The Root 100 Close-Up: Kasim Reed

The Atlanta mayor opens up about his successes and how the Occupy protests caught him off guard.

Kasim Reed (Getty Images)
Kasim Reed (Getty Images)

‘Tis the season of municipal misery, with cities from New York to Los Angeles struggling to cover burgeoning demands for service with ever-diminishing revenues. However, in this recession-struck atmosphere, Atlanta is one of the rare major U.S. cities notable for hiring, not firing, essential public-safety employees and for expanding, not shutting down, programs for young people.

Most Atlantans credit the turnaround to Mayor Kasim Reed — one of the 2011 The Root 100 honorees — who, after less than two years in office, has taken measures to increase the city’s reserves from $7.4 million to about $90 million, while noticeably spiffing up its neighborhoods. Atlanta has a population of about 420,000 and is more than 61 percent black.

Under Reed’s guidance, the city has reopened 18 recreation centers, which the previous mayor had shuttered as a budget-balancing measure. Some of the centers had turned into vandalized wrecks or hangouts for petty criminals. Reed has also used his influence to raise millions of dollars from private donors and businesses, like athletic-shoe manufacturer Converse, to turn the recreation centers into “Centers of Hope,” offering enriched educational and cultural programs for young Atlantans.

But the job hasn’t been without surprises. Reed admits that the sudden appearance of Occupy Atlanta protesters in the city’s Woodruff Park caught him off guard. “I did not see that coming,” he says. “I thought that, certainly based on my political career, they would see me as supportive of many of their priorities.”

After some troubling safety issues, he says, he decided to clear the park forcibly, an action that drew both praise and criticism. Still somewhat stung by Occupy Atlanta’s implicit challenge of his credentials as a do-gooder, he has decided to move on.

“You don’t get to feel sorry for yourself in this space,” he says.

The Reed administration is also beefing up the Atlanta Police Department to become the “biggest department in Atlanta history,” with 1,880 police officers, “on the way to 2,000,” Reed says. The hiring has already contributed to enhanced public safety, with a 10 percent drop in violent crime last year, according to the Atlanta Police Foundation.

All of this while balancing the city’s budget of 1.5 billion without raising taxes.

Reed, 42, a proud native Atlantan with a long-term commitment to public service, came into office on a mission. He grew up in the city’s Cascade community, a hub of political and civil rights activity in the 1960s and ’70s. He’s the youngest of four sons of Junius, vice president of a large Atlanta construction firm, and Sylvia Reed, an official with the United Negro College Fund.

Being a political leader in his hometown was an idea that first captured young Kasim’s imagination as a sixth-grader, when he was assigned to do a report on Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “It gave me an interest in public service,” he says. It also gave him an abiding admiration for the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice — to such an extent that Marshall’s alma mater, Howard University, became Reed’s hands-down first choice for college.