'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.
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.