At the press conference that followed his swearing-in ceremony this week, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed – as might be expected — expressed a fondness for inaugurations.
Such formalities are an affirmation of the democratic process, an exhausted but happy mayor told the gathering of jaded observers, who mentally rolled their eyes.
Yet we journalistic hacks like inaugurations, too. But for a different reason. Properly executed, they can offer a brief escape from the interminable campaign rhetoric – a small window of time in which a relaxed politician can afford to engage in honest talk.
For instance, in his speech, Reed had welcomed to the City Council two new members – Mary Norwood and Andre Dickens. But he also required the new council to stand in honor of the two men they beat – Lamar Willis and Aaron Watson, whom the mayor had supported.
Reed explained himself to reporters afterwards. “Rule No. 1 for me in politics is loyalty, loyalty, loyalty – and did I mention loyalty? That’s who I am, and I don’t hide that,” he said.
Only a few minutes later, Reed outlined his less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of state Sen. Jason Carter in this year’s race for governor. “The bottom line is I’m going to support the Democratic nominee, but I’m going to do it on my own time,” Reed bluntly said. “I’ve run for mayor twice and Jason didn’t support me.”
But inaugural truth serum can apply to policy as well as raw politics.
The mayor spoke of another run at a transportation sales tax, though not this year, and of building up the city’s technology sector. But the meat of his text made one thing very clear: Kasim Reed is more focused on crime than any Atlanta mayor since Maynard Jackson during the child murders of the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
Crime and punishment has been, and remains, a risky topic for African-American politicians, given that black and Hispanic inmates make up a disproportionate share of the nation’s prison population. Moreover, in Southern politispeak, crime often becomes a euphemism for race.
But it is also true that the Braves are leaving south Atlanta – at least in part – out of a concern for fan safety. And the success or failure of the Atlanta Beltline, the multi-million dollar return to a citywide trolley system, will depend on the comfort level of its exposed riders.
In his speech, Reed pointed to fulfilled campaign promises of reopened recreation centers (which he said has led to a 25 percent decrease in teen crime) and a police force that now stands at 2,000 officers. (By comparison, Cobb County’s public safety director just quit because he wasn’t able to expand his force of 609 police officers.)
And yet the mayor declared himself ready to “double down” on public safety. Specifically, he offered up the Atlanta city jail as a possible solution to the overcrowded Fulton County jail.
Crime in Atlanta could be lowered another 25 percent, he said, if repeat offenders were kept off the streets. “It’s not unreasonable to expect that criminals who have been arrested and convicted 30 or 40 times should be placed in jail and remain there to pay their debt,” Reed said.
That’s a line that might have been uttered by Gov. Zell Miller during his “two strikes and you’re out” days – a position from which the state is now retreating as too expensive.
But Reed was quick to reassure his crowd of supporters that he wasn’t advocating a return to the 1990s. This was his biggest applause line of that Monday afternoon – the italics are mine:
“I know that when we lock up our young men and women, without offering alternatives, we also lock up their potential. We must say to them, ‘If you put the gun down, we’ll put a book in your hands. We’ll put a job in your hands. We’ll put a paycheck in your hands.’”
Atlanta mayors don’t often make references to gang violence in inaugural addresses, but that was one, said longtime Councilman C.T. Martin, who was just named chairman of the council’s public safety committee.
“Gangs are doing a whole bunch of this stuff – the initiations that they do,” Martin said. A home invasion in southwest Atlanta by seven gunmen last month, targeting an elderly couple, “scared the hell out of a lot of people,” Martin said.
Martin said he would have liked to have heard more on the topic, but understood why Reed went no deeper. “The mayor has to make a strategic point, rather than bluster. And he did make it clear to the criminal element – leave the citizens alone,” the councilman said.
Martin, too, recognized the political risk that a mayor takes when he puts a spotlight on crime. In the extreme, you allow a 14-year-old kid with a gun to define success or failure for your city.
“All you need is somebody to spark some nonsense. Either you combat it, or they’re smarter than you are,” Martin said. And they get away.