The Lone Ranger of the mayor's race

Pitts relies on Pitts for his own counsel

Robb Pitts doesn't want someone else running his race to become Atlanta's next mayor.

"I don't believe in having all these high-priced experts," he says. "That's just not me. ... I know exactly how I want to run my campaign."

This may not be such a good sign in a candidate for mayor. Other serious contenders for the city's top office have hired full-time managers. But Pitts — arguably the favorite when this year's campaign began — risks losing his bid by trying to quarterback it himself.

The current City Council president's chief opponent, Shirley Franklin, has hired a full-time staffer to handle the press and asked state Sen. Kasim Reed, an energetic young legislator, to come on board as campaign manager. She has used consultants, speech coaches and pollsters. Even a charismatic, media-savvy campaigner like Bill Campbell needed politico par excellence Kevin Ross to help him score the mayor's office.

Not Pitts. Whether he wins or loses, the face in his mirror the morning after the vote is the one that will deserve the praise or the blame.

He doesn't seem intimidated. "This isn't brain surgery," he says repeatedly.

But there are signs he could use professional advice. Such advice might disabuse him, for example, of the quaint notion he put forth in a recent interview. "This is not a popularity contest," he said of the election. "This is serious business."

Au contraire, argues Michael Lomax, a former Fulton County Commission chairman and two-time mayoral candidate. "What it is not is a test of issues," Lomax says. "It is a popularity contest."

Does Pitts know better? After all, he's spent the last 20 odd years winning elections in Atlanta — all of them citywide. The last victory landed him in the City Council president's office.

But a mayor's race is a whole different affair. His campaign is expected to cost $2 million-$3 million. And the level of media and voter scrutiny will be far more intense over the next few months than anything Pitts endured in previous races.

"We're not talking about some local guy running for office in Liberty County," says Clark Atlanta University political scientist William Boone.

The titles Pitts uses to describe his staff indicate who's running the show. Daphne Bryson is his campaign coordinator, not his campaign manager. She's never run a campaign before and came to the Pitts camp from E.R. Mitchell & Co., where she was a business development manager.

To handle the press, Pitts retained Dana Bolden. Bolden works part time for Pitts out of Bolden's office at EDS Corporation. Bolden says it's refreshing to work for a politician as unaffected as Pitts, but "it's challenging at times."

"It would raise my comfort level to have a press secretary," he says.

But Pitts has won six elections without a press secretary, and he's not changing just because he's on a bigger stage. He's counting on his cell phone.

Lomax says that's a mistake. The race is going to get heated. Controversy will surface.

"You have to have someone who has established relationships with the press," Lomax says. "With press relations, there is an extraordinary opportunity for disaster."

Pitts readily admits he argues with his staffers about his workmanlike style and the way he's running the campaign. They think he should be running harder now. He's waiting until there are only 100 days left before the Nov. 6 election — when people are home from vacation — to come out "blasting."

He started the mayor's race as the obvious frontrunner, pitted against the insider, Franklin, and an under-funded former councilwoman, Gloria Bromell-Tinubu.

While Pitts has laid low, Franklin's been campaigning vigorously — picking up endorsements from significant groups, ranging from gay Democrats to the Atlanta Labor Council.

His campaign risks giving off an aura of inertia, a gamble for someone who's likable but somewhat lacking in the charisma department.

"You don't have to be slick," he says. "People are tired of slick politicians. ... The sound bites creative people come up with to 'capture the imagination of the electorate,' I think that's pure poppycock."

There are signs that his hands-on approach has generated a few bungles. Take his reaction to Franklin's disclosure of her tax returns and her subsequent challenge to Pitts to release his own tax information. At first, in a faxed statement, he commended Franklin for her effort to "commit to higher ethical standards." But then, in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, he dismissed her tactic as a "cheap political trick."

The election, meanwhile, is framed by issues of integrity and trust — issues Pitts himself has emphasized. Even if it's a ploy, he's now on record both praising and criticizing a step toward openness in politics. Franklin's camp is going to let voters know that. They're sure to send flyers asking what Pitts has to hide and to pull the pants leg of the media to place him on the defensive.

Then there are those billboards. They read: "Red. Yellow. Brown. Black. White. We are one." Pitts' name is on the billboards. They look like campaign signs — sort of.

But they don't send a clear message. They're bland, and if anything, evoke thoughts of Pitts' interracial marriage, which isn't exactly considered a political strength in a majority-black city.

Pitts says the signs have nothing to do with the campaign. They went up to support his effort to bring together metro churches to promote racial harmony. The billboard space was donated. It doesn't mention the mayor's race. Pitts says he started the effort simply because racial tension in Atlanta is a major personal concern.

The signs are supposed to come down this week, but in an election, you want to present a strong, consistent image, and a billboard with a muddled message does not compute. Again, Pitts might have jettisoned the billboard idea had he retained a seasoned sounding board to direct the campaign.

Of course, a few early miscues won't lose Pitts the election, and campaigns do go through growing pains. There have been grumblings for months within Franklin's camp that too many political novices are helping to plot her course, rather than the seasoned veterans at her disposal.

But the heavier rap right now is on Pitts for kidding himself by thinking he can win by wearing so many hats. State Rep. Bob Holmes makes a foreboding analogy: "It's kind of like the lawyer who takes himself as a client."

It makes one curious whether all this indicates that a Mayor Pitts would micromanage city government.

Pitts says it's fair to assume that his campaign style gives Atlantans a taste of what kind of mayor he would make. But he draws a more positive lesson: "It says the buck stops and starts with me." As the city's CEO, Pitts says, he'll surround himself with talented people and give them freedom to work — but he'll deliver the marching orders.??