Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made her first Buckhead appearance as a lame duck, and one of the few during a term that has seen local political tensions with her administration erupt into a separate cityhood movement, at a May 13 Buckhead Business Association virtual meeting.

Bottoms, who announced May 6 that she will not run for reelection this fall, largely repeated her themes of crime-fighting, housing affordability and opposition to the cityhood movement, while still tweaking some of those positions in response to political pressures, many of which come from Buckhead. As an early political farewell, the event was in contrast to one of Bottoms’ first major speeches as mayor, a 2018 Buckhead Coalition luncheon with the theme “Atlanta Together” where she pledged to unify the city and pay attention to Buckhead while attendees received glass sculptures of a handshake. 

“I know we haven’t always been in agreement, but I do hope that I will leave the city of Atlanta certainly better than I found it, for all of us,” Bottoms told the BBA, after dismissing Buckhead cityhood as “a terrible idea.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks to the Buckhead Business Association during a May 13 virtual meeting.

Among the attendees was Mary Norwood, the former Atlanta City Council member whom Bottoms defeated by a razor-thin margin in the bitter 2017 mayoral race. Now chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods and a candidate for Buckhead’s District 8 City Council seat, Norwood has remained a driver of political challenges to Bottoms’ policies on such topics as the attempt to convert the Atlanta City Detention Center to a social services facility. Norwood has not responded to questions about a possible mayoral run this year and did not speak at the BBA event.

Without mentioning Norwood by name, Bottoms said that among her administration’s unfinished business was a better conversation about the city jail plan to counter “misunderstanding and, I think at times, misinformation” that left her administration “chasing the narrative.” 

On that topic, Bottoms indicated a new willingness to compromise on the idea of Fulton County inmates being housed at the city jail, which has been pushed by county Board of Commissioners Chair Robb Pitts, a Buckhead resident, and Sheriff Patrick Labat. She said she recently sent a letter to Pitts offering to house 150 Fulton inmates who are non-violent and nearing release for enrollment in a transitional work program. “I believe that we shouldn’t wait for an all-or-nothing [deal],” said Bottoms. “… We want to be a good partner, recognizing that we have the [jail] space at this time.”

Crime and policing have been major political problems for Bottoms, whose administration has often played catch-up with agitation in Buckhead, where private organizations and businesses late last year launched their own “Security Plan.” Bottoms cited her announcement earlier this week of an “Anti-Violence Advisory Council,” with such members as former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, former Atlanta Police Chief George Turner and District 8 City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit. She also noted her proposal to hire 250 more police officers in the next fiscal year and announced a plan to redeploy ShotSpotter gunshot-detection sensors after an unsuccessful pilot program a few years ago.

Bottoms still has over seven months left in her term. She said her other policy focuses for that period remain the creation of affordable housing, addressing chronic homelessness and securing youth jobs. 

On the housing affordability topic, Bottoms more forcefully phrased her previous walk-back of a proposal to allow accessory dwelling units, such as basement apartments and rear-yard houses, in all single-family zoning areas — an idea that generated strong Buckhead opposition while the administration struggled to say when it might become actual policy. Bottoms said there will be public input on where that kind of rezoning is appropriate and that it will “not be shoved down people’s throat.”

Asked what she is proudest of about her term, Bottoms cited the response to the many historic moments the city faced: a 2018 cyberattack on government computer systems, a federal corruption investigation into the previous administration of Kasim Reed, the racial justice protests and the COVID-19 pandemic. “What I would be most proud of is the way we have been able to navigate the challenges that we have faced as a city,” she said, adding that she entered office with an agenda and “obviously I didn’t always have the opportunity to control that agenda.”

Bottoms has not ruled out a run for another elected office and did not make any remarks about her post-mayoral job plans. Twice she referred to her close connection with President Biden, who considered her as a vice-presidential running mate, while discussing public safety policy. She said she talked about crime with Biden as he vetted her for the vice-president candidacy and that it was a “proud moment for me” when he referred to Atlanta’s use of federal pandemic relief funds for public safety purposes during a recent Georgia visit.

Asked about her advice to whoever emerges from a growing field of candidates as her successor, Bottoms said to “make sure that they have a group of people helping them to lead who they can trust. I would also advise them to put people first and to do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do.” 

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.