In Atlanta, Fear of Violent Crime Creates Opportunity for a Polarizing Politician

ATLANTA — The fear of rising crime in American cities is having a profound effect on mayoral politics from New York to Seattle. In Atlanta, it has had the power of resurrection, delivering a reanimating jolt to the once-moribund career of one of the South’s most polarizing public figures.

Kasim Reed, the former Atlanta mayor who fell off the political map in 2018 amid a steady drip of scandal in his administration, has returned to the spotlight with an unlikely bid for a third term and is now a leading candidate in a crowded field of lesser-known contenders.

The overwhelming focus of Mr. Reed’s second act is the troubling increase in violent crime in Atlanta — and a promise that he, alone, can fix it.

“I am the only candidate with the experience and track record to address our city’s surge in violent crime,” he recently wrote on Twitter, introducing a new campaign ad in which he called public safety “Job No. 1.”

“I am the only candidate with the experience and track record to address our city’s surge in violent crime,” Mr. Reed wrote on Twitter.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

In an echo of moderate Democrats like Eric Adams, the winner of this summer’s Democratic mayoral primary in New York City, Mr. Reed is promising to strengthen law enforcement in a way that takes into account grass-roots demands for a cultural change in policing. He has promised to add 750 officers to Atlanta’s police force. “But we’re going to train them in a post-George Floyd way,” he said in a recent television ad.

Most of Mr. Reed’s major opponents in the nonpartisan race identify as Democrats, and most are also offering some version of this message, which is distinctly different from the defund-the-police rhetoric that emerged from progressive activists during the street protests of 2020.

Mr. Reed’s fate at the polls in November may also hint at how much voters are willing to overlook from politicians so long as they think they might gain a modicum of peace and order. His time in office was defined by a sharp-elbowed style that some described as bullying, and by several scandals involving kickbacks, theft of public funds and weapons violations, among other things.

Felicia Moore, the City Council president and one of Mr. Reed’s top rivals for mayor, wants voters to think hard about the string of corruption cases involving members of his administration. “The leadership should take responsibility for the actions of their administration,” she said. “He was the leader of that organization.”

But in Atlanta, crime has increasingly taken center stage. The number of homicides investigated by Atlanta police surged from 99 in 2019 to more than 157 in 2020, a year when the United States experienced its largest one-year increase in homicides on record, and in Atlanta, this year is on track to be worse. Some homicides have particularly horrified residents over the past year: An 8-year-old girl shot and killed in a car she was riding in with her mother last summer. A 27-year-old bartender kidnapped at gunpoint and killed as she was returning home from a shift last month. A 40-year-old woman mutilated and stabbed to death, along with her dog, while she was on a late-night walk near Piedmont Park, the city’s signature open space, in July.

“They are more random, and they’re happening all over the city at all times of day,” said Sharon Gay, a mayoral candidate who noted that she was mugged about 18 months ago near her home in the well-heeled neighborhood of Inman Park.

A memorial for Katherine Janness, who was fatally stabbed near Piedmont Park this summer.Credit…Ron Harris/Associated Press

The political ramifications extend beyond the mayor’s office. Georgia Republicans have begun campaigning with dire warnings about the violence in liberal Atlanta — even though cities run by both Democrats and Republicans have seen a rise in violent crime. Gov. Brian Kemp has devoted millions in funding for a new “crime suppression unit” in the city. And the upscale Buckhead neighborhood is threatening to secede from Atlanta due mostly to concerns about crime, a move that could be disastrous for the city’s tax base.

Some critics blame the current mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, for failing to adequately tackle the crime problem.

This spring, a few days before Ms. Bottoms announced she would not run for re-election, Mr. Reed asserted that crime had reached “unacceptable levels” that were “fracturing” the city. It was widely interpreted as a turn against Ms. Bottoms, his one-time protégée, and a sign that Mr. Reed was plotting a comeback.

When it came, it was with a heavy dose of glamour.

“The fate of the city of Atlanta is at stake,” Mr. Reed declared at a star-studded party at the Buckhead manse of Tyrese Gibson, the actor and musician. “Atlanta, tell L.A., tell New York, tell Charlotte, tell Dallas, tell Chicago, and definitely tell Miami — I’m back!” In a matter of weeks, he had raised roughly $1 million in campaign contributions.

Still, the idea that Atlanta would be better off if it could go back to the days of 2010 through 2017, when Mr. Reed was in office, is deeply divisive. Mr. Reed takes credit for keeping crime low during those years and boasts of recruiting hundreds of police officers.

F.B.I. statistics show that violent crime in the city fell beginning in 2012, and continued falling throughout Mr. Reed’s tenure, a time when violent crime around the country was on a downward trend that began in the early 1990s.

In fact, the total number of violent crimes per year continued to decline in Atlanta through 2020. But the high-profile nature of some of the more recent crimes has put many residents on edge, as have some short-term trends: As of early September, murders, rapes and aggravated assaults were all up compared with the same time last year.

Mr. Reed has promised to add 750 officers to Atlanta’s police force. Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Mr. Reed, as mayor, could display both conviction and practicality: He dismissed the city fire chief after the chief published a book calling homosexual acts “vile,” and he faced down union protesters in pushing through reforms to address the city’s enormous unfunded pension liability.

However, investigations into scandals in Mr. Reed’s administration led to guilty pleas from the city’s former chief procurement officer, its former contract compliance officer and Mr. Reed’s deputy chief of staff. A former human services director, watershed management head and chief financial officer were also indicted, and are awaiting trial.

In June, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, relying on court documents and campaign records, reported that Mr. Reed appeared to be under federal investigation for using campaign funds for personal purchases. Mr. Reed, in an interview, said the Justice Department had told his lawyers he was not under investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta declined to comment.

In the interview, Mr. Reed said he accepted responsibility for the problems that occurred on his watch, and noted that after years of scrutiny, no charges have been lodged against him. “I have been through a level of vetting and security that very few people go through and survive, and I have come out with my name clear,” he said. He suggested that racism might have been a reason for all the scrutiny he received.

Federal investigations like the ones in Atlanta, he said, are “frequently directed at Black political leaders, certainly in the job of mayor.”

In a University of Georgia poll commissioned by The Journal-Constitution and conducted in late August and early September, Mr. Reed was narrowly leading the mayoral race, with roughly 24 percent support. But about 41 percent of likely voters were undecided, and Mr. Reed’s opponents are hoping to convince them that there are better choices.

Felicia Moore, the City Council president, narrowly trailed Mr. Reed in a recent poll.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Some voters have had enough of Mr. Reed. Bruce Maclachlan, 85, is a landlord who lives in Inman Park close to the place where Ms. Gay was mugged. Corruption, he said, seemed to be “circulating around Kasim Reed. It makes you wonder.”

Mr. Maclachlan said he was voting for Ms. Moore, the City Council president who was just behind Mr. Reed in the poll with about 20 percent support. He said she appeared to be honest and free of scandal.

Robert Patillo, a criminal defense lawyer, has felt the crime problem intimately. In the past few months, his sister’s car was stolen, his laptop was stolen from his car, and a friend’s house was broken into.

“I think everybody’s been touched by it,” he said.

Mr. Patillo said he, too, was voting for Ms. Moore, who he believed would be more trustworthy and better at balancing crime fighting with a civil rights agenda. But he said he understood the appeal of Mr. Reed. “When people are scared,” he said, “they turn back to a strongman.”

Pinky Cole, the founder of Slutty Vegan, a local restaurant chain with a cult following, had a different view. Ms. Cole, one of the city’s better known young African American entrepreneurs, said Mr. Reed had helped her with legal problems her business faced.

For Ms. Cole, the issues of crime and the city’s business climate were intertwined, a common sentiment in Atlanta these days, but one that has hit her particularly hard: In recent months, she said, two of her employees have been shot, one of them fatally.

Despite the baggage from the corruption cases, she believed that Mr. Reed was a man of integrity. And she saw how he had made the city safe before.

“I’m confident,” she said, “That he’ll do it again.”

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