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Into the spotlight 

Robb Pitts and the run for mayor

It is telling that Robb Pitts uses the steel city as a way to describe himself. Pitts does not come across as fancy. His way is as direct and purposeful as a Steeler lineman pulling left on a sweep; his work as a member of Atlanta City Council -- including the last two-and-a-half years as its president -- typically has been as workmanlike as the players who man those positions.

And it is ironic that in his sixth term as a council member, Pitts must clarify his identity in an emergency call to a city employee while trapped in a City Hall elevator. That Pitts was stuck between floors, ringing alarms and attempting to distinguish himself, reflects his larger challenge as a politician: To establish a clear vision and identity after years of laboring inside the bowels of city council.

Long content to remain a counterweight to Atlanta's political regime -- a coalition that backed mayors Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young and Bill Campbell and will support Pitts' leading mayoral opponent -- the council president must now step into a spotlight he traditionally has avoided in order to win a position that the same group of insiders has locked down for more than 25 years. And in a mayoral race with three serious candidates, becoming visible is his greatest challenge.

8:30 a.m. Robb Pitts almost always begins the day by driving his vehicle -- a 1990 Cadillac Brougham he affectionately calls "the Hog" -- from his Buckhead home to Goldberg's Bagel Cafe on the corner of Northside Parkway and West Paces Ferry Road. The clientele is overwhelmingly white. But neither Pitts nor his many greeters seem to mind as he works the room, then takes a seat in the rear of the cafe. Two businessmen approach him warmly and the trio discusses the city's land-permits process while Pitts sips a cup of tea.

Pitts genuinely seems to enjoy pres-sing flesh. He does not worry that his penchant for accessibility muddies the mystique many citizens have come to expect of their elected officials. "There's so much fluff that's associated with being mayor and image and style," he says. "I'm just a regular guy that's into working hard and having people feel comfortable with me. I'm not a status seeker, I'm not an elitist. I like to go to the ballgame, have a beer and listen to my music."

The mutual acceptance between Pitts and the Goldberg's crowd is the first of many signs that the City Council president can "crossover" -- forge coalitions between white-owned business interests and the city's majority-black voters. Just two days earlier, Pitts was sitting across from the Rev. Otis L. Blackshear, pastor of Southeast Atlanta's Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and an old friend, explaining why he thinks his controversial plan to sell naming rights to city-owned properties is a workable idea. "Any time we need money, we either raise fees or go to the taxpayers," Pitts said. "We need to find another way. If companies are willing to pay just to place their name on a building or a bowl game, why shouldn't we look at that as an option? We'd do our citizens a disservice if we don't explore it."

According to University of Maryland professor Clarence Stone, an appeal to both white businesses and black voters will become increasingly important in an Atlanta that at once enjoys tremendous economic prosperity and suffers one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

"The lesson is whoever is the mayor has ample opportunity to build a coalition with business because business needs City Hall and City Hall needs business," Stone observes. Stone, author of Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta 1946-1988, points to Andrew Young's administration as an example. "[Young] was not supported by most of the business elite. But after he was elected, he talked to the business establishment and he said to them 'I cannot govern this city without your help.' Even though they hadn't been principal supporters, he made his peace even before his inauguration."

Whether Pitts can woo the city's business elite -- companies like Coca Cola, SunTrust, Georgia Power and BellSouth -- has yet to be determined, and it is reasonable to presume that Shirley Franklin, Pitts' most recognized opponent, will garner most of the elite's gifts. While the old guard remains important, however, other commercial interests, including the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, a slate of technology companies led by EarthLink and small businesses, such as Goldberg's, have begun to share (and in some cases, supplant) their influence. The emerging businesses have their own money and agendas, and tend to be less beholden to a single candidate or political party. Pitts' ability to forge relationships with these new business partners should serve his campaign well.

10:30 a.m. From Goldberg's, Pitts travels to his spacious City Hall office for a meeting, and then pushes the Hog out to a dedication ceremony that renames a portion of Fulton Industrial Boulevard after Leroy R. Johnson, who in 1962 became Georgia's first African-American state senator since Reconstruction.

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