Atlanta Mayor, Kasim Reed (John Disney/Daily Report)
Twelve years ago, the Daily Report’s editors and reporters began selecting an annual class of up-and-coming young attorneys.
The attorneys took different paths and their practice areas often varied, but they shared strong work ethics, intelligence, stellar references and, above all, promising career trajectories.
This year we looked at our past selections with an eye toward who has confirmed our predictions and transformed from Rising Star to Luminary. Many of our picks have risen to great heights in Georgia’s state and federal courts, large law firms, corporations, government and the public sector.
The one who stood out was featured on the cover of our inaugural On the Rise edition in 2002: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
When we named him to that first class, Reed was an associate at Paul Hastings and a two-term state representative who had just been elected to a term in the state Senate. He also had worked on Mayor Shirley Franklin’s campaign and was helping lead her transition team.
Seven years later, he would wrap up his practice at Holland & Knight, win his own municipal campaign and assume the office of mayor.
Reed, who is now 45, has been praised for guiding Atlanta through the aftershocks of the Great Recession, reforming the city’s pension plan, bolstering the police force and priming the capitol city as a hub for business growth, particularly within the film industry.
While his critics have accused him of hastily and unfairly awarding airport concession contracts, failing to secure the Braves stay at Turner Field and underestimating a major ice storm in January that led to crippling gridlock throughout the city, Reed has not been afraid to publicly defend his positions and move on.
We sat down with Reed at City Hall to talk with him about his time in the spotlight and what’s next. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
In your time as mayor, in what ways have you drawn on your legal knowledge and experiences as a lawyer?
I think that my training helps me avoid things that I should not do. I think being a lawyer adds an element of caution around potential challenges or pitfalls. And I also think it helps me cut through bureaucracy and excuses because my training as a lawyer gives me a fundamental sense of what is possible and what is not possible.
Do you have an example?
Pension reform. When I was elected as mayor, I only won by 714 votes. The city of Atlanta on the day that I got elected only had $7.4 million in reserves. That’s in a city with about a $1.8 [billion] to $1.9 billion budget. We had to sign a tax anticipation note loan on my first day in office to ensure that our payroll did not bounce.
And so, when we got started with the pension reform process there were a number of people who said, “You are trying to do something that you will never be able to do. The courts will invalidate it. The council will never, never support it. These are changes that no one else who’s occupied your office in modern times has attempted.”
And I think that my training as a lawyer gave me the confidence to believe that we could certainly create a legally defensible path to face a problem that was putting the city’s financial future in jeopardy.
It’s been noted that you have forged a very strong—although on its surface unlikely— relationship with the governor. I’ll note that you are a young African-American Democrat. Gov. Nathan Deal is an older white Republican. But somehow it works. How were you able to forge that relationship and why is it beneficial for the city?
There are a number of reasons. One is I’ve spent more of my career in state government than in municipal government. I spent four years in the House and seven years in the Senate. So I really was trained in politics at the state level.
… And in terms of why it’s necessary, Georgia rises and falls primarily on the economic relationship between the Atlanta metropolitan [area] and the state of Georgia. We are the biggest revenue generator for the state and it would not be productive for the governor and the mayor to have a needlessly adversarial relationship.
Looking back 12 years when we selected you, you were an associate at Paul Hastings. Sometime later, you moved to Holland & Knight and were doing very well in your practice. You told us that you were very happy in your practice.
Yeah. I was having fun.
But you also had been in the state Legislature. I think you were just wrapping up your second term as a representative and starting your first term as a senator. You were working on Mayor Shirley Franklin’s campaign.
I had managed her campaign and cochaired her transition [into the mayor's office].
So you had these sort of dual lives if you will—one as a lawyer; one as a public servant. When did you know that your life as a public servant was eclipsing your life as a lawyer? When did you know you had made that transition?
Probably when I decided to run for mayor in 2008. And you know I really enjoyed being a lawyer. I was kind of strange. I was a happy lawyer.
So I wasn’t someone who didn’t enjoy the work, and I really had in my mind really a dream life. I had the income that came from being a lawyer and the ability to influence public policy because we had a citizen legislature in Georgia where you serve January, February, March, and during the other three-fourths of the year I was able to be a lawyer.
In 2008 I had a really important decision to make because I had really gone between making a decision whether be elected or whether I was going to continue to manage and develop other elected officials. So at the end of the day, I decided that I was going to be an executive and that was the next phase of my career. I had wanted to be mayor since I was a young man, about 13 years old. And at the end of the day, I felt that 2008-2009 was the year if that was ever going to happen.
I’ve heard that during your time at Howard [University] you introduced yourself as the future mayor of Atlanta.
That is absolutely false! Actually, I never said that. When I was at Howard, I kept my own dreams intensely private. I definitely had an interest in government.
I didn’t discuss my own plans because I have particular feelings about who you share your dreams with, and when you define your path publicly and telegraph it, it gives people the opportunity to block it.
You may not like my next question then. I was going to ask: You are term-limited and you are very young. You’ve got 20 or more years of your career ahead of you. So what is next?
Next for me will be a return to the private sector.
What does that look like?
It looks like finishing out my term as mayor. It looks like being heavily involved in the 2016 presidential elections, because I care about who leads this country. And it looks like me practicing law for a period of time and then I believe I probably have one more campaign in me.
But I will not move from being mayor in 2018 to trying to pursue another office, because I think my wife will veto that and I’ve got a daughter. I have other concerns that I didn’t have when I was alone.
Do you think you will pick up where you were, doing employment law, civil rights, contracts?
At the end of my practice, I was doing mostly music law and entertainment-related matters and some litigation. I don’t have any idea where I will be when I return to practice but I do look forward to being a lawyer again.
The nature of my relationships and areas of interests are far more broad now. So I don’t know if I will return to the areas I was in when I was 38, 39 years old. When I’m done [being mayor] I will probably be 48 years old. So, I don’t think I’ll be in that space again. But I do plan on being a lawyer again and enjoying a law firm.
You mentioned your wife and your daughter. And congratulations, by the way. How has your role as a father—which is a brand new role—shaped your outlook on the office, your perspective, your priorities?
It has changed my life radically in the best ways. I’ll just be honest. From 13 until the time that I was elected mayor, if you look at my life it was almost mechanical, just in terms of what was next. It is a very disciplined, regimented, uninterrupted path to a certain destination. And I think candidly for me that was required to be mayor of Atlanta today. I think I’m the second youngest mayor in the city’s history.
And since I got married and had my daughter, I’m much softer. My personality and things I care about are different. I’ve never had anybody who has had a veto over me before, which my wife and my daughter do.
And there is no question in the past what decision I would make between something that was professional and something that was personal. I almost invariably picked professional, which is pretty unhealthy. But I think it ended up in a decent place.
If you had to be your own critic, looking back at your time as mayor, is there any moment that you wish you had done something differently?
Hmm. Let me see. Yeah. I think that I definitely would have fought harder around the date of the transportation [TSPLOST] referendum when there was an opportunity to have it on a November ballot rather than in July. I thought that was probably one of the biggest opportunities that we had to move the region forward and address what we all know is one of the three biggest challenges that the state faces. The three being traffic, education and water.
If Georgia addresses transportation, the education of our children and adequate water supply, there is no question that our dominance of the Southeastern region would be secure. And so I deeply regret not working harder around that.
Who in the legal community has mentored you? Who has inspired you and helped you rise to the level where you are now? And do you see yourself as a role model for lawyers in any way?
I think the biggest influence on me in the legal community has been Lawrence Ashe. He was essential in my development at Paul Hastings. He believed in me there early in my career. He gave me support when I needed it to pursue public activities, and he has been a friend to me for many years.
In terms of being a mentor, I certainly try to mentor young people.
In the political community it would be Ambassador Andrew Young and Mayor Willie Brown, who is the former mayor of San Francisco. And in terms of career models, I would also include Vernon Jordan as a model of the kind of career I would like.
You talked about being one of the youngest mayors in Atlanta’s history. You are active on social media. I think it’s safe to say you’re probably the first sitting mayor on Twitter. You’ve used it to answer reporters and critics directly. As a Generation Xer, how has that shaped your approach to your office?
It shaped it substantially because it helps you stay in touch with people who have had real lives. I don’t care how good of a person you are, if you are a mayor or a governor or if you have some high office, you definitely have the risk of “turning purple.” You have a risk of becoming disconnected because you really don’t, for a sustained period of time, experience what most people experience.
I find social media—Twitter and Facebook—to be a way to have that bubble pricked a bit and to have conversations with people who you typically would never have a conversation with. I’ve always loved reading, and so even when I’m not engaged, I love seeing and hearing what other people think. And even at 45, I’m a very curious person. And I think all these attributes are critical to leading well.
I think it’s essential for a modern leader. No matter how engaged you are with it or how much you use it, you need that real-time connectivity.
What advice or sage words might you have for young, ambitious lawyers?
The most important voice guiding my life, even more than the mentors, has been my dad. And he’s given me the best advice that I have had.
One, you have to be decisive. There is tremendous organizational power in making a decision. It really does tell you what steps 2, 3, 4 and 5 are if you are sincere. So whether that’s being a partner in a firm or establishing a criminal practice or becoming a solo practitioner, the decision organizes what your life should look like. And so I think that coming to a decision about what you want to be as early as possible sets your trajectory.
My dad started writing my life out and giving me letters about what my life would be like when I was 8 or 9. He said that I was going to be in public service, that my life mattered, that I needed to live my life in a matter that would allow me to lead women and men.
Two, you have to choose something you are passionate about. My dad says passion is the enemy of fatigue and so if you plan on becoming highly successful in whatever space you’re in, you’re going to have a schedule that is not typical of other people. All of the most accomplished people I know work on schedules that most people would consider abnormal.
Third, I would say that you have to have a high pain threshold. Mike Tyson has a quote that I think about all the time, which is that everybody has a plan until they get hit. In everybody’s life, no matter who you are, there are going to be moments when things don’t break your way. I think you are measured by how you handle those moments and by your capacity to recover, keep schedule and carry on.
The fourth thing is to do everything in your power to keep your name clear of dishonor.