ATLANTA — As the last few minutes of Georgia’s busy legislative session ticked off the clock, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was hanging out with Gov. Nathan Deal and his staff to watch the action unfold.
It may not sound unusual until you think about the fact, in this era of hyper-partisan rhetoric, that Deal is a conservative Republican and Reed a Democratic ally of President Obama. The friendship between Deal, 70, and Reed, 43, has its roots in a shared interest in economic development and has blossomed into a powerful political alliance that is paying dividends with a number of major corporations heading to Atlanta and neither man yet to face a significant re-election challenge.
“It’s pretty incredible when you think how close they are,” said Chip Lake, a longtime GOP strategist in Georgia. “With all the partisanship going on in Washington, D.C., I think people in the state expect their leaders to govern. And while this alliance may make some on the far right or on the far left skeptical, it certainly shows the two of them have a commitment to governing and are willing to put partisan differences aside.”
The mayor and governor frequently appear together at events, introduce each other as “my friend” and praise each other’s accomplishments. The two recently joined U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to talk about the benefits of early childhood education. A few days earlier, they shared the stage at a conference and spoke about their friendship. Reed noted his office was just 300 steps or so from the governor’s office at the Capitol, “but you would have thought in Georgia over the last 30 or 40 years, regardless of party, that walk was a 10K.”
In fact, when Deal walked to City Hall for a news conference earlier this year to announce a deal on funding a new NFL stadium, his staff was told a governor hadn’t been across the street in 30 years. Reed, who runs the state’s largest city, with 423,000 residents, said there are a number of issues on which they find common ground. The two traveled to Washington to lobby the Obama administration on behalf of a project to deepen the Savannah River port, which Reed argues is essential to Atlanta’s success as a global business hub.
“Folks that are playing the conflict game, where I bash you and you bash me, I think are losing across the United States of America,” said Reed, a Howard University-trained attorney who became mayor in 2010. “The old tired politics would be me trying to one-up the governor or play gotcha, but how does that help the people of the state of Georgia?”
The governor, also an attorney before being elected to Congress in 1992, said that shared motivation forms the basis of a friendship that began after a series of meetings arranged by mutual friends in the General Assembly. Both are former state lawmakers, although Deal was already in Congress when Reed was first elected as a state representative.
“We don’t have time to play games, and we don’t play games with each other,” Deal said.
There are mutual benefits as well. Reed offers the Republican governor access to a Democratic president’s administration, and Deal offers the Democratic mayor an important relationship with state leaders making decisions that affect the city.
The governor’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, said Deal and Reed are successful in focusing on shared interests and avoiding differences.
“There’s not a pro-life, pro-choice discussion going on in the Suburban as they go to an economic development meeting,” Riley said. “Usually, it’s the mayor telling a joke, the governor laughing and I’m on the floor hysterical.”