The Atlanta Objective: Bottoms Up

"It’s not really paranoia if they’re really out to get you," Bottoms said at her press conference today. On comes the clown car of successors, all bidding on how to defeat Atlanta's crime wave.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is not taking her talents to Walgreens.

That was one of the first things she said, fighting tears at the podium this morning. The rumor mill fabricated a corporate job there. (Looking at you, WSB. This is on you.)

“I wish that I could tell you there was a moment, or that there was a thing,” Bottoms said, describing her exit from the mayoral race. “But when you have faith, and pray for God’s wisdom and guidance, in the same way that it was very clear to me almost five years ago that I should run for mayor of Atlanta, it is abundantly clear to me today that it is time to pass the baton on to someone else.”

Bottoms doesn’t have another job lined up. She’s going to ask her donors if they want their money back. “I don’t know what’s next for me personally or my family,” she said. “But this decision is made from a position of strength, not weakness.”

She recounted the many hits the city has taken, from the massive cyberattack a few days into her administration to the pandemic and street protests over police brutality. “There was a madman in the White House,” she said. A sense of exasperation lay beneath her comments, that nothing about her term unfolded as she expected, of being presented with extraordinary problems not of her creation and largely beyond her control.

“Moments and things are bigger than one person. Quite honestly, if there were a person who I knew could step and be the mayor this city needs, I likely would have made a different decision when offered a cabinet position. But I wanted to finish what I started, and I didn’t see who could step in to lead this city. And the voters will decide who that person is.”

The offer of a cabinet position has never been confirmed by the Biden administration, I note in passing. Left unsaid until prompted: the fallout around the death of Rayshard Brooks at the hands of Atlanta police and the ensuing rise in street violence.

I had a brief call with Elise Durham, the mayor's head of communications yesterday afternoon, around five. I had sent an email earlier in the day, taking issue with how my request for information about the mayor’s newly-announced crime working group had gone unanswered for the last two days.

She called me a few minutes later, clearly ticked off at my tone. "How dare I" send her an email like that, she said. She was uncharacteristically irritated, frankly. I’ll get it when everyone else gets it, which is whenever we get it done, and quit bugging us, she said (effectively.)

I took it as Kasim Reed-esque posturing, a PR technique meant to elicit apologies and to soften coverage. I now think I read Durham’s reaction wrong. I think moments before, Bottoms had confirmed her exit from the mayoral race, all-but-guaranteeing that Durham was going to lose her job with the city in seven months.

Six months ago, we were wondering what cabinet position Bottoms might land in the Biden Administration. I suspect that’s what she was wondering, too, which is why she hasn’t been fundraising like a candidate facing serious competition. (At the end of January, she had all of $60,597 in the bank, after spending more than $3 million to get elected.)

But her timing is interesting for other reasons. Bottoms named a permanent police chief a few days ago while announcing the formation of a working group to present recommendations to fight Atlanta’s skyrocketing crime problem, ten months after the former chief resigned after the Rayshard Brooks shooting.

Two days ago, officer Garrett Rolfe — Brooks’ killer — was reinstated, something Bottoms could be expected to know was coming, since Atlanta’s Civil Service Board members are mayoral appointees.

Any competent challenger would be able to hang all of this around her neck; Rolfe was only reinstated because Bottoms, a lawyer, made a legal error by firing him without due process. Bottoms said she fired him immediately because a signal had to be sent immediately while facing riots in the street, but it also suggests that she may have done so knowing Rolfe would regain his job in a hearing, through the error.

Bottoms stridently defended her actions in firing Rolfe, and said she disagreed with the board’s decision.

I’ve been critical of the mayor for a while now, for many reasons. It should not have taken years to resolve problems paying social services nonprofits like HOPE Atlanta and others housing HIV-positive clients under the federal HOPWA program. The city has been leaderless on major problems like affordable housing and crime. The city remains starkly unequal, a problem that her administration did almost nothing to repair and that is largely responsible for the largest increase in violent crime I can find among major American cities.

“We’ve had a challenging year. We are unfortunately not alone. Across the country, we’ve seen a spike in crime, and it has so much to do with people emerging from this pandemic,” Bottoms said. “People have died. People are dealing with anxiety, they’re dealing with depression. Everybody’s house has not been a safe place for them. Some of us have found refuge in our homes and for other people it’s a nightmare.”

That crime problem — the focus of the Atlanta Objective project — would have undone her reelection bid, I think, regardless of her claims in her announcement. Buckhead was prepared to vote anyone not named Bottoms, both in November and in the inevitable runoff. Anyone splitting the vote with her in the rest of the city would have beaten her.

She expressed two regrets during her term, to date: asking the city council to support the extravagant $23 million bridge over Northside Drive, and not cleaning house at the top tiers of the administration immediately after being sworn in.

I found that last bit interesting. Bottoms’ administration has been partially paralyzed by an ongoing FBI investigation that began with her predecessor, something she references directly in her exit announcement. “A far reaching and ever growing federal investigation into the prior Administration consumed City Hall, often leaving employees paralyzed, and fearful of making the smallest of mistakes, lest they too be investigated, or castrated on the evening news,” she wrote.

I asked her how long it took her to trust the people she worked with.

“I would imagine it was when I got my team in place,” she said. “As my husband said to me one day, ‘It’s not really paranoia if they’re really out to get you.’”

Bottoms talked about the $500,000 haul from a fundraiser headlined by Biden recently, money she won’t be using now. She also took a swipe at the threat of self-funded candidates swooping in to try to buy an open seat. Bottoms announced now to give a better candidate enough time to raise money to defend against such people, she said.

An open seat invites a clown car of candidates. (Looking at you, Laban King.)

Some people are talking about the return of Kasim Reed.

Stop talking about Kasim Reed.

Just stop. Now. It’s not going to happen.

Reed was on the Frank Ski show last week, talking obliquely about how badly Bottoms had effed up. That's unusual for him, and sparked a lot of speculation that he might run. But what I suspect now is that he knew Bottoms was out, and is raising his profile in order to play kingmaker.

But Reed knows that he’s nuclear waste outside in the rest of Georgia, politically. Between the bribery investigation of Reed appointees at the watershed department and lingering questions about vendor contracts at the airport, one wonders when the next shoe will drop. If Reed ran and won, Kemp wouldn’t campaign against Stacey Abrams. He would campaign against Kasim Reed. Whoever the winner of the Republican primary against Warnock would do the same. Reed threatens the statewide Democratic ticket in 2022, which is why the newly-empowered Democratic political structure of this state would stomp him flat.

For Bottoms, this moment will reveal character.

Bottoms has staked out a progressive stance on matters of social justice and criminal justice reform, and spoke eloquently about it Friday, talking about seeing her father led out of her home in handcuffs as a child, and the dynamics of the city jail in example.

“What we are talking about are people with minor offenses. Poor people who can’t pay $200 to get out of jail and then lose their job because they can’t pay their car note and then get in trouble because they can’t pay their child support,” she said. “We have done more in terms of criminal justice and social reform during the three years I’ve been in office than any mayor I know of. I still believe that the systemic issues that are leading to people making poor decisions has everything to do with us not having the ability to offer people resources.”

I asked her if her exit from the race puts progressive reform on criminal justice at risk.

“I think reform of criminal justice is at risk, period,” Bottoms said.

“The will that we had in my first year in office in 2018, the entire nation was favoring criminal justice reform,” she added. “What I see now, with the uptick in crime across the country, is that we’re going back the other way … back to lock them all up and throw away the key And the danger in that is that it gets us to moments like … this. So we have to do short-term things to address issues in our communities on crime, but you have to think long term on how you break those systemic issues that lead people to make decisions to commit crimes.”

Short of breaking the law, Bottoms now has nothing to lose. We can get necessary-but-politically-unpopular reforms started, today. Maybe.