Atlanta's first woman mayor reflects new era

With stage appearances by Hollywood actor Chris Tucker and rap stars OutKast, last week's inaugural fest for the first woman mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin, was hardly conventional.

But then the deep South's premier city is becoming accustomed to Franklin's unconventional style. The 50-something African-American politician favors bleached-white hair. Her election ads thumped with hip-hop rhythms. And her campaign stops included weekly late-night gatherings at people's homes - dubbed "sleepovers" - where up to 30 voters could chat with "the next mayor."

Now Ms. Franklin faces the more conventional task of governing one of the nation's most diverse cities - which won't be easy.

Atlanta is facing a budget shortfall of $90 million, the city's sewers and bridges are in disrepair, and a third of Atlantans fall below the poverty line. By her own admission, her first task will be a mundane one - mending the more than 600 potholes rattling motorists across the city.

Yet, ultimately, the new mayor's biggest test will be trying to bridge a variety of complicated coalitions that are shaking up the urban South's political patterns, rapidly displacing the black male power base that has traditionally dominated Atlanta over the past 20 years.

"I had an advantage in that I had never run for office," says Franklin, one of the only African-American women mayors of a major US city. "I didn't fall into that trap that some groups of people would vote for me, and some people wouldn't. I had to build a new base as opposed to appealing to just the historically black vote," says Franklin in a Monitor interview.

New voters, new approach

The city that rose from the ashes of the Civil War to become the capital of the new South is experiencing what Franklin calls "a new diversity." Atlanta has lost some 30,000 blacks in the past 20 years as even greater numbers of middle-class whites, Asians, Hispanics, and homosexuals have moved into the city's rapidly gentrifying former slums. It was by making inroads into the city's Asian and homosexual communities - while also targeting Atlanta's black women and undecided voters - that Franklin trounced a more experienced politician, in last year's election.

"In big city politics, the emergence of this diversity at the polls is a new phenomenon in this past decade," says Robert Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University.

Today, a black politician can only expect 55 percent of the vote - a number that continues to dwindle. Analysts see the same trend happening across urban America, from Houston to Hampton, Va., from New Orleans to East Point, Ga.

The new mayor wasn't alone to receive the largesse of this new voter demographic: Half the council are freshmen and its new president, Cathy Woolard, is the first openly gay politician in the city. Last week marked the first time women have occupied the top two political spots in the city.

The new urban voters also ousted Sherry Dorsey, who had complained bitterly about whites and gays "gentrifying" traditional black neighborhoods and forcing poorer residents out of the city. And they also shunnned Michael Julian Bond, the son of civil rights scion Julian Bond.

"There's a lot of nuances happening," says William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University (CAU). "What we're seeing is not whether we'll get another black mayor in the future, but whether the black vote will control who becomes mayor."

Inclusive approach

As a member of Atlanta's broad battalion of professional black women, Franklin says she's learned to abandon politics that divide in favor of politics that include. "I knew I would appeal to the majority of people who are not anxious at all to return to the time when people didn't get along," says Franklin. "I don't think there's a move away from race, but a move toward inclusiveness."

The new mayor says she defines herself as a student of black women leaders like Harriet Tubman and Mary McCloud Bethune, the presidential adviser who started life as a Southern cotton-picker. A civil rights activist at Howard University in the 1960s, the Philadelphia-born Franklin came to Atlanta 30 years ago and raised three sons here. She still lives in the same house on the southwest side of town. And locals sense that she really seems to mean it when she shouts: "I love you, Atlanta!"

"What's happening is that you're getting minority candidates who can build coalitions that are larger than just the black community," says Niger Innis, a spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality in New York.

Even so, instead of shutting out traditional African-American ideas, the new atmosphere may open up opportunities for a broader range of black politicians. But Innis agrees that politicians like Franklin are likely to experience growing pains as they get used to their new constituencies.

"The bigger problem is that this city is still deeply divided between black and white, the haves and the have-nots," says state Sen. Vincent Fort, who has made a study out of Atlanta's racial politics. "There's a good deal of optimism right now, but she has a very fine line to walk."

Hipster in Sheep's clothing?

Many say Franklin will get into trouble if she steers too hard toward any group's particular agenda. Others say that Franklin is a political wolf in a hipster's clothing. Indeed, she's not a radical outsider by any means: She's a shrewd businesswoman and manager who has held some 30 board posts in local corporations. She was the top woman executive in the team that brought the Olympics to Atlanta. She also served for 13 years as city manager.

"She's a good administrator, she has style, and she can be angry at the right time," says Mr. Boone, the CAU professor.

Mostly, her leadership style seems convivial and congenial. Indeed, she hosted the entire city council at her house Friday night.

Downtown, many Atlantans are optimstic about her refreshing approach. "I saw that white hair and I knew she'd win," says Brian Ward, a local bodyguard. "This is a young, energetic city known for its strong, independent women, and she epitomizes all that. I think she's going to be a good example for the South around the world."

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