2020 Georgian of the Year: Keisha Lance Bottoms
Coming Into Her Own
Keisha Lance Bottoms can trace her family’s history in Georgia back five generations, to a plantation near Crawfordville and a freed slave named Shepherd Peek. She believes he may have served in the state legislature during Reconstruction.
Now, as Atlanta’s 60th mayor, she runs one of the country’s most influential cities, a multiracial hub for business, education and technology – and one she thinks is well on its way to becoming a leader in social justice, as she tackles affordable housing and works for criminal justice improvements, key elements of her One Atlanta agenda.
Her family’s journey, she says, “speaks to what is possible.”
She emerges from her second year in office – having navigated more than a few rough patches – with some hard-won accomplishments, some ambitious plans for the future and the confidence that the people around her will help make those plans a reality. Not many elected officials in the state are in a better position to get things done.
That’s why Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is Georgia Trend’s 2020 Georgian of the Year.
It’s hard to recall a mayor in recent times who had a tougher beginning than Bottoms. She had to defeat Mary Norwood, a popular and experienced Northside politician, in a hard-fought general election and run-off and had barely a month to transition into the office before her January 2018 inauguration.
Her predecessor, Kasim Reed, who supported her mayoral bid, nonetheless left a few political land mines behind, including an unfolding City Hall corruption investigation by the federal government. Just a few weeks into her term, a crippling Ransomware attack hit the city’s computer network.
Bottoms’ experience as a city council member had not fully prepared her for the mayor’s role. “You get a lot of cover on the city council,” she says, “and you get to do a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking. The scrutiny and responsibility in no way compares to being mayor.”
Her first year was rough, but things got better. And, yes, she plans to run for a second term.
“I don’t even recognize the person I was in January 2018,” she says. “It hasn’t been that long ago, but I joke that serving in government is like dog years. You mature very quickly. There’s a scene with Angela Bassett in Waiting To Exhale where she sets her cheating husband’s car on fire. She walks out through the flames with this stroll. That’s how I felt coming out of 2018. I felt like I’d been through the fire, but came out on the other side still standing, still strutting.”
Nonetheless, during her first year, she got city council approval for a massive redevelopment project for The Gulch property in downtown Atlanta that includes a $28-million affordable housing trust fund, and she ended the city’s relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) so Atlanta’s jail no longer houses detainees for the agency.
In her second year, things really began to jell, starting with Atlanta hosting a successful Super Bowl LIII. She unveiled an ambitious housing plan, got a 30% pay increase for police officers through the city council and closed the city’s mammoth detention center where ICE detainees were previously held. A task force is looking into potential uses for the facility. At year’s end she announced a 20 percent pay raise for city firefighters.
She and the city dodged a bullet last year in the form of an attempted state takeover of the city’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest, when the necessary legislation failed to pass the General Assembly.
Bottoms, 49, grew up in Atlanta and graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, where she was active in student government. She recalls Georgia Congressman David Scott, then a state legislator, swearing her in when she assumed her school office. Her father was the late Major Lance, an R&B singer who performed in Europe with the Beatles and had several hit singles in the 1960s. After his career stalled, he served time in jail for possessing and selling cocaine; she recalls coming home from school one day to see him being led away in handcuffs. Her parents subsequently divorced.
Bottoms earned her undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, a historically black university, then got a law degree from Georgia State.
“My experience with formalized public service actually began when I practiced law,” she recalls. “I represented children in juvenile court and served as prosecutor for a while in the city of Atlanta.” She never thought of running for office until 2008 when she was sitting as a part-time magistrate judge and decided to challenge a Fulton Superior Court judge she thought was doing a poor job. “I ended up losing, but that was when the flame started to flicker. When I campaigned in that race, I went across the county and saw what other communities were getting when they had good representation.”
When her longtime city council representative retired, she ran for the seat, won and served two terms, 2010 through 2017.
“There’s a huge learning curve to being mayor,” she says. “It sounds a bit simple, but every new mayor is a new mayor. Once I realized that, I became much more forgiving of myself just in terms of uncertainty and anxiety.” At the end of 2018, she says, “When the clock struck midnight, it was like ‘OK, you did it. We did it, and it’s going to be all right.’
“For me, that’s when the agenda really began to shift from this very reactive agenda to a much more proactive agenda. Now that we aren’t having to respond daily to these things that we wouldn’t wish to have on our plate, I think we as a team are a whole lot less distracted by the noise and pushing forward with our agenda – creating equity in this city and opportunity and just taking Atlanta to the next level.”
Getting the right staff in place has been an important part of that, with significant help from the business community. Richard Cox, on loan from Cox Enterprises, served as the city’s COO for more than a year, arriving just as the cyber attack hit Atlanta and playing a major role in helping the city recover. As he transitioned out, the new chief of staff, Carmen Chubb, a veteran state Department of Community Affairs official, came in.
“You have operational things that happen – e-scooters get dropped all over your sidewalks, you have this Ransomware attack, the biggest in municipal history in America,” Bottoms says. “At each turn, we had the right people in place to help us navigate through those challenges.
“If we didn’t have our fair share of challenges, maybe we would be called Mayberry instead of Atlanta. There is still so much work that needs to be done outside of the fires that pop up each day. We are doing a much better job than we were doing at the beginning of my term to navigate them.”
Early on, Bottoms was something of an unknown quantity. Many were unsure what her administration would be like – whether it would follow the pattern set by her sometimes-bombastic predecessor or feel different. As it turns out, City Hall has taken on a calm, let’s-get-down-to-business tone, one that reflects the mayor herself.
“It’s just who I am,” she says. “I always said I was my own person, and I would be my own person. Nobody other than my husband believed me. I think people are just getting to know me. What I learned during the campaign is that in the absence of knowing me, people put in their own narrative.”
As for what she is most proud of halfway through her term, Bottoms cites the pay increase for police officers, which she believes will reshape public safety in the city.
“Also, ending our relationship with ICE,” she says, “something I had not seen any other municipality do. I’m proud because I knew it was the right thing to do.” It was a decision based on her conviction that the country’s immigration policy was wrong-headed. “I’m very proud of the courage it took for me personally and for us as a city to do that.”
She is pleased, too, with her administration’s criminal justice reform efforts, including eliminating cash bail bonds for low-level, non-violent offenders and making changes to the city jail. “It’s really not a partisan issue,” she says. “I think most people agree that mass incarceration is not the way to address the challenges we have as a society.
“Then there are the fun things,” she says, “like the Super Bowl. To see how well we navigated that as a city, from public safety to planning to hospitality – to lead that effort was a really shining moment for the city.”
One of the most ambitious goals Bottoms has set for her administration is dealing with the scarcity of affordable housing. It bothers her that many city employees can’t afford to live in Atlanta.
“It is a task of biblical proportions to get to where we set our goal: 20,000 units by 2026, $1 billion [in investment]. We are slowly but surely getting there.” She has a chief housing officer, Terri Lee, in place and believes the issue is front and center in many citizens’ minds.
“What makes me really happy is that people are talking about it in a way we haven’t talked about it in our city before. People across our city and state recognize it’s a challenge we still have an opportunity to get in front of.”
An early, encouraging sign came when internal and external partners – the Atlanta Housing Authority, Invest Atlanta, MARTA and the city planning department – were all sitting around the table at City Hall discussing the housing problem.
“I think what people have come to expect is that if you are looking for incentives and if you are looking to build in the city of Atlanta, the expectation is that there will be significant workforce and affordable housing as part of the project,” she says. “In years past, I don’t know that it was a topline conversation, but [now] it’s almost as if that’s where the conversation begins.”
Addressing the problems that gentrification brings, potentially displacing longtime residents from their redeveloped neighborhoods, has to be a part of the conversation as well, Bottoms says.
“We had a group of young men in here, young African-American men, part of the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, and [they were] asked what they thought about changes in our city. They all said they like the changes, like that our neighborhoods look better. One boy said a white man moved in next door to him; he talked to him and realized all white people aren’t bad.
“The positives are that we really are coming together as a community, getting to know each other, coming out of our corner.”
But some of the young people were worried. “One young man said his uncle had to move because his rent went up – ‘We’re worried that our families won’t be able to stay.’ These young teenagers are reflecting the real challenges we have with redevelopment. How do we make sure our legacy residents are able to stay in these neighborhoods?
“It’s not just about building new housing units, but how do we preserve these units, how do we help people afford to be able to stay, how do we help them afford to pay property taxes? That’s why the affordable housing trust fund has been so very important.”
Not only in housing, but in other areas as well, so much that happens or doesn’t happen in Atlanta relates to race; but the mayor is optimistic.
“I think the good part is we are having the conversation,” she says, “not acting as if race is not still top of mind. If any city can lead the way it’s Atlanta, but we still have a long way to go. There is still an enormous amount of racial distrust across this state and nation.”
She worries about the rhetoric coming from the highest office in the land. “It can overshadow the goodness in people because they are hearing it every day. I don’t think that’s who we are as a city and who we are as a state.”
Bottoms won’t be surprised to see another attempt in the 2020 General Assembly to take over Atlanta’s airport. “I hope that issue has been put away, but we will be prepared.”
Yet she is sensitive to concerns and criticism of the airport difficulties – some of the federal government probe into City Hall has to do with airport-related issues. She has announced plans to rebid lucrative airport contracts for restaurants and retail shops.
“I have said I thought everything should have a fresh look. I wanted to be sure contracts or bids would be analyzed under our new procedure. We have a new airport head [John Selden], who was independently sent to me by a search committee – led by Carol Tomé of Home Depot [at the time] and Dave Abney of UPS. We [her administration] didn’t have anybody sit on that committee. They sent three finalists – the person we chose is a former Navy [pilot] of the highest integrity.
“We’ve done so many things over the past two years [regarding] ethics and transparency, including our Open Checkbook – you can go online and do a search and see where we’re spending our money.” Changes to the procurement system “make it easier for people to submit bids,” she says.
“We wanted to make sure we have done what we can do and all our processes have been thoroughly reviewed before we put those [airport] bids back out. I’m comfortable we are able to move forward.”
Some speculation has it that the airport takeover attempt is racially motivated: white Republicans wanting a piece of the big pie controlled by black Democrats.
“I’ve heard that,” Bottoms says. “When you’re on the receiving end of it, it certainly sometimes feels that way. But we’ve had some challenges, and I don’t have a problem with people expressing concern about those challenges. What I can say is there is not a better-run airport in the entire world.
“To change and tamper with the ownership and operation of something that is the best of the best – it doesn’t serve the state well.”
Focused as she is on the future, Bottoms is mindful of the city’s history, including the horrific child murders that took place four decades ago. She reopened investigations and talks about plans for an Atlanta Child Murders memorial. “We have chosen a spot right outside these windows.” She gestures toward the site, visible from her office. “It’s important for many reasons, but every mayor from here on out will be able to look out and see that.”
She relies on the city’s long-established partnership with the business community, something that goes back to the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, and it contributes to her optimism about the city she leads.
“That’s the great thing about Atlanta and the state as a whole,” Bottoms says. “We do things very differently. We have a very productive working relationship with our business partners that’s not at the expense of our communities. Even the bipartisan working relationship we have – if it could be replicated in Washington, I think our country would be in lot better shape.
“There are a lot of major things we don’t agree on,” she says, “but things we do agree on – we seem to work pretty well.”