ATLANTA — With one metropolitan area so much larger than the state’s other cities, Georgia can’t escape the influence of Atlanta, giving its mayor the opportunity to play a statewide role on par with the constitutional officers.
The mayor gets far more coverage in the metro and national media than the state’s attorney general, insurance commissioner or any other constitutional officer, often more than even the governor. As the state’s population continues to concentrate in metro Atlanta, where 60 percent of Georgians now live, the mayor can enjoy significant visibility.
So, it makes sense for people living outside the mammoth footprint of the Atlanta media get to know the mayor. Especially this mayor, because Mayor Kasim Reed is credited with the skill, the charm and the ambition to cash in that potential for a higher office.
Asked at a recent appearance at the Atlanta Press Club about advancing his political career, he offered the kind of coy response of a politician keeping his options open.
“I want to finish being mayor, and then I’ve some other plans,” he said, without offering any specifics.
The 43-year-old attorney and former state legislator is running for re-election this year with $1.7 million in contributions from supporters that include the city’s business and entertainment elite.
Reed claims several accomplishments. He has rid the city of its budget deficit, hired 700 police officers, reformed the pension, improved response rates for the fire department and the garbage pickups, cancelled scheduled water-rate increases and held property taxes steady his whole first term.
“Y’all, it might not look like it, but this city is on the move,” he said.
Beyond the city limits, he has been a strong advocate for deepening the shipping channel in the Savannah River to prepare the port of Savannah to handle larger ships at low tide. He has made frequent trips to Washington to lobby his fellow Democrats, providing access that Republicans like Gov. Nathan Deal and the state’s U.S. senators didn’t have.
The port’s potential excites him because he sees Atlanta and the whole state benefiting from the increased trade.
“People don’t have any idea what we’re at the beginning of with the deepening of the port,” he said.
And Deal is quick to endorse his contribution.
“He has reached out. He has not only concentrated on things within his own, immediate jurisdiction, but he has been very, very helpful with us in dealing with this deepening with the port of Savannah,” the governor said. “... The reason he does this is because he recognizes it’s not only good for the state but also for the city of Atlanta.”
The port lobbying has earned Reed support far beyond the metro area.
Steve Green of Savannah, chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, stood at the Press Club luncheon to praise him.
“The entire state has a debt of gratitude,” said Green, the former chairman of the Georgia Ports Authority.
Reed’s support for statewide initiatives isn’t limited to the port. He joined Deal in campaigning for the transportation sales tax, which was eventually defeated in the Atlanta region and most of the state.
In November, Reed proposed seeking federal funding for a high-speed passenger train between Atlanta and Savannah.
“Georgia’s going to have to have a number of dynamic economies, not just in the city of Atlanta but throughout the state,” he said. “Savannah has all of the bones for it. It has a great personality. It has its own character.”
He dreams big, and he likens the rail proposal to the vision of Atlanta’s longest-serving mayor, William Hartsfield, who championed what became the world’s busiest airport on the city’s south side.
“Who would have thought, when the leaders back then made the decision around Hartsfield-Jackson (International Airport), that we would sit here hosting 92 million passengers a year?” he asks. “The decisions around now are similar in terms of what their impact will be.”
Should he run for a statewide office, like governor or U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ seat that will come open next year, Reed will have challenges. Georgia hasn’t elected a black to the senate, and all the constitutional officers it picked in the last election are white Republicans.
Population trends, though, are shifting, notes Eric Tanenblatt, Mitt Romney’s Georgia chairman.
“The demographics are changing if you look at the results of the presidential race,” he said. “Democrats have an opportunity.”
The mayor has no doubts about it.
“I think that Georgia is on an irreversible path to a Democratic majority,” he said.
Reed will face opposition in some quarters for his stance for gay marriage. And he would have to overcome a broad streak of anti-Atlanta bias in many parts of the state. But with two of every three voters living in metro Atlanta, that bias may have less impact today than it did a decade ago.
Despite the obstacles, Kasim Reed is a name on the tongues of all political observers across the state. Frequent appearances on cable talk shows, his close ties to the White House, his partnership with the governor, and his success so far as a mayor all give him political stature.
That’s also why he tries to stay grounded by long talks with Andy Young, a former mayor, ambassador and preacher.
“It’s essential to keep me from getting too big for my britches,” Reed said.