Here's how the letter begins:
Despite good work and a lot of courage, my time as chairman of the School Board has been mired by a very public, and much more nefarious behind the scenes, game of tug-of-war with Atlanta's Mayor Kasim Reed.
As it happens, El is the second local elected official within a week to decry Reed's hard-ball approach. In fact, at the end of his letter, El cites a Fresh Loaf posting from a couple days before in which I described the dust-up between Reed and City Council President Ceasar Mitchell over pension reform.
This past Friday, the day after I'd put up my post, I saw Mitchell at the Council retreat. He said I'd unfairly impugned his motives behind his trying to persuade the Council to take as much time as necessary to address pension reform. Also, he told me, my coverage had blown the situation out of proportion — his goal wasn't to pick a fight with Reed, he said, but simply to ensure the Council didn't rush into a hasty decision. Describing the pension debate as a battle between the city's top two elected officials might get readers' attention, he said, but it wasn't an accurate portrayal of the process.
(UPDATE: As noted in one of the comments below, El and Mitchell aren't the only officials publicly criticizing Reed. In fact, Councilwoman Felicia Moore sent out an e-mail yesterday with links to a video of her own comments from the June 6 Council meeting, as well as those of her colleagues Natalyn Archibong and Michael Bond, all of whom contend that the mayor is being overly pushy. Keep in mind, however, that all of these folks were left out of the discussions that took place between the mayor's office and other Council members that led to the introduction of Yolanda Adrean's Reed-approved compromise pension proposal.)
I thought a lot about Mitchell's words over the weekend because we once had a good relationship and it's not much fun to alienate people you like, even if that's sometimes an unavoidable reality of being a journalist. Also, I considered whether my analysis had been off the mark. Had I maligned Mitchell by assuming he was motivated, at least in part, by political ambition? Reading El's letter helped me put the matter in focus.
Some background: Kasim Reed came to City Hall by way of the state Senate, a place where politicians learn to play rough in order to survive. And, for better or worse, our mayor is a full-contact player. Truth is, he's sometimes too good at the political game. Even as CL endorsed him for mayor in October 2009, we expressed some reservations:
Our main concern with Reed is that he can be too politically calculating, more interested in outmaneuvering his opponents than achieving a beneficial goal. You sometimes need to play that game to survive at the Capitol, but it won’t work at the city, where taxpayers demand transparency and honest communication.
Likewise, having spent some years covering the state Legislature, I concede having developed a certain professional cynicism. When a politician is speaking, I'm trying to figure out the subtext: What's his real message? Who's it directed toward? What reaction is he hoping to provoke? And, finally, how might this message benefit the speaker politically?
For instance, when Reed called a surprise press conference May 25 to deliver a fiery diatribe calling for the Council to pass his pension plan by June 30, I didn't think his speech was directed at Council members themselves so much as it was at Mitchell, who'd proposed a timetable that envisioned stretching pension deliberations out as far as September — and who is a likely opponent in an upcoming mayoral race. The unmistakable message: Back off or I'll roll over you.
And when Mitchell responded by continuing to push for his September deadline, I figured he was intentionally calling Reed's bluff, even though he claimed only to be interested in finding the best solution to the pension problem. Hence, my follow-up post describing a "Pension showdown: Mayor vs. Council."
Is there a chance I over-sensationalized the situation? In the case of Reed, I don't think so. Although I haven't discussed pension reform with him at any length, I know that he plays to win; if he believes someone is challenging him politically, he's going to push back — hard.
But it's certainly possibly that I ascribed motives to Mitchell that don't represent his true intent. It's possible that the gamesmanship I perceived wasn't actually there. If that's the case, I apologize. Like I say, I've grown cynical about politicians, always assuming that behind their actions lies a plan for political gain. Whatever the case, I still predict the mayor will use pension reform as a major platform in his reelection campaign. We'll see what happens June 30.
You often hear voters say they yearn to elect a non-politician, a straight-talker who's simply trying to do what he or she feels is right, regardless of the politics. Perhaps it's the cynic in me again, but I don't believe this is what people really want because, in most cases, it's not what they respond to. Shirley Franklin was as close to a non-politician as we're likely to see around here, and the public soured on her after she stopped listening to her political advisers. The unfortunate fact is, to be effective in the political arena, good intentions often aren't enough — it helps to be a skilled politician.
The school board's El has learned this lesson the hard way. Not long after taking the chairman's reins, he fired off a memo blasting Mark Elgart, CEO of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for meddling in the governance of the Atlanta school system.
Idealistically, El was right — the SACS report outlining the system's failings was shockingly biased and off-the-mark. But, politically, he'd effectively committed harakiri by making an enemy of the private company that confers accreditation on Georgia high schools. Reed, who's nothing if not a pragmatist, has since worked behind the scenes to force El to step aside in favor of someone less likely to rock the boat and endanger the system's accreditation.
Is Reed a bully? Arguably he can be, but big-city politics can be a rough-and-tumble environment and, ultimately, voters are more likely to judge their elected officials on what they got done than on how nice they were doing it. Of course, there's always the exception — in the weeks before 9/11, most of New York was fed up with its jerk of a mayor, Rudy Giuliani.
So, Mayor Reed should be careful not to throw his weight around to the point where the average voter thinks of him as a jerk and a bully.
And I promise to be slightly less cynical when judging politicians' actions. Deal?
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