Rise In Crime May Help Atlanta's Ex-Mayor's Campaign, Despite Cloud Of Corruption
Updated July 26, 2021 at 11:56 AM ET
The increase in violent crime that has hit cities across the country has dominated the non-partisan November race to be Atlanta's city's next mayor.
In early 2018, former Mayor Kasim Reed left after two terms of massive economic and population growth in Atlanta, but an increase in violent crime, he says, pushed him to try for a political comeback after current Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms decided not to run for reelection.
That's despite a wide-reaching and ongoing federal corruption investigation that has implicated 10 contractors and officials from Reed's tenure, including his former chief financial officer, chief procurement officer and deputy chief of staff.
Reed himself has not been charged and maintains his innocence, but he has apologized for failing to catch the crimes of his staff.
The city's murder total is close to double what it was the summer before Reed left office. And given that track record, his message is resonating with some voters and donors. When he announced this campaign, he raised a record amount of money.
"It's because people remember what the city was like when I was mayor," Reed said in an interview with NPR member station WABE. "And they have come to the conclusion that things were better when I was mayor."
Indeed, the crime rate is what's front of mind for Cindy Wooten, an Atlanta senior who attended a recent Reed campaign event.
"We didn't have all that crime when he was in office," she said. "We've got too much crime."
To her, the corruption investigation isn't relevant. "They didn't find nothing on him or they wouldn't have let him run again," she said.
Margaret Wesley, another Atlanta senior at the event, agreed. "I don't think it's an issue because I think if it was, he would have been convicted of doing something wrong," she said. "And since he wasn't, then that's my man."
'The number one thing'
Fear affects how people vote, says Tammy Greer, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University.
"This has been true even with the former president," she says of former President Trump. "I am able to overlook certain things because I feel safer, economically, socially, politically and physically." She says some voters are willing to gamble on that.
"Public safety is paramount. It's the number one thing in our state constitution, the number one thing for any elected official in the United States," says Chris Riley, chief of staff for a former Republican governor of Georgia who worked closely with Reed when he was mayor. Riley is supporting Reed's candidacy this year.
"If you're worried about stopping at a convenience store and filling your car up with gas ... that's a problem."
But for Reed's opponents — who are also campaigning on the crime rate — the corruption investigation is very relevant.
"We spent a lot of time over the last four years trying to prove to the citizens of Atlanta, prove to the state, prove to employees of the city and others, that we are ethical ... despite a cloud of corruption that was over the last administration," says City Councilman Andre Dickens, who is also running for mayor.
"And then here we go, inviting that back? It feels disrespectful," he says.
A recent city audit found a "wild west" spending culture among Reed's top officials.
Atlanta City Council passed new city credit card usage restrictions and created independent procurement review and inspector general positions because of some of the crimes that took place during Reed's administration.
Another mayoral candidate, Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, says it is "unfortunate" how much time and how many resources the investigation has, and continues, to take up in the race.
"We have so many issues in the city, crime being at the top," Moore says. "But ... how do we deal with our affordability? How do we deal with the unsheltered population? How do we deal with our infrastructure needs?"
"We spend a lot of time talking about what is it like for a former mayor to be in a race," Moore says. "It's unfortunate that we take time away from dealing with the issues."
Moore says the city law department has spent about $30 million on legal bills to handle requests related to the corruption investigation in recent years.
'A different place'
Reed's opponents are also taking issue with the record on crime he has touted.
"We are just in a different place, nationally, and profoundly, in Atlanta, and the strategies are going to have to be smarter," says Sharon Gay, an Atlanta attorney and mayoral candidate.
"I think it is simplistic for him to say, and for our citizens to assume, that because he has been mayor before, he alone has the answers," Gay says. "We can't keep doing the same old things and expect a different result."
Yet Reed exudes confidence about his ability to bring the crime rate down, as happened during his last tenure.
"When I got elected in 2010, we were experiencing a crime surge then. It was the worst economy in 80 years. So it wasn't a pandemic, but it was a fiscal crisis. Revenues for the city were falling. The city was in the red more than $50 million," Reed says. "But we prioritized building the police force because my theory was that if we created a safe environment, that because of Atlanta's other strong fundamentals, investment would come. And that's exactly what happened."
Five candidates are declared in the Atlanta mayoral race. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two head to a runoff.
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