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)

At 13 Reed met fellow Atlantan Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador and former mayor of Atlanta, at a church service. “It had a significant impact on me,” he says now. “Young spoke to me, spending a minute with me.” Young was to become one of Reed’s mentors, eventually serving with him on the Howard University Board of Trustees, where Reed was the board’s student representative.

“Young always said I should come back to Atlanta and get involved,” Reed says.

Reed graduated from Howard and the university’s law school and soon became a partner specializing in employment law at the Atlanta firm of Holland & Knight. Eventually, though, Reed followed Young’s advice and entered politics, first as a successful candidate for state representative in the Georgia General Assembly in 1998. He served two terms and then, from 2002 to 2009, served as a Georgia state senator, becoming vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

After a tough campaign in 2009, Reed was elected Atlanta’s mayor, by a margin of 714 votes — less than 1 percent of the total — over City Councilwoman Mary Norwood. One of the obstacles Reed had to overcome in the race was a perception that he was too aloof. He acknowledged at the time that he was not “cuddly,” though his grasp of the issues was clearly hard to equal, as were his oratory skills.

Reed’s early breakthrough as mayor came when he was able to convince the city’s public employees that their pension benefits were on track to bring down Atlanta. Runaway pensions, which had been negotiated during flush times 10 years earlier, were already absorbing one out of every five dollars of the city’s budget, with prospects for even greater commitments. The city was stuck with an unfunded pension liability of $1.5 billion, with little ability to do more than pay interest on it.

Jumping in, Reed cut back pensions for all new employees and increased the vesting period. When the employee unions protested, Reed invited them into his office for some nose-to-nose discussions. “We were basically moving toward insolvency,” he says.

Reed was smart enough to get city employees to work with him to solve the problem. “We decided we were going to jointly change the system, not like Wisconsin or Ohio,” he says. “We invited unions to the table.”

The result was “the most sweeping pension reform in the country,” Reed says. City employees agreed to up their pension contributions by 5 percent, allowing the city to wrestle the budget down to manageable proportions.

What can other mayors of up-against-it cities learn from Reed’s experience? “Surround yourself with talent,” he says. “I’ve been able to attract a cadre of individuals from the private sector and elsewhere. Position by position, that’s true.”

He cites the recent hiring of Atlanta native Kristin Canavan Wilson, a former vice president of LexisNexis, as the new director of the city’s Innovation Delivery Team, which will work to improve city services and reduce homelessness. “We have people like her, who would otherwise be doing a different job in the private sector for more money, becoming passionate about things they can do for the city. As I tell them — we do cool stuff.”

Edmund Newton is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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