The Republican governor and Democratic mayor shared the stage — and shared plenty of credit — at the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium a few months ago. The sense of relief was close to palpable.
“I’ll tell you, I sure am happy now. It’s certainly one of the happiest days I’ve been on this job,” said the mayor, Kasim Reed. “Because the process to get to today — it was pretty tough.”
No matter who wins next month’s runoff for Atlanta mayor or the wide-open race for Georgia governor in 2018, the state-city partnership fostered by an unlikely alliance between Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal won’t be easy to replicate.
And that could have vast implications for the state and its most important city, ranging from economic development missions to lure Amazon’s second headquarters to the politically fraught deals that brought the new $1.6 billion Falcons stadium to the heart of downtown Atlanta.
The Reed-Deal partnership has survived a spate of political storms, from the governor’s re-election bid against Reed frenemy Jason Carter to the disastrous response to the 2014 ice storm to a public split over the governor’s 2016 struggling schools initiative, staunchly opposed by state Democrats.
Both men said they disagree on more than they agree upon, including divides over immigration policy and support for President Donald Trump. But Deal barreled down to the core of their friendship after pondering a question about what helped forge their alliance.
“Great things can be achieved when several things are set aside: One is, who is going to get credit for it. And secondly, whether a political point of view is going to be enhanced or not,” he said. “We set aside those two points from the beginning.”
Councilwomen Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood, who square off in a Dec. 5 runoff, both testify to the importance of achieving the same tight bond, should they win the vote.
“For us to backtrack from that really would be seen as a failure because we have seen how beneficial it’s been to both the city and the state for us to have a great working relationship,” said Bottoms, who is emphasizing her Democratic Party affiliation in the race.
“We are not Washington. We really need to be on the same page for the city to be great, for the state to be great,” she said. “That means we have to continue to work together.”
Norwood said the ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans that she honed as an independent will be put to good use in City Hall. She pointed to a two-year effort to curry support from lawmakers for a measure that gave the city more leeway to renovate or repurpose long-blighted property.
“In January, people are going to be looking to me as the next mayor, if I am, and expecting me to get some things done for them, both at the state and the federal level. So the less bridges I burn now, the better,” she said. “I am someone who is not going to compromise my ability to help this city.”
‘Not an Atlantan’
The cozy relations between the two institutions were not always considered a given.
The Gold Dome and City Hall are only about 300 steps apart, but Georgia politicians from both parties long abided by a tried-and-true maxim. Warring with Atlanta helped galvanize their base. Uniting with Atlanta often did not.
Bob Holmes, a former state lawmaker and history professor, once said that under the Gold Dome, Atlanta was viewed as “the Sodom and Gomorrah.”
“You could be elected by running against Atlanta,” Holmes said.
And for some politicians, aided by a county unit system that prioritized the rural vote, that argument long held sway.
Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen and Gov. Lester Maddox were poisonous rivals ever since Allen beat Maddox, then a firebrand restaurateur, for the city’s top job in 1961. But rarely did the business-friendly mayor and segregationist governor contrast more sharply than during the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 funeral.
The governor called out 160 state troopers to cordon off the state Capitol as King’s funeral procession rounded downtown Atlanta. Just down the street, Allen ordered City Hall to be draped in black bunting. It spoke volumes.
Later, Allen would lob a cutting insult at his erstwhile adversary: “Although Maddox was an Atlantan in fact, he was not an Atlantan in spirit.”
Allen’s successor, Sam Massell, tried to ease tensions between the city and state. He set up a hospitality desk at the state Capitol to dole out free sports tickets to lawmakers and offer advice on where to find good fried chicken.
It seemed to work. State lawmakers voted to allow DeKalb and Fulton counties to levy a sales tax to fund the MARTA transit system, and Massell triumphantly buried a small hatchet outside City Hall in return. But the tension never went away.
During his tenure, Massell told his biographer in “Play It Again, Sam,” he got an invitation to be on hand the day the final I-beam was locked into place in the now-demolished Omni Coliseum. Perched in the girders, Massell took out a pencil — but he didn’t sign his name.
“Somewhere in the world,” author Charles McNair wrote in the book, “if the girder has not been melted down or has not rusted away or been repurposed, a person could examine its underside and read Sam’s handwriting there for the ages: F- Lester Maddox.”
‘It’s about the partner’
The Republican takeover of the Gold Dome brought more of the same: perennial efforts to privatize the airport or bring it under state control, and proposals aimed at blocking the city’s expansion. But tensions seemed to ease as Gov. Sonny Perdue and Mayor Shirley Franklin became familiar with one another.
“They put politics aside for the good of the state,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican operative who was Perdue’s top aide. “They didn’t have the best relationship in the beginning, but you have to remember a lot of Democrats resented Sonny for switching parties and taking out Roy Barnes.”
State lawmakers reluctantly agreed to lend Atlanta money to help the city fix leaking sewers, though Perdue couldn’t resist urging city officials not to use it as “pocket liner” for contractors. And an epic drought that threatened Georgia’s water supply helped force the state and city to get on the same page.
“The state and the city had to rally together,” Tanenblatt said. “Everyone had to put personal politics aside for the best interest of the state.”
Something else helped, too: Franklin said she and Perdue agreed to talk directly with each other instead of using third parties to intercede. That contributed to a “generally good relationship” between the two for eight years, though she said the male-female dynamic — she was the city’s first female mayor — makes it hard to compare to other partnerships.
“Models of leadership in most American industries and in public-private sectors remain defined by how men relate to each other,” she said.
Even so, few disagree that Deal and Reed ushered in a new level of cooperation. The duo, both former state legislators, became fast friends after Deal’s 2010 election. Both quickly became the toast of the business community.
The duo rallied behind a failed transportation tax and tag-teamed the lobbying offensive to secure congressional approval to deepen Savannah’s port. For much of his tenure, Reed was Deal’s main conduit to the Obama administration, while the governor gave the mayor instant cachet in the Republican-led statehouse.
Their partnership was 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.
But perhaps the crowning jewel of their alliance is their joint support behind the new Falcons stadium.
State lawmakers agreed in 2010 to extend the city’s hotel-motel tax for a stadium, setting the stage for the construction, but the $300 million public contribution Falcons owner Arthur Blank sought upfront was too high for many politicians. Deal pushed him in 2013 to reduce his request to $200 million to make it an easier sell.
Reed, who was facing re-election, took a calculated risk. He became one of the most ardent supporters of the project, buttonholing City Council members and community advocates to lock down their support. Within weeks, the City Council and Atlanta’s economic development arm signed off on it.
The deal he struck was a costly one. Taxpayers are covering $200 million of the construction costs through bonds. The lodging tax will repay the bonds, and hundreds of millions of dollars in additional hotel-motel tax revenue will go toward debt service and stadium maintenance — a figure that’s likely to top $700 million.
In exchange, the Falcons and city officials promised immediate and continuing efforts to improve the struggling neighborhoods surrounding the sparkling new stadium. Summing it up at the stadium’s opening, Reed repeated a favorite line: “The juice was worth the squeeze.”
When Reed was asked to reflect on the trove of political capital it took to cement the stadium deal, he nodded to the governor.
“I took a lot of hits, but you know what? I’m just fine,” Reed said. “In Atlanta, it’s about the partner. You’ve got to believe the partners are worth going through the process with. And I never doubted that.”
Staff writers Stephen Deere and Jim Galloway contributed to this article.