MAYOR’S POLITICAL LEGACY

Leadership style brings strong tone

Despite some critics, Reed advocates direct engagement

By Katie Leslie kleslie@ajc.com

You can learn a lot about Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed from his Twitter account.

He loves winning and highlighting his team’s success. “I remember how hard it was to get this done,” Reed tweeted about the Ponce City Market he helped bring to life. “The juice was worth the squeeze, though.”

He’s willing to go toe-to-toe with his critics, if not block them, recently telling a man who groused he’s counting down the days left in Reed’s term: “Good. You probably need all the practice at counting that you can get.”

And he’s big on the “Laws of Power,” like this principle he recently flagged as a favorite: “Know who you’re dealing with; do not offend the wrong person.”

This is the sweet, sour and strategic style of Atlanta’s 59th mayor. Where some praise him as a big-picture thinker and decisive leader who has overseen landscape-altering projects, he’s also developed a reputation for running roughshod over dissenters and excoriating those he views as enemies.

Reed has a pull-no-punches approach that’s brought a new tone to City Hall, and, in his words, is exactly what’s needed from modern leaders — “authenticity” and direct engagement.

“It is my style that, if you really want to have a conversation with me, you better be prepared for the conversation,” Reed said. “And it’s pretty successful, because I only won by 714 votes and I got re-elected with more than 80 percent of the vote.”

But for all of his real estate and policy wins, critics say, his at-times cocksure attitude has halted progress in a few high-profile city negotiations, like the 2013 discussions with the Atlanta Braves, ongoing talks with Atlanta Public Schools about funding for the Atlanta Beltline, and efforts to end a conflict with public safety workers over pay.

What’s more, there’s thought that his “whack-a-mole” tendencies could stunt his political trajectory.

Those are assessments that Reed largely brushes off as a “counter-narrative” by foes with an agenda. The mayor, always armed with a litany of his successes to off-set criticism, says the scoreboard is what matters. And by his count, he told a reporter, he’s ahead.

“I live in a business where, no matter how much success you had, it’s your job and others to point out why the deal isn’t perfect or what could have been done differently,” he said. “But the folks who point it out almost never have had the level of achievement that I’ve had as mayor or in my life.”

In other words, his leadership style is what got him this far. And as he heads into his fourth quarter as mayor — with his political future an open question — he sees little reason to change.

Winning streak

Reed’s supporters say his particular style of leadership, one marked by loyalty, intense focus and ambitious aims, has been a benefit to the city.

“I’m one of these people who looks not at the personality as much as the progress,” said Roswell Mayor Jere Wood. “Atlanta, I think, is on a winning streak, and you have to give Kasim credit for winning.”

The 46-year-old attorney has taken on challenges many would see as rife with peril. In 2011, he won support for reforming Atlanta’s troubled pension system — an undertaking still winding its way through court battles. He won approval for $200 million in bonds to help finance the $1.4 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium, a project some criticize as a misuse of taxpayer dollars. He’s also made cuts at City Hall to boost reserves and stabilize spending, moves that earned several ratings upgrades.

Despite his reputation of going for the jugular, Reed is also credited with building bipartisan bridges, especially with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.

Observers describe a natural power broker who can pair public sector goals with private sector opportunities, such as the reinvention of City Hall East into the now high-end Ponce City Market and the sale of Fort McPherson to filmmaker Tyler Perry for a film studio.

Reed was slammed by many residents for brokering a $30 million deal with Perry without meaningful front-end community input.

Many Atlantans say that’s happening all over again, but this time, with Turner Field. Reed has taken the lead on negotiations over the fate of the ballpark, a 77-acre problem he arguably created when — depending on how you see it — he failed, or refused, to broker a deal with the Braves two years ago.

The Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, a board Reed controls with a majority of votes, announced this week that it will ask developers for proposals in October. Such a move defies many residents’ wishes to first be given a chance to offer input through a community study.

The mayor, who speaks about input and transparency interchangeably, told residents during a tense community meeting last week that the property must be sold quickly because of the volatile real estate market. After jeers from the crowd, Reed countered that he’s trying to accomplish something that’s so far eluded the neighborhoods: progress.

“We are right on the verge of delivering something great,” he said. “In the interim, nothing has been delivered, nothing except a Putt-Putt course. Nobody has delivered anything to you since the Olympics.”

For Reed, redefining Turner Field brings a chance to mitigate the perceptions of some that the Braves walked because he was too focused on Arthur Blank and his Falcons. That’s a narrative he has pushed back against since the very beginning, insisting that he wasn’t willing to compete with Cobb County’s offering of nearly $400 million in tax dollars toward a stadium project.

The topic trails him still, especially as he’s poised to have a hand in another sports facility deal, this time involving the Atlanta Hawks.

“Easy to sit on Twitter and tweet out messages on topics you know nothing about,” he wrote in July to a local sports radio host who blamed him for the departure of the Braves and Thrashers, the hockey team that split during Reed’s second year in office.

Reed struck a similar tone in January 2014, when the metro area was paralyzed by a snowstorm that left thousands stranded on the roadways overnight. The mayor appeared defensive in a series of interviews with national networks during which he sought to delin-

Tom Weyandt

Former Atlanta deputy chief operating officer eate his responsibilities and those of state leaders.

His point was possibly lost in the presentation.

“I was amazed that he kept passing the buck — pointing fingers everywhere but at himself,” CNN’s Carol Costello told The Inquisitr, a news website, following their contentious interview.

Social media mayor

Reed knows that many perceive him as thin-skinned, but says the rapid pace of the Internet and widespread availability of information require him to act. The majority of his messages are sanguine and affirming, but he has little patience for social media critics.

“A story can be known around the world in 35 minutes now,” Reed explained. “When a story that is particularly inaccurate or inappropriate is left unchallenged, today it actually stands as fact.”

That’s why he’s built a social media platform that’s larger than most American mayors’, he points out, ticking off the number of followers he has on Facebook (43,570), Instagram (5,900), email list-serves (25,000) and Twitter (101,000).

“It’s just amazing that the folks who weigh in on criticism don’t have the Twitter following that I have,” Reed said. If you want to Monday morning quarterback him, he said, “you have to be willing to put your life and your accomplishments up against what I’ve done.”

His approach is arguably effective when it comes to controlling public criticism. Case in point: Few people approached for this story were willing to go on the record with their concerns about Reed’s style.

But Councilman C.T. Martin, a longtime supporter, notes that Reed isn’t typically one to provoke a battle. In fact, the mayor is surprisingly introverted, until he perceives a public slight. Then, Martin said, “he wants the last blow. And that gets complicated.”

And colorful. Reed’s verbal sparring prowess extends beyond Twitter and is often directed at local leaders.

“I just think John Eaves is upset because when he tried to get the Fulton County Commission chair turned into a full-time position so that he can earn a six-figure income, it was rejected,” Reed said after Eaves complained about the appointment of a Reed ally to the authority overseeing Turner Field.

“You’re not going to rob the train and shoot the conductor in the head at the same time,” Reed said last year, referring to public safety unions asking for a raise while supporting a lawsuit that could undo his pension reform.

State Rep. LaDawn Jones, who earlier this year dubbed him “Bully Reed” in a Facebook post, said she admires his tenacity but has warned him about his manner.

“I am concerned, and I’ve told him this personally, that all of the great things he has done will be overshadowed by the negative outward way he addresses people and things,” said Jones, who acknowledged her own reputation for bluntness. “... In the world of public opinion, he has two and a half more years to soar out of here as one the best mayors the city has ever had. But, in order for him to do that, he has to change.”

Advice isn’t something Reed takes from those outside his trusted circle. He calls on Ambassador Andrew Young and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown often, he explained, because they have worn his shoes.

“If I’m going to get advice, I’m going to get advice from somebody who has done what I’ve done, well,” he said.

Young, who has mentored Reed since he was a standout Howard student, said he’s not one to comment on another leader’s style. But he did once encourage Reed to lighten up in front of the cameras, teasing him that: “Even when you’re given good news, you don’t smile.”

Young then shared advice from the poet Maya Angelou, who said that people will forget what you say or do, but not how you make them feel.

“One of the things that you have to do as a politician is make people feel good about what’s going on,” Young offered.

A different side

Reed seems to have gotten the message. A more playful mayor has peeked through in recent months, such as when the buttoned-up politico broke into a Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity step during a recent awards show.

Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon said that’s a side fewer get to see, noting Reed is “very compassionate and very approachable.”

The mayor said becoming a husband and father last year broadened his outlook. He brings his wife, Sarah Elizabeth, and toddler, Maria Kristan, to many city functions. He even baby talks.

“I think part of what’s going on is I’m just personally happier than I’ve ever been,” Reed said.

He’s lived his adult life in five-year increments, he said, with win-or-lose goals that called for him to be elected to the state Legislature by his late 20s and to become mayor by

40.

But now, he swears he’s free from the shackles of a political road map, despite persistent rumors that he is eyeing a future run for governor; despite his saying that he has “another election” in him — but that he won’t run in 2018; and despite the fact that he’s campaigning for Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton — a gig that could be a bid for a Cabinet position in her potential White House.

“I don’t have any plans,” Reed insisted. “The one thing I say every morning when I wake up is, I’m just going to enjoy myself.”

This jocular side was on full display at a recent Commerce Club luncheon, where he beamed as he spoke of his successes and what’s left on his to-do list.

“I got up this morning. I ran two miles. I did ABCs with my daughter. I picked out my suit. I’m ready to go,” Reed proclaimed. “They’re going to call me Mr. 4th Quarter, baby.”