The fabled friendship between Atlanta’s City Hall and Georgia’s Gold Dome, built over much of the past decade, is soon in for a twist in November’s election to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal.
Republican Brian Kemp has taken a much cooler tone toward City Hall, scarred by an ongoing federal corruption probe. He’s threatened to support a state takeover of the city’s crown jewel, the bustling Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and slammed Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms for ending a federal jail contract.
A victory by Stacey Abrams, meanwhile, could broaden a city-state partnership that has largely been focused on economic development initiatives. Abrams, a former deputy city attorney, said she’d look for “common cause” with Atlanta over other policies, such as criminal justice proposals.
Either approach would herald a new chapter between the governor’s office and City Hall, separated by only about 300 steps but often a world apart politically even when Democrats ruled both roosts.
That’s because, for decades, state politicians from both parties quickly discovered that feuding with Atlanta would help galvanize their core supporters — while agreeing with the capital city often did not.
Those strained ties — often poisonous during the 1960s — gave way to a new era of cooperation at the start of this decade as Deal and then-Mayor Kasim Reed’s close relationship quickly became the toast of the city’s business community.
Both rallied behind a failed transportation tax, headlined the push for the new $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubled-up the lobbying offensive to deepen Savannah’s port and paved the way for what could be a transformative, if controversial, overhaul of downtown Atlanta’s Gulch.
And that partnership survived many political storms, including the disastrous response to the 2014 ice storm, as both looked to the other for key support. Reed was often Deal’s main conduit to a Democratic White House, while the governor gave the mayor cachet in the Republican-led statehouse.
Though both are Democrats who represented slices of the city of Atlanta before seeking higher office, Abrams and Bottoms were not particularly close. Bottoms, a former city councilwoman, donated to Abrams’ rival in the party’s primary but quickly endorsed her after her runaway victory.
Since then, Abrams said, they’ve discussed how the city’s plan to eliminate cash bail dovetails with her criminal justice proposals and how to “continue to improve the reputation of the city.”
Abrams and Bottoms also have talked about the current push by some state legislators to take control of Hartsfield-Jackson’s operations, an effort that has risen on numerous occasions since the ’70s and often failed for lack of support from the governor’s office.
“We will not always agree,” Abrams said, “but I believe an open line of communication and a common cause for a success for Atlanta and for Georgia matters.”
She staunchly opposes any legislation that would give the state oversight over the busy airport, which has gained currency among Republicans who say it could help stave off corruption and pave the way for a second major airport in Georgia.
While Abrams advocated for “greater accountability over procurement” at the airport amid a federal corruption probe that’s already produced high-profile indictments, she said the debate over running the facility is more complex.
“The state is not equipped to manage this enterprise, and it should not be a political football,” she said.
Kemp, meanwhile, signaled he would take a sharper approach to City Hall when he criticized Bottoms’ decision to block the city jail from holding any more U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.
Shortly after Bottoms’ signed that executive order, Kemp said the city should be focused on “cleaning up corruption and stopping crime — not creating more of it.” Bottoms shot back, mocking a Kemp campaign ad by saying she doesn’t “take advice from people who hold shotguns at children.”
Kemp predicted he would have a good working relationship with City Hall but didn’t rule out supporting more state oversight of the airport.
“There should be questions about city confidence. There are definitely issues down there, and I’ll let that process play out,” he said, alluding to the ongoing corruption probe.
“One thing people can’t stand is corruption in government — City Hall, corruption at the airport,” Kemp said. “I’ll make sure we’re doing things ethically right and that we’re transparent.”
‘Always be differences’
The city and state have weathered far stormier relationships.
Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen and Gov. Lester Maddox were poisonous rivals ever since Allen beat Maddox, then a firebrand segregationist restaurateur, for the city’s top job in 1961. And Maynard Jackson’s election as the city’s first African-American mayor jolted state politicians.
Still, Jackson was able to form relationships with influential state lawmakers to press the city’s needs and help pave the way toward the 1996 Olympics. So did his successor, Andy Young, who used his national contacts to work with Gold Dome allies to promote international investment in the city and state.
And though Mayor Shirley Franklin had an icy relationship at first with Gov. Sonny Perdue, the first Republican in the state’s top job in more than a century, the tensions eased as the two became familiar with one another.
Franklin said she wound up representing Perdue and the state on several international economic development missions and collaborated with the governor on many projects closer to home. Perdue also supported her $4 billion infrastructure rebuilding program at a “crucial time.”
“My sense is most Atlanta mayors have succeeded in working cooperatively with the sitting governor and legislative leaders even when they’ve been actively engaged leaders of different political parties,” Franklin said.
It’s hard to get much closer than Deal and Reed, who were so cozy that Deal’s chief of staff donated to Reed’s re-election campaign — and Reed predicted Deal would win a second term over a Democrat 18 months before the vote.
Caught after a recent event, Deal reflected on his efforts to “build a very good relationship” with City Hall — and urged his successors to do the same.
“There will always be differences,” he said, “but those are just differences of opinions that the state needs to respect as much as possible, as long as it doesn’t override our overall state policies.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will focus this week’s election coverage on how the two major candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams, plan to deal with key issues facing Georgia. Numerous AJC stories have already explored major issues such as health care, criminal justice and public safety. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state approaches Election Day on Nov. 6.
Sunday: Priorities in the state’s budget
Monday: Problems facing rural Georgia
Wednesday: Where candidates differ on social issues
Thursday: What’s needed to improve transportation