by the murder of John Henderson, the bartender shot this spring during a pub robbery in gentrifying Grant Park.
That said, the building concern over crime means that, for the first time in several election cycles, the union that represents 1,600 or so Atlanta police officers could carry significant weight this November.
Next month, the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, Local 623, will host a mayoral debate.
Last month, at a council budget hearing, the union went public with charges that the city’s worker compensation system had subjected five former Atlanta cops, disabled in the line of duty, to callous delays when asked to approve routine treatment.
Most of us were distracted by Sgt. Scott Kreher, a union leader who declared himself so frustrated by City Hall bureaucracy that he wanted to take a baseball bat to Mayor Franklin’s head. You know the rest — Franklin declared the remark to be reprehensible. The sergeant apologized and was suspended.
But what does the episode say about City Hall’s relationship with its police force?
“I think that it’s very bad. I think that it’s going to require an enormous amount of work from the next mayor to heal,” Reed said. “And that there’s going to have to be a great deal of personal involvement to break the barriers that I think have grown between our City Hall and the police force.”
The statement is significant, coming from the man who twice acted as Franklin’s campaign manager.
Borders took exception, and described her ties to police officers and firefighters as “excellent.”
“I have worked for five years to build a very solid relationship with public safety,” the council president said. “That’s an established relationship and an earned respect over time. You can’t move into the city and in two minutes offer an opinion that is valid.”
That last jab by Borders was a reference to Reed’s purchase of a house inside the Atlanta city limits in December 2007. The six-term lawmaker and lawyer had been living in his childhood home, which he bought from his parents. It lies just outside the boundaries of Atlanta.
On Sunday evening, the Reed campaign e-mailed the following statement from the state senator for emphasis:
“For the last 11 years in the state legislature, I have consistently represented the city of Atlanta on issues including public safety, transportation, education, and infrastructure like water and sewers. The notion that I have not been directly involved in improving the quality of life for all Atlantans is laughable.”
Norwood declined to characterize the relationship between City Hall and Atlanta cops. “When I am out with the men and women of the police force, I’m getting very good feedback,” she said.
But Norwood, like Borders, acknowledged the city’s treatment of injured officers as something that needs to be addressed.
“I think we have to fix it,” Norwood said. “We have to take care of men and women who are harmed while protecting us. That is our moral obligation.”
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