Politics

Shirley Franklin: Old Hand, Fresh Appeal

For someone who grew up in Philadelphia, Shirley Franklin has the perfect Atlanta pedigree. That may explain why she managed a few weeks ago to win the city's mayoralty without a runoff, and will take office next month as Atlanta's first female chief executive.
by | December 2001

For someone who grew up in Philadelphia, Shirley Franklin has the perfect Atlanta pedigree. That may explain why she managed a few weeks ago to win the city's mayoralty without a runoff, and will take office next month as Atlanta's first female chief executive.

On the one hand, Franklin is an old-timer in the political structure that has held sway in the city for nearly three decades. Not long after she arrived, in the early 1970s, she went to work on the mayoral campaign of Maynard Jackson, who rewarded her first with a post as his cultural affairs director, and then as his chief administrative aide. She reprised that position under Andrew Young, Jackson's successor. Then, although she left city government, she kept her political ties intact by serving as a political troubleshooter for the city's Olympic organizing committee, and later as one of three members of Governor Roy Barnes' transition team.

But those ties alone wouldn't have elected her, because Atlanta is no longer the politically straightforward city that it was for much of the last generation. Where its overwhelmingly black electorate once stood in sharp contrast to the white suburbs, the city in recent years has seen an influx of white, Asian and Hispanic residents. Concentrations of black public housing residents have dispersed, middle- and upper-income African-Americans have moved to the suburbs, and historic neighborhoods have been gentrified by upscale newcomers of all colors.

While maintaining her old-style political ties, the 56-year-old Franklin has in recent years carefully cultivated the "new" Atlanta by conspicuously involving herself in a wide variety of civic, charity and social events. "Voters didn't have a previous office to connect her with, but they'd heard the voice before," a local newspaper columnist pointed out recently, "calling the names of lost children at the jazz festival, or noticed her square jaw and official stride at some community function. She has the look of more than one hard- driving overachiever who got here at a young age and grew with the city."

In her campaign this fall, Franklin made a point not of playing up her political connections--she hardly needed to, given her endorsements by Jackson, Young, U.S. Representative John Lewis and other high-profile politicians--but of dwelling on her administrative experience. "I'm the only candidate running who has actually run city government, who actually knows how to lead in the public sector," she declared at one point. "If you owned a $1 billion corporation with 7,000 employees, you would look for someone who had management and leadership experience." Those arguments seemed to resonate especially well with newly arrived middle-class Atlantans who cared little about the battles of the 1970s but liked the idea of an efficient, businesslike chief executive. On election day, Franklin drew just over 50 percent of the vote in a crowded field that included two major opponents, including current City Council President Robb Pitts.

From the day she takes office, Franklin will need to draw on all the management and leadership experience she can muster. She arrives in the midst of a federal investigation into the awarding of contracts by the administration of outgoing Mayor Bill Campbell; one of Campbell's biggest supporters, a prominent contractor, has already pleaded guilty to arranging illegal campaign contributions. At the same time Franklin tries to rebuild faith in the city's administration, she will have to grapple with finances that have taken a beating from a downturn in tourism and declining airport revenues, and develop a plan for a long- deferred, multi-billion-dollar sewer system upgrade that may triple charges to ratepayers.

On the other hand, says University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, "Bill Campbell is a good act to be following. There's a good chance that whatever happens, it will come off looking like an improvement."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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