Kasim Reed probably isn’t a name you know — yet.
The 42-year-old mayor of Atlanta has been pegged as a rising Democratic star and even wins plaudits from Republicans for his pro-business bona fides.
His early successes as mayor have landed him on “Meet the Press” twice this year and were the subject of a glowing Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times in December.
Reed’s national profile is set to grow in the coming months as the public face of Democrats in the Peach State — where all of the statewide officials are Republicans and where President Barack Obama’s campaign expects to compete in 2012.
It would have been nearly impossible to envision Reed in that position today when he took the oath of office in January 2010, after winning a runoff by only 715 votes.
The city faced a huge budget shortfall, recreation centers had been closed down, there weren’t enough police officers on the streets and Atlanta’s ballooning pension liability was consuming a fifth of the city’s budget each year.
But slowly, with help from people such as Peter Aman, a partner at Bain & Co. whom Reed hired as his chief operating officer, the mayor began to address the big problems facing his city.
He garnered one success after another, from reopening the shuttered recreation centers to balancing the budget to putting more police officers on the street to tackling pension reform.
A key to his success has been his devotion to consensus building. Though Reed is a lifelong Democrat, almost every top Republican in the state sings his praises.
“This is a guy who has taken on some very controversial issues like pension reform, reduction in terms of spending within the city’s budget. And he has done it because it is the right thing to do,” Lt. Gov Casey Cagle (R) told Roll Call. “What I’ve always admired about Kasim Reed is that he’s a person that genuinely puts what’s in the best interest of the city or the state ahead of politics. I think that’s really the defining attribute of a statesman.”
The mayor regularly exchanges text messages, sometimes jocular, with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s chief of staff, according to one Atlanta-based GOP source. And Reed, a prolific texter, exchanged SMS messages with staff in the governor’s mansion as the mayor and governor worked to successfully close a deal to bring a Porsche plant to Atlanta.
Reed, a lawyer, spent 11 years in the state Legislature, serving in both chambers.
“What has helped Kasim with the Republican leadership at the state Capitol and in state government the most is that he basically comes from their circle,” said a well-connected Republican strategist in Georgia. “There is an expectation that Kasim is a guy with a very bright future. He’s very savvy politically.”
Reed, who is African-American and goes by his middle name — his first name is Mohammed — grew up in the Cascade neighborhood of Atlanta. When he was 16, he founded a venture capital group that included a jewelry business.
“I realized that my generation’s burden was to further break the economic barrier,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when he was 21. As an undergraduate at Howard University, he served as the student representative on the Board of Trustees and proposed a successful initiative to get each student to contribute to the school’s endowment. With a matching grant from the government, it added millions to Howard’s coffers. He later returned to Howard, where he received a law degree in 1995.
The mayor, who speaks with a slight Georgia twang, said his only political goal is winning a second term in 2013. But for an executive with a substantial national profile and bipartisan support, watchers of politics in Georgia can’t help but think that Reed is a man moving up in the political world.
Asked about his political future in an interview after his second appearance on “Meet the Press,” Reed said simply: “I want to serve two terms as mayor.”
He added, “I think you lose your job thinking about the next job.”
Reed was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s 2008 campaign, and he remains a cheerleader for the president. He thinks that with the right resources, the president could win his state in 2012 and “that Georgia is looking more favorable than Virginia” for an Obama victory.
Republicans in the Peach State seem to appreciate the mayor’s connection to Washington, seeing him as a key link to the White House. They also recognize and value his willingness to pull for issues that affect the whole state, not just Atlanta.
“He has taken the first step to show that the interests of the city and the interests of the state are not mutually exclusive,” said Chip Lake, a GOP consultant in the state, who until recently served as Rep. Lynn Westmoreland’s (R) chief of staff. Lake gave the example of Reed joining forces with Republicans to promote federal funding for the effort to deepen the port at Savannah, a potential boon to the state’s economy.
Despite praise from Republicans, Reed admits that his reforms have not endeared him to everyone in Atlanta.
“I’m certainly paying my share of political price trying to solve our citizens’ pension challenge, our city’s budgetary challenges,” he said.
State Sen. Vincent Fort (D), who represents Atlanta and supported Reed in his campaign, said he was “disappointed” with the mayor’s tenure and called him a “captive of the business community.”
One of Reed’s marquee achievements in his year and a half in office has been reforming the city’s unsustainable pension system.
Five months into his term, with the help of Aman, Reed initiated pension cutbacks for new city hires, despite union protests. And last week, under significant pressure from Reed, the city council unanimously passed a substantial overhaul of Atlanta’s pension program for city workers. The new program requires all municipal employees, including firefighters and police officers, to take a 5 percent cut in pay beginning this year. The extra money goes toward their pensions. Along with other changes to the pension program, the mayor’s office said the reform will save the city $270 million over the next 10 years.
Lake said he didn’t think the mayor had yet charted a path to his next office but was convinced Reed knows “that if he does a good job as mayor of the city of Atlanta, it might open up opportunities for him elsewhere. And I think, so far, so good, if that’s his strategy.”
Tharon Johnson, a Democratic consultant who managed Reed’s mayoral campaign and served as a senior adviser to the mayor in his first year in office, put it a different way: “The sky is the limit for him.”