You probably don't know who she is, either, but Franklin, that African-American woman with white-blonde hair who drank in "Erin Brockovich" a couple of Saturdays ago, is the odds-on favorite to become Atlanta's next mayor.
In fact, Franklin, as CL went to press, was expected to resign from her position as vice chair of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority at its board meeting April 12 so that she could kick off her campaign in May.
No one was more startled by her decision to run than her own family.
"I'm actually really surprised about the mayoral campaign because she's a really private person," says her 26-year-old son, Cabral. "She really enjoys being behind the scenes. But for the past couple of years, all anybody has said to her is that she should run for mayor. I think people have said it so much that she believes it."
Franklin's ex-husband, airport concessions mogul David Franklin, finds it particularly amusing and yet inevitable that she's running. Atlanta's black power structure has been urging her to run for several years. She helped them run City Hall for more than a decade. Now they are helping her by pushing her toward the office she used to support.
"To have Shirley Franklin running for mayor is just so delicious because it's the first true draft I've ever seen," says David Franklin.
Councilman Rob Pitts, who is also running for mayor, was surprised too. Last year, he asked Franklin, whom he considers a friend, if she was going to enter the fray and, he says, she told him no. "Apparently she changed her mind," he says. "There are people who probably convinced her to run."
Who those "people" are is all you need to know about why a woman who has never run for office is likely to be the next mayor.
Two names: Andrew Young. John Lewis.
One more name that has not been linked with any candidate yet but has been politically linked to Franklin since 1973: Maynard Jackson.
It was with Young, Lewis and Jackson's help that City Councilman Bill Campbell became Mayor Bill Campbell in 1994. They make up a well-connected gang-of-three who don't always agree with each other but who share the loyalty of the city's largest voting bloc, Democrats. Black or white, even in a non-partisan election like the mayor's race, the city's Dems flock together and they are usually herded by Young, Lewis and Jackson.
And they all owe Franklin.
She campaigned for Maynard Jackson in 1973. At the time, David Franklin was Jackson's law partner.
When Jackson was elected he formed an ad-hoc committee on cultural affairs that was headed by Michael Lomax, a teacher at Spelman College. Lomax says Shirley Franklin was fiercely involved in the ad-hoc committee which would eventually become the city's first Bureau of Cultural Affairs. In his second term, Jackson again offered the directorship of the bureau to Lomax, but Lomax deferred to Franklin. She campaigned for Congressman Lewis who now says enthusiastically: "Shirley Franklin would make a wonderful mayor. I would be happy to support her."
When Andrew Young was elected mayor in 1981, Franklin's star continued to rise. Young appointed her as chief administrative officer, a position that would allow her to run the city's daily operations while Young flew around the world shoring-up Atlanta's international business relationships.
"The truth is, I was traveling a lot," says Young. "Shirley ran the city."
When Young left office, Franklin remained busy. She has been at the heart of almost everything major that's hit the City of Atlanta since 1990.
The Olympics. Franklin served as senior policy advisor and managing director for local government and community relations for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. She was an official with the Equal Economic Opportunity Program for ACOG as well.
Water privatization. Franklin, through her consulting company, Urban Environmental Solutions, represented U.S. Filter, one of the companies vying for Atlanta's private contract. (Her client lost out to United Water, but there are apparently no hard feelings: United Water's public relations representative, Phyllis Fraley is now volunteering as a PR rep for Franklin.)
State control of metro sprawl. Gov. Roy Barnes appointed Franklin as vice chair of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority in June of 1999.
Her ex-husband credits Franklin, with whom he remains good friends, with achieving by the grace of God what others couldn't if they spent their days toadying up to fat cats and attending every luncheon from Buckhead to Hartsfield.
"Shirley and Andrew Young are two of the only people I know who are truly blessed," he says. "Things just come to both of them. They don't go after the things they get. They just come to them."
Lomax, a former Fulton County Commission Chairman who is now president of Dillard University in New Orleans, explains in more secular terms how first-time candidate Franklin has secured her favored position: "There is most definitely a black political establishment in Atlanta and Shirley is certainly a card-carrying member of that establishment. She's worked for, or with, every mayoral administration for the last 30 years and now she has the support of the icons of the African-American community. At least with the black voters, I don't think that's a negative."
More of the same might not be so bad if you like the status quo, but there are residents who aren't happy with Campbell's administration which they consider the scion of Jackson and Young's administrations.
During the last mayoral campaign the 7th and 8th Council districts overwhelmingly supported Marvin Arrington, a conservative alternative to Campbell. Many people in affluent, mostly white areas on the north side feel under-served by city government. They were disappointed to see Campbell elected for a second term. Their concerns range from having adequate police protection to City Hall's lack of a nurturing attitude toward Buckhead businesses.
Toby Watts, a Buckhead attorney who wants to make it clear that he is speaking for himself and not Neighborhood Planning Unit B, of which he is president, doesn't want more of the same.
"The rumor is that she's sort of had the magic wand waved over her by Young and Jackson and Campbell," says Watts. "I think the Campbell administration has been marked by ineptitude. It would concern me if her campaign promised to carry out the policies of former administrations."
Watts' city councilman, Lee Morris, explains what is meant by "ineptitude." He points to city policies that spend taxpayers' money on social causes rather than the basics that he says should be the sole concern of local government: public safety, police, fire-fighters, well-maintained streets and water systems, a healthy infrastructure.
"While Shirley Franklin was in high, appointed offices, she helped forge the present policies and procedures and she put people in charge who are still in place," says Morris, who adds his belief that if Franklin is backed by Jackson, Young and Campbell, their support will be her kiss of death in the 7th District.
When Franklin lists her achievements, they do, in fact, come down a little more heavily on the social side of things: she was a key planner in the city's arts support programs, her planning resulted in the founding of the Nexus Contemporary Art Center ( since renamed the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center), she pushed for free symphony concerts in city parks and public art at the airport.
"Only New York City was funding the arts more than Atlanta at that time," says Franklin.
It was Franklin who conceived of a revamped city employees' health insurance program that would expand coverage to include mammograms, dental care and newborn care. Under her administration the city instituted a one-percent sales tax that she explains is a more fair way rather than relying on property taxes to raise money for capital improvements. The one-time windfall of that particular tax, she says, provided partial funding for the Georgia Dome.
She also instituted an internal audit team that monitored the city's finances. That team has since disbanded.
But Morris views some of Franklin's experience like her stint with ACOG as a negative.
"Although Atlantans are proud of the Olympics, people are now aware of the flow of money and favors it takes for a city to obtain the Olympics, and they don't want that in their city government," says Morris.
Franklin has never, in any way, been connected with allegations of bribery surrounding Atlanta's Olympic bid.
She also managed to come out of ACOG's altercation with Olympics Out of Cobb, the gay rights group formed in response to Cobb County's anti-gay resolution, unsmudged.
"She was the finest example of integrity and willingness to converse on a civil level of the whole bunch at the Olympic committee," says Larry Pelligrini a gay rights activist. "We feel that she understood the underlying issues."
Pelligrini believes that Franklin was at least instrumental in having Olympic events moved to new venues outside of Cobb County.
Pelligrini's kudos might be problematic for more conservative residents.
Voters may also look askance at her familial relationship with airport concessions, long viewed as a feeding trough for political insiders in Atlanta.
When Shirley and David Franklin divorced in 1986, the break allowed David to take advantage of a sweet deal offered to him by his client Ed Elson, owner of airport concessions super-chain, Elson News and Gifts. Elson wanted David to become a partner in the business, rather than just its attorney. With David on his team, (according to David) Elson could meet Atlanta's newly-emerging minority participation requirements. However, with Shirley in the office of chief administrative officer, there would have been a glaring conflict of interest. The city had to approve Hartsfield International Airport concession licenses and regulate rent at the airport. When her husband first took Elson as a client, Shirley Franklin filed a disclosure of conflict of interest and, she says, recused herself from any discussion of policy that may have had a bearing on his business. But with Shirley no longer his wife, David Franklin could accept 20 percent of the $3 billion business.
David Franklin's partnership with Elson split in 1994. Of the company's 18 Atlanta stores, Franklin got six that are worth, he says, about $25 million. He owns the FWAC (Franklin $ Wilson Airport Concessions) stores in Concourse A at Hartsfield. He also owns the W.H. Smith store in the International Concourse. A plaque on the store explains that despite the name, it's an FWAC store. Today, David Franklin employs his two oldest children, Kai, 27, and Cabral in the family business. The Franklins' youngest child, a daughter named Kali, is a student at Georgia State University.
Shirley Franklin says that she plans to "hold at arms-length" any city dealings with the airport, recusing herself as much as possible from issues that would impinge on her children's livelihood.
Joel Cowan, who chairs GRTA, doesn't doubt that Franklin will be able to do that. He, like Pelligrini, refers to her integrity. He praises her organized and forthright approach to working on issues related to sprawl. He lauds her ability to deal with sensitive topics like race.
"She does not wear her race on her sleeve, but she's very firm about the fact that [African Americans] are an under-represented minority."
George Berry, senior vice president of mega-developer Cousins Properties, shares Cowan's view of Franklin.
"Race is the overwhelming reality of city politics," says Berry. "But she is an African American who does not put white people on edge. She has the Andy Young knack for tact and bridge-building."
Besides, says Berry, who served as chief administrative officer under Jackson, Franklin has a proven track record for making city government work. She believes in returning phone calls and answering letters. She'll bring responsiveness back to City Hall.
Cousins' namesake and president, Tom Cousins recently sent a letter out to some of his business associates asking them to meet with Franklin before deciding who they will support for mayor. Berry believes meeting her may dispel some peoples' notion that Franklin will be a puppet for former administrations.
"I've talked to her about that," he says. "She has convinced me that she is her own person and will be no one's running dog."
The fact that she's getting support from people like Berry and Cousins is a warning flag for the Rev. Juner Norris, a longtime campaign watcher and active Democrat in the West End.
"That's where she's making a mistake," says Norris. "She should be coming to the neighborhoods to ask for support, not them. That's going to hurt her."
If Atlanta's traditionally black neighborhoods are not often coupled with Franklin's name, it's probably because she was not produced by them. She grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of row houses near the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Her parents divorced when she was of pre-school age and her father, who graduated from law school at age 21, "dropped off the face of the earth" until Shirley was 18. He turned his life around. She attended a girls-only public school. Her mother was a teacher.
It takes four or five questions to get her to finally say what it was that got her father, Eugene Clarke, to do a 180 and become a state court judge in Philadelphia, but she finally says it and when she does, her voice betrays her annoyance at being asked.
"He was an alcoholic. He was a member of a 'bottle gang,' you know? I'm talking about the guys in the gutter. It was that bad." Her intense, dark eyes are flickering like warning flares on a highway. "When he was finally in a public hospital, bleeding from every opening, he made a promise with God, that if He would just get him out of that, he would turn himself around and he did."
She is leaning forward in her chair, her right hand is open, palm-up, in supplication, a non-verbal "please-understand-me." She begins again to explain how she got her father back at age 18, how thorough his redemption was: "He died two years ago. John Street, the mayor of Philadelphia, went to the funeral."
When he sobered up, Clarke was able to bid his daughter farewell as she left for Howard University his alma mater. He was a quiet man who believed that being loud or using profanity shows that a person is not intelligent enough to articulate ideas in an acceptable tone of voice. Franklin's own voice has sunk a few decibels as she says this.
Soon after her arrival at Howard, she met and married a student named Sam Brown. It was a brief marriage. While she worked a summer job at the federal office of contract compliance she got to know David Franklin, a law student who worked there, whom she'd already met through friends at Morehouse College. She divorced, graduated and attended graduate school at Penn.
She took a job teaching at Talladega College in Alabama and she traveled to Atlanta to visit relatives and to meet up with David. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, she and Lomax and several other students got together in a nightclub after the King funeral and talked about what was beginning to emerge as a social imperative: to continue the work of Dr. King.
Lomax describes it as a watershed moment. Franklin remembers that the feeling of responsibility for changing the world was endemic to her generation. They were too young to go on the famous marches, but old enough to understand and feel the consequences of those marches. They were coming of age in a world where the legal protection of segregation was gone, but the cultural freight of it remained.
Franklin did everything she could to carry out the political mandate of her time, maybe never even thinking that one day her turn would come. But it has. In the words of Lomax: "We were too young for the sit-ins. We didn't cross the Pettis Bridge. But we made sure that the vote which people died for resulted and we engaged an agenda for our lifetime. Shirley, certainly, will continue to engage that agenda."
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