For two years after she was elected mayor of Atlanta in 2001, Shirley Franklin talked sewers every chance she got. Few were convinced that the city’s pipes were crumbling or that the city was bleeding $20,000 a day in fines. And few wanted to raise rates on water to fix the problem. At high school graduations, Franklin talked about clean water. At the supermarket, she talked about pipes to whoever was next to her in line. “I was a one-person chant, a drumbeat for infrastructure,” says Franklin, 60, who dubbed herself the “Sewer Mayor. ” Her persistence paid off when voters passed a $3. 2 billion overhaul of the aging water and sewerage system. Franklin, a Democrat, knows sewers aren’t sexy, but that’s exactly the kind of policy problem she likes to focus on. Scan her first-term record, and it might look different from a typical politician’s: She has raised the sales tax by 1 percentage point, eliminated more than 1,000 city jobs, and spent her time talking potholes and sewers. “If you look in a book on how to get re-elected, it’s kind of like the not-to-do list,” says the 5-foot-1, blond-haired Franklin. Yet her approval ratings exceed 75 percent, and her few challengers aren’t laughing about her re-election bid this year to continue as the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of a major southern U. S. city. That’s largely because Franklin has restored trust in government by rooting out the corruption that had infected America’s southern darling following the 1996 Olympic Games. The previous administration had racked up an $82 million budget deficit, which Franklin learned of only after taking office. In her first term, she has shown Atlanta no-nonsense, back-to-basics policymaking based largely on broad public-private partnerships. As a longtime city administrator, she has focused more on selling policies and shoring up the basic systems of government–instituting walking beats for Atlanta’s police, for example–than on winning political points, though she is quick to say she doesn’t sit on the political sidelines. “I like politics, now don’t [get me wrong],” she says. “But I don’t believe in playing politics with government policy. We ought to give the people our best thinking based on the research data and best practices. ”
Experience. Supporters credit her success partly to her long career as a city administrator under Mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, as well as her six years working on the Atlanta Olympics. That experience has shortened her learning curve, of course. But she had also not had to win votes or score political points in the past, since she had never run for elective office. That, no doubt, has guided her approach to the job. “I’m kind of an unintentional politician,” says Franklin. “I’ve always been interested in the policy and not in the political strategy. ”
As a sociology major in the 1960s at Howard University in Washington, D. C. , Franklin worked on a mayoral campaign and was active in the civil rights struggle. She attended the 1963 March on Washington with her mother. Franklin says the social movements of the 1960s, and people like Coretta Scott King, still inspire her to have the energy and courage to push for reform. “I try to emulate that in my life, bringing the sheer will to get something done,” she says. She went on to graduate school and worked at the U. S. Department of Labor before teaching political science at Talladega College in Alabama.
“I was discouraged by the lack of public trust that seemed to be pervasive,” she says. “It was in the black community, the white community, the newcomers, young people, older folks. There was a sense that government couldn’t do it right. ”
But she was also growing uneasy with the career advice she was continually giving to young women–advice she was not following herself. “I was telling all these young women. . . that you could do anything you wanted to do. And we hadn’t had a woman” as mayor, she said. “I finally convinced myself that I had an obligation to break through the barrier. ”
At first she was unsure of herself; she was nervous speaking in public, and she trailed her opponents in name recognition early on. But eventually she raised $3. 2 million and ran on a reform platform. She released copies of her income tax returns and posted campaign contributions on her website. Her campaign slogan was simple: “You make me mayor, and I’ll make you proud. ”
“When she got out on the campaign trail, she really grew,” said Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, who has known Franklin for more than 30 years. “She came into her own. ”
Some Franklin staffers call her a visionary. But she rejects the label, replying that she has just been around longer than most of her staff. Franklin says her former bosses, Jackson and Young, “could both see into the future,” but she, instead, sees herself as a “driver for change. . . I push things through. ” She stays intensely focused on issues, building alliances with city leaders, and once she latches on to an idea she says it’s a matter of crafting a clear message. “You know where she stands, and she’d tell you in a moment,” says Lewis. “It’s not a lot of small talk. She wants to get to the point and deal with issues. ”
Nowhere is that drive more evident than in the more than two dozen public-private task forces she has started, which have brought in more than 75 private firms to help shape policy with city officials. “She is a skillful negotiator, mediator,” says Lewis. “She’s a bridge builder. ”
Task forces are nothing new, but Franklin says the key to making her blue-ribbon panels a success has been simple: Follow the recommendations. “If you were going to take your time as a private citizen or as a professional,” she says, “we were going to work with what you recommended. ”
After Franklin spent two years speaking about the sewerage system, business leaders started asking her how they could help. The referendum to refurbish the system received the backing of three quarters of Atlanta’s residents. Her task force on the sewer issue has been a template for reform on issues such as homelessness, improving public schools, and restoring fiscal integrity to the city. “Her response is always, ‘What is the right thing to do, and then we’ll manage the politics of the situation,’ ” says Pete Correll, CEO of Georgia-Pacific, who is chairman of the Atlanta Committee for Progress.
As she plans for her second term, Franklin’s goals have shifted. She started a program last year to support internships, jobs, and college application fees for the city’s recent high school graduates, after she found that 775 students had no postgraduate plans. In July, the city opened a center to provide healthcare and job training to about 500 homeless Atlantans as a first step in Franklin’s plan to end homelessness in the next 10 years. And now she’s turning to another challenge: a massive redevelopment plan that calls for 30,000 new jobs and a $20 billion increase in Atlanta’s tax base over the next 25 years. The centerpiece of the plan is the transformation of 22 miles of railroad circling the city’s core into parklands and housing. Atlanta has turned itself around in many respects during Franklin’s first term, but some critics say her pro-growth policies have hurt the city’s poorest by raising the cost of living and focusing on attracting newcomers. Driving back from a meeting recently, she acknowledged the problem after pointing to new houses under construction and the new downtown headquarters of the Southern Co. “It’s challenging to keep the city affordable,” she says. For her personally, she’ll have to maintain the energy that paid off on the sewer project. Her re-election campaign began in September. This time it’ll be a two-month effort, not two years, and although rumors swirl around a possible run for the U. S. Senate, she says the best place for her to shape policy is Atlanta. Based on her track record to date, it’s hard to argue the point. I went hands-on with the premium beta to find out like the article.
BORN: May 10, 1945 EDUCATION: B. A. , Howard University; M. A. , University of Pennsylvania FAMILY: Divorced, three children CAREER PATH: Longtime city administrator elected mayor, 2001; very likely headed for a second term ON PERSISTENCE: “I have a tremendous ability to stay focused. and I’m willing to do whatever it takes that is legal. ethical, and moral to get there. ”
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