First Female Mayor
First female mayor saw plenty of ups, downs
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mayor Shirley Franklin came into office eight years ago like a bolt of optimism for a fatigued city, a gust of fresh air blowing away the stench of corruption.
AJC file, AJC Shirley Franklin was seen as a breath of fresh air when she became the first woman to become Atlanta mayor. State Rep. Calvin Smyre welcomed her at her star-studded 2002 inauguration ball. Eight years later, times are leaner, and her successor has nixed an inaugural ball. In Franklin’s final press conference, however, she said the budget was balanced.
Bob Andres, email@example.com Franklin received many pointed questions. In what might be her final press conference as Atlanta mayor, Shirley Franklin was in rare form. Refusing to answer questions about the problems she faced in office and even refusing to comment on her legacy. She said that would be for the people and media to decide. Because she is moving on. But as combative and wild as it was, she did it with a smile.
Seen as an antidote to later-imprisoned Bill Campbell, the bleached-blond dynamo promised Atlanta would be “safer, more efficient, open, honest and straightforward.”
With her trademark flower perpetually pinned to her lapel, Franklin went to work on big projects and policies, from an overhaul of city sewers to digging the city out of a hefty deficit. Her plucky, can-do credo won fans across the city and she skated to re-election.
Then came Franklin’s second term. A massive deficit seemed to appear out of nowhere and high-profile crimes grabbed headlines even as she and her embattled police chief assured the public crime was dropping.
Over the past two years, her once sky-high popularity faded like a week-old gardenia, and the 2009 mayoral election became in part a referendum on her stewardship.
Her candidate won — barely.
On Monday, the mayor once seen as “Super Shirley” leaves office as a mere mortal.
The 64-year-old Franklin, who will soon begin teaching at Spelman College on the “challenges of urban civic leadership,” repeatedly declined to talk about her time in office. Asked recently by an AJC reporter for some time to talk about her terms in office, Franklin smiled, shook his hand and said, “Not a chance.”
Minutes later, she repeated that to the entire Atlanta press corps.
“I will not speak about my legacy,” she said during a contentious news conference last month. “When it is over, you are going to know when it’s over and move on. It’s over.”
Franklin will be remembered as a mayor who thought big, inspired women and restored faith in City Hall. But she also was a mayor who tried but couldn’t completely turn the corner on some of Atlanta’s long-standing problems, including homelessness, crime and tangled finances.
“Her first four years were much stronger than her last four,” said “Able” Mabel Thomas, a former City Council member and state legislator. “I’d have to give her good marks. But Atlanta is such a dynamic city that just good enough is not good enough.”
‘Open, direct, refreshing’
The pugnacious style of Franklin’s native Philadelphia coupled with a competent and confident charisma endeared her to many Atlantans, both in the inner-city neighborhoods and in the office suites. Whether at community forums or power lunches, the mayor held sway. This was an impressive attribute, said former City Councilman Lee Morris.
“It’s tough to be everybody’s mayor, given the great divide in Atlanta of race, class and partisanship,” he said.
Atlanta’s first female mayor took office with a blur of activity and achievement. Her Pothole Posse smoothed crumbling streets and showed residents that she focused on the basics. Greeted with an $80 million deficit, she guided the city back into the black, eliminating 1,000 city jobs. She built momentum to push through a decades-delayed $4 billion overhaul of the city’s water and sewer system.
It was an impressive list for a woman who called herself “an accidental politician, an unintentional mayor.”
“She was open and direct and quite refreshing,” said Angelo Fuster, who, like Franklin, worked for former mayors Maynard Jackson and Andy Young. “She took political risks in raising taxes and raising sewer rates. That set a tone.”
Like many women who dealt with her, Pearl Johnson, chair of Neighborhood Planning Unit J in west Atlanta, thought highly of the outgoing mayor.
“I was happy to see a female point of view [in the mayor’s office],” Johnson said. “She stood for what she thought was the best for the city. She was a strong mayor.”
But Franklin was an administrator by trade, not a politician, and never concerned herself with building rapport with the City Council.
Councilman H. Lamar Willis compared her tenure to that of Young, who let Franklin handle day-to-day operations, freeing him to work on grand ideas.
“Rarely did Mayor Franklin lobby [council members] for a vote,” he said. “She thought she came to the table with her best thinking or her team’s best thinking.”
Her most effective lobbying, Willis said, came by using the media to get her message across.
Political, personal trials
Franklin was lauded in Time and Newsweek magazines and received the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award in 2005 from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation because of her “willingness to make the difficult and unpopular decisions necessary for good governance.” But she was often prickly with reporters, firing off testy, late-night e-mails challenging their stories.
Fuster, who as communications chief for Campbell dealt regularly with a hostile media, chuckled at Franklin’s testiness at her final news conference. “To this day, the press has gone easy on her,” he said.
The mayor’s public demeanor soured after her daughter, Kai Franklin Graham, pleaded guilty in 2007 to illegally structuring financial transactions for her ex-husband, a drug trafficker now serving life. Her daughter avoided a prison term.
That event occurred between the deaths of the mayor’s mother, Ruth Lyons White, and her ex-husband, David Franklin, her longtime confidant.
“It was almost an avalanche at the end,” said former Councilman Derrick Boazman. “It was both personal and professional [problems] at the end.”
Franklin could get rough when needed, he said, reminiscing on the 2003 battle over rebuilding the sewer and water system. At the time, sewers continually fouled streams and rivers and Atlanta was routinely fined by federal government.
Boazman, a leader of a council bloc that stymied the overhaul, said planned bill increases were excessive, especially for the poor and elderly. In a press conference, he called the stand-off “high-stakes poker.”
The mayor upped the ante — opposition council members’ bosses and associates started getting phone calls. “They called their law firms, their architectural firms, their businesses; I never saw that before,” recalled Boazman. “To have someone call your business and say, ‘You’re a hold-out,’ well, that was new. I said they are putting too much pressure on us.”
In the end, the two sides settled and the city paid for the massive project through loans, water rate increases and raising the sales tax rate.
A reluctant politician
Franklin’s political touch often was not deft. In 2006, rogue narcotics officers killed a 92-year-old woman while illegally raiding her home. Two weeks later, the mayor supported a $10,000 pension fund increase for Chief Richard Pennington, a move voted down by the council and roundly criticized.
While major crime statistics have fallen — as they have in many big cities — Pennington has been criticized by residents, council members and police officers as being aloof and out-of-touch. In the past year, high-profile killings, random robberies and brazen burglaries have continued, increasing calls for the mayor to fire Pennington. But she defended her chief until the end, even as crime dominated the recent election.
Last January, Franklin announced yet another effort to hire more police officers and reach a long-sought goal of 2,000 by the end of her term. That pledge, though, coincided with a city budget crisis that included employee furloughs, a tax hike and layoffs. The 2,000 figure is still a dream.
Police union leader Lt. Scott Kreher, one of Franklin’s harshest critics, acknowledged that crime is down, but said the demolition of Atlanta’s public housing may be the chief reason. “We’ll see the true reflection in crime in the next few years.”
Aaron Turpeau, who worked under Jackson and on both of Franklin’s campaigns, gives her high marks, even on crime and budget issues.
“The boom of the population was tremendous during her administration and the city looks different today,” he said. “In the end, the economy caught her.”
Turpeau said the mayor’s friends have urged her to talk publicly about her achievements but she won’t.
“She’s not bitter; she’s not angry,” he said. “She insists the story will speak for itself. She had a social worker’s mindset; she just wanted to get things done.”
Part of Franklin’s success in office was that no scent of corruption followed her, as it had her predecessor, Campbell, who went to prison along with a dozen other city officials and contractors.
“There was a mythology about her for doing basic things,” said Emory University political science Professor Michael Leo Owens. Much of that feel-good story line dissipated last year, as candidates for her job picked over her record.
“She tackled some tough issues that weren’t popular,” said Morris, the former councilman. “But the sewer issue was a little overstated [in significance]. It is a bit revisionist history.”
Morris was Campbell’s most ardent critic. But, he acknowledged, “the guy did rebuild the R.M. Clayton treatment plant without it ever closing, which was no small feat.” In addition, he added, the Indian Creek and Peachtree Creek relief sewer projects were largely completed under Campbell.
But Campbell left Franklin a budget mess. She said she will not do that to her successor. In her final press conference, she said the budget was balanced. This came after eliminating about 1,800 jobs in the past two years and cutting the budget almost to its 2002 level.
It may be that her legacy is still in the making. In a speech last year, Franklin said, “I have sought the tradition of looking beyond the here and now.”
Construction of the Beltline, a development envisioned along old rail lines seen as Atlanta’s biggest project in years, is just beginning. The international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is scheduled to be finished by 2012. Her successor lobbied the White House last month for $300 million to begin another of her goals: a streetcar line along Peachtree Street. And even the sewer project isn’t done yet.
“She has taken on some Olympic-sized visions and dreams that might be good for the city,” Councilman Willis said. “It’s up to us what we do with it.”
Meet the reporters
Bill Torpy, who writes about metro Atlanta for the Sunday AJC, joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1990. He covered former Mayor Bill Campbell’s corruption trial and the 2006 police shooting of Kathryn Johnston, among many other stories involving City Hall. A native of Chicago, he learned about politics early; his uncle was one of the most productive precinct captains on the city’s South Side. Torpy is a graduate of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., and previously worked for the Daily Southtown in Chicago.
Eric Stirgus has been covering metro Atlanta governments and politics for eight years. For the past two years, his beat has been Atlanta’s City Hall, including the City Council and the administration of Mayor Shirley Franklin. He covered this year’s election for Franklin’s successor, one of the most closely watched mayor’s races in the nation. Before arriving at the AJC, Eric reported for the New York Daily News, the New York Post and the St. Petersburg Times. He graduated from New York University in 1994.