The occasion was a first-of-its-kind Mayors Roundtable hosted by Atlanta magazine and held at the Atlanta History Center's McElreath Hall featuring the surviving occupants of the city's top job — with the unfortunate exception of Shirley Franklin, who bailed on the event over the weekend with scant explanation.
The event began with a wine-fueled reception and some high-powered people-watching. Look, there's Clayton County Commission Chairman and former Atlanta Police Chief Eldrin Bell! Over there, it's Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent! Don't turn around or you'll bump into Congressman John Lewis, mayoral widow Valerie Jackson or environmental activist and Ted's daughter, Laura Turner Seydel!
It was the perfect setting for Campbell to launch his formal reintroduction to Atlanta society. Granted, Bill has been seen around town in recent months — hell, he was in line in front of me buying movie tickets at Landmark a few weeks back — but it's always been at small gatherings or private functions. This time, however, he was literally onstage in front of some of the city's biggest movers and shakers. Simply by appearing alongside mayors Sam Massell, Andrew Young and Kasim Reed, Campbell was afforded the illusion of respectability.
As much as the audience was interested in hearing pearls of wisdom and war stories from the City Hall vets, I imagine that people were also curious to see how Campbell would comport himself. And it's in that latter regard that I confess a measure of disappointment.
Put simply, Bill was boring. He tried too hard to be diplomatic and statesmanlike. He sucked up to his fellow mayors a little too eagerly. He delivered banal soliloquies about the importance of good government, blah, blah, blah… When I checked my notes at the end of the two-hour event, the only thing I'd written down from Campbell's end of the conversation was that he has a vague concern that our society is backsliding on the progress won by affirmative action.
Otherwise, Bill, shorn of his trademark 'stache, looked, as the saying goes, tanned, rested and ready. Despite an odd smirk, he spoke with confidence, if not eloquence, and displayed some of the easy charm that no doubt was the cornerstone of his political career. And yet, I couldn't help thinking, This guy is a fucking crook! When is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and moderator Doug Blackmon going to ask him how he feels about betraying his supporters, embarrassing his wife and bringing shame upon his city?
Alas, that never happened. Fortunately, the rest of the discussion was a relative delight. Massell, although now walking with the help of a cane, was twinkly and puckish. Young, likewise showing his age, spoke with the frankness befitting an elder statesman who has nothing left to prove. I was a little concerned about our current mayor, who sat with a stern expression, as if there was somewhere else he'd rather be (perhaps not seated next to Campbell). But when Reed got started, he spoke with his customary gusto and seemed to be enjoying himself.
So, what did we learn? Some highlights:
• Bill Hartsfield was a "mayor's mayor," said Massell. Also, the late mayor annexed a strip of highway so that his eponymous airport could get around a local ban on serving cocktails. Good work!
• Speaking of the airport, apparently Young had to fight Delta to get the international terminal built.
• The recent battle over pension reform was the "nastiest, roughest, worst" thing Reed ever had to face.
• The Atlanta Board of Education should never have shifted so much of its decision-making power to the superintendent's office at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce, opined Massell.
• The proposed one-cent regional transportation tax will not only dig metro Atlanta out of its traffic-jam malaise, but will have a huge impact on putting unemployed locals to work, Reed said. While Massell declined to predict the tax measure's chances with voters, Young declared: "It has to pass!"
I'll leave you with one of Reed's favorite civics-as-sports analogies that won approval from the high-powered audience: "Atlanta thrives when we stop playing small ball."
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