Keisha Lance Bottoms, A Possible Biden VP Pick, Sees Profile Rise Amid Crises
One of a series of reports looking at Joe Biden's potential running mates
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, one of several candidates said to be under consideration as Joe Biden's presidential running mate, has seen her profile rise fast in recent weeks as the first-term mayor has spoken out against the state of Georgia's Republican-led pandemic response and spoken forcefully to protesters in her city.
Her early loyalty to the former vice president also stands out.
Bottoms endorsed Biden more than a year ago. "I think that this is not a conventional year," she said at a Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta in November. "In a conventional year, you wait. And you lick your finger and you stick it up, you see which way the wind is blowing. We don't have time for that this year."
She traveled the country stumping for Biden, arguing he is a "statesman" and the one to beat President Trump.
Tharon Johnson, an adviser to her mayoral campaign and the Southern regional director for Barack Obama's 2012 campaign, said Bottoms was with Biden "before it was cool to be."
"And she stayed committed to his campaign, even when it looked like his chance of being the nominee for the Democratic Party was bleak," Johnson said. "That's got to count for something."
Amid the pandemic, Bottoms has criticized Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's coronavirus response as he moved forward with the state's early reopening and more recently as he declined to issue a statewide mask ordinance. On Wednesday, Bottoms joined a handful of cities flouting that state decision and issued a mask mandate in Atlanta, even though Kemp's order technically supersedes local emergency action.
Her handling of protests in the wake of George Floyd's death has also put her in the spotlight. At a late-night May press conference after previously peaceful Atlanta protesters had begun destroying buildings, Bottoms pleaded with them to "go home."
"If you care about this city, then go home," she said forcefully. "If you want change in America, go and register to vote. ... You are disgracing our city. You are disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person who has been killed in this country."
"I've been there"
Bottoms, a mother of four children, said she thinks the message resonated because Atlanta has led on social justice issues going back to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and because she speaks from personal experience.
"I've been there," she said. "I have a nephew who was murdered. I know what it feels like to lose someone suddenly to senseless violence. I know what it feels like to experience racism."
Bottoms grew up as the daughter of a famous singer, Major Lance. But he ended up serving three years in prison for selling and possessing cocaine, and her mother struggled to support the family and keep a small business afloat in Atlanta.
She was a lawyer, then served as a magistrate judge and on the Atlanta City Council for two terms before winning the mayoral race in 2017.
Former adviser Johnson said Bottoms' relatability, drawn from her range of life experiences, is the key to her success. "I think she's just a Black woman who understands what it feels like to be middle class but also poor in Atlanta."
He also pointed to the way she announced her positive coronavirus test this week.
"She could have easily been selfish and not told anyone and tried to cover it up," Johnson said. "But what did she do? She came out and said, 'Look, it's hit home and I want people to know that this pandemic is real.' "
Atlanta "is not out of control"
While her messages to protesters have landed well, some have questioned whether she remains in control of the city, particularly after another wave of unrest following the officer-involved killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Nearly 200 police officers called out sick, though city leaders were quick to clarify the department remained able to stay properly staffed.
Last weekend the city saw a spate of shootings, including the killing of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner, prompting another emotional press conference.
In an interview, Bottoms asserted Atlanta "is not out of control. And in fact, our crime numbers are even lower than they were this time last year," she said. "That being said, when people are being killed, and we see the number of people who were shot and killed in our city over a weekend period, that is a problem."
She said the city will keep two focuses, on the short-term problem of stopping the shootings and the long-term problem of the systemic issues that led to them.
"Violence is a result of a whole bunch of other stuff that comes before that moment in time before someone opens fire on our streets," she said. "It's concerning; it should be concerning to all of us who call Atlanta home, and we will continue to focus on it."
Like Biden, Bottoms has steered clear of the "defund the police" push. Her administration's new budget dedicates about a third of city funding to the police; it instead reallocates corrections money to social services.
Tammy Greer, who teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University and Atlanta Metropolitan State College, said the mayor's clear message for protesters has resonated well, particularly as the state and federal governments have sent mixed signals. "That forward-facing side has been one of strength. The forward-facing side has been one of decisiveness," Greer said. "And I say forward-facing because the policies do not align with the forward-facing side."
Greer argued Bottoms' two-plus-year administration has not been able to change the status quo in a city plagued by what by one estimate is the greatest income inequality in the country, and that the administration's recent criminal justice reforms in the wake of protests have not gone far enough to make real change. The mayor signed a series of executive orders related to use of force reform and transparency, calling it part of a "top-to-bottom review of how we police in Atlanta."
But police are still not bound by any recommendations of the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, Greer pointed out. "There's a thought process that she's a progressive mayor, but that doesn't add up with the policies," Greer said.
Bottoms asserted there has been progress in the city, particularly on inequality and affordable housing. "We're already at close to 5,000 affordable housing units in the city that have been created and/or preserved. And we are also nearly $300 million into a $1 billion [affordable housing fund] goal. And so the work continues," she said.
"But when people don't feel as if we're moving the needle, then obviously perception is everything. But it's happening and it's getting better. But with so many systemic issues, and challenges that we have, it just can't happen soon enough."
Vice presidential material?
To the question of whether Bottoms thinks she's qualified to be a vice presidential candidate, or to hold another national role, she said yes: "When you are leading a major city, you are dealing with a number of issues all at once; you're dealing with the same issues that we're seeing across this country."
Johnson, the adviser, agrees that Bottoms fits the bill — that the problems she's dealing with at the local level are relevant nationally.
"This is a woman who is waking up every day, not only dealing with a national pandemic, but she is dealing with one of the core issues that we've got to solve," he said. "And that is, how do we make sure that people understand that Black lives matter? But we also need to figure out, how do we reform our police department so they can actually get the support that they need?"
She's also proven she's a "fighter," Johnson said, like Biden. "She's definitely proven that she's not one that will shy away from problems," he said. "And I think that she's a person that can develop relationships all across the country."
Bottoms said while she knows people will keep talking about the vice presidential rumors, "I'm continuing to focus on the job that I have before me, and that's leading our city during some very unprecedented times."
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