The race that wasn't

Atlanta won't see a real mayoral campaign this year. What are we missing?

She has the backing of Atlanta business leaders. She enjoys some of the highest job-approval ratings the city has ever seen. She was recently named one of the five best big-city mayors in America by Time magazine. And she's sitting on a war chest of more than $800,000 - and growing.

What Mayor Shirley Franklin doesn't have, however, is an opponent.

Right now, we're supposed to be in the opening salvos of an Atlanta mayor's race. Instead, not only have no serious challengers stepped forward - so far, only two minor ones have - but the window of opportunity already may have closed for all but the most deep-pocketed candidates. With the Nov. 8 election less than four months away, there's little time left for fundraising, even if there was much in the way of anti-Franklin money out there to collect, which there's not.

Of course, there are those who warn that Herroner shouldn't plan to coast into a second term.

"Reforming female mayors traditionally have trouble winning re-election," says state Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, citing Minneapolis' Sharon Sayles Belton and Washington, D.C.'s Sharon Pratt.

Of course, Reed has a personal interest in keeping Franklin on her toes, seeing as he's her campaign manager. For most everyone else in Atlanta, the mayor's race is a done deal, the very definition of a political nonevent. "It's a hell of a compliment that no one is willing to run against her," says former Mayor Sam Massell.

Not only is Franklin seen as untouchable at the polls, but three-and-a-half years after she took the reins from the corrupt and negligent Bill Campbell administration, the mayor's stock is so sky-high that most potential critics are keeping mum lest they risk marginalizing themselves as naysayers.

The situation is reminiscent of the 1989 mayor's race, when Maynard Jackson, then a former two-term mayor and political behemoth, had managed to scare off any serious rivals. Minutes before the close of qualifying, however, scrappy Civil Rights activist Hosea Williams strode into City Hall and threw his hat into the ring. His reasoning: Despite Jackson's overwhelming popularity and financial backing, Atlanta voters deserved a real mayor's race with vigorous public debate.

With the late Williams in mind, here are some areas on which a potential challenger to Franklin's re-election bid could possibly hope to gain some traction:

Power to the people: A consistent criticism of Franklin has been that she's less concerned with the city's poor than pleasing Atlanta's titans of industry. That's ironic, considering she did not have the backing of the business community during her first campaign. That support went to former City Council President Robb Pitts, who said Franklin would be a continuation of the Jackson/Campbell black, liberal political machine.While Pitts was clearly off the mark, the mayor occasionally has taken flak from the left. One example is a 2003 meeting with Gov. Sonny Perdue at which she allegedly discussed how to keep city garbage flowing to the Live Oak landfill, even though low-income residents in south DeKalb had battled for years to get the place shut down.

Franklin also has been criticized for vetoing legislation to give elderly homeowners a break on sewer bills. And many Atlanta homeless advocates have accused the mayor of taking a heavy-handed approach toward downtown panhandlers.

Even the fact that a Franklin-appointed task force gave a strong thumbs-up to the Piedmont Park parking deck proposal is seen as evidence by some that the mayor favors the city's moneyed elite.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, also questions the links between City Hall and Atlanta uber-developer Tom Cousins: Franklin once worked for the Cousins-created East Lake Community Foundation, while Council President Lisa Borders is a current Cousins executive, and Greg Giornelli, the mayor's hand-picked Atlanta Development Authority president, is Cousins' son-in-law.

"Between Franklin and Borders, the city is Tom Cousins Inc.," claims Fort.

But if there are any examples of pro-Cousins favoritism, they have yet to surface. Franklin has gone to great lengths to show that the cronyism that held sway under Campbell is a thing of the past.

And the mayor's relationship with the business community is already paying dividends. Later this month, the city's Gateway homeless center is scheduled to open in the former city jail, paid for with more than $16 million in private funds.

Finally, Franklin's second-term agenda includes creating 60,000 new jobs in Atlanta; using city funds to create incentives for more affordable housing; and adding 1,900 acres of new park land.

Possible campaign slogan for opponent: "Shirley doesn't feel your pain."

Chances for success: Will resonate in some quarters, but otherwise a hard sell to her legions of middle and low-income supporters.

Bureaucratic nightmare: When Franklin came into office, she quickly slashed nearly 1,000 city jobs, cut spending and raised taxes to overcome an $82 million budget shortfall, and ordered audits, promising to overhaul the bloated Atlanta city government. But John Sherman, president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Association, argues Franklin should further reduce city staff and privatize such city services as garbage collection, in keeping with the recommendations by city consultant Bain & Co.

By most accounts, the mayor hasn't done enough to streamline the city's license and permits department, which remains slow as sorghum and mired in bureaucracy. Even a city booster such as Massell says licensing is "still a mess, and dangerously so," threatening to drive potential developers and investors into the suburbs.

Possible campaign slogan for opponent: "It's business as usual under Franklin."

Chances for success: Franklin still has work to do, but most folks understand she's had her hands full. And privatization zealots will never be happy until City Hall is sold off to the highest bidder.

Scandal city: In contrast to Campbell, Franklin's tenure has been blissfully free of any serious allegations of impropriety. Certainly that's because of the aboveboard way she handles city business, but some of the credit has to go to Shirley's straight-talking style that favors candor over defensiveness.Shirley has had two small road bumps in that regard, both of which she's handled ably. In the first case, a $1 million airport contract was handed to Franklin's son and ex-husband, resulting in a judge's ruling that the contract had been improperly awarded. But no evidence emerged to suggest that the mayor was involved in the decision.

Earlier this year, an Atlanta Business Chronicle article suggested that a sewer contractor under federal indictment in Alabama also had bribed an Atlanta official. But a city investigation revealed that the Atlanta official had refused the bribe and reported it to his department head.

Possible campaign slogan for opponent: "There's more here than meets the eye."

Chances for success: Unless something new pops up, that dog won't hunt.

Sewage and waste: There's still a small contingent of people who fault Franklin for making the wrong choice on repairing Atlanta's decrepit sewer system. Many argue that she should have opted for full separation of sewage and storm water, rather than the less pricey partial separation. Others claim the $3.2 billion sewer fix is padded with waste.Sure, the tide of public opinion could shift if taxpayers are hit with more multimillion-dollar cost overruns, like those in two recent sewer projects. But Franklin headed off much potential criticism when she persuaded state lawmakers to approve a 1-cent sales tax and low-interest loans that greatly reduced the pinch to Atlantans' pocketbooks.

Possible campaign slogan for opponent: "The mayor mishandled the sewer crisis."

Chances for success: The fact that Franklin was willing to confront the crisis after it had long been ignored gives her an authority no opponent can match.