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Life in the bunker

Outgoing Mayor Shirley Franklin's tenure had a rocky finish, but her legacy will take time to gel

Talk to many voters or scrutinize poll results and you'll likely find that people are wary of smooth-talking career politicians. They yearn to elect someone genuine who understands the concerns and challenges of average folk. They want a real person.

The problem, however, with electing a real person – that is, a nonpolitician – is that they have real emotions and real frustrations. And, if pushed hard enough, they drop the politician's smile, they stray off-message and they can get real pissy.

At Shirley Franklin's final press conference as mayor three weeks ago, those characteristics were on full display. She was argumentative, combative and not afraid to show her disdain for a press corps that she perceived as having treated her unfairly.

"I'm sorry this isn't what you wanted," Franklin said. "You get the real deal. Here I am."

That Shirley – the prickly and confrontational one – had become a familiar presence during the waning days of her tenure, especially as she weathered frequent attacks on her administration from mayoral candidate Mary Norwood.

But Norwood's criticisms – that crime is out of control, that city finances are in disarray, that public services are a joke – wouldn't have gained the traction they did if many of them hadn't already been accepted as common knowledge by a dissatisfied electorate.

It's been a remarkable reversal of fortune for a mayor who, only four years ago, had appeared on the cover of Newsweek as a national model of female leadership, and had been named by Time as one of America's five best big-city mayors. Could this be the same woman whom U.S. News & World Report called one of the "Best Leaders of 2005"?

Despite what you may have heard, Franklin cares deeply about how her accomplishments as mayor will be viewed by later generations. That insight comes from friends and associates, not from the mayor herself, who isn't giving exit interviews. At that last press conference, she brought out police Chief Richard Pennington to tout statistics showing that crime had fallen during her tenure. And, City Hall insiders say, the mayor's primary focus in recent weeks had been on closing out her second term with the city's finances in the black. (Unfortunately, it seems a bookkeeping error left the city with a relatively small budget shortfall of about $10 million at the end of 2009.)

Franklin also understands that legacies aren't set in stone the moment a politician leaves office. They evolve over time, long after the week's headlines and current emotions have faded from memory. Right now, she's at low ebb. Consider that Franklin never formally endorsed mayoral candidate Kasim Reed as her successor because campaign polling showed her favorability rating was so low that her thumbs-up could have cost him votes. But she's willing to wait out the naysayers – because she doesn't have a choice.

One reason, perhaps, that Franklin's stock declined is that, as with most politicians, she was never quite the person many people believed her to be. The smiling, upbeat bundle of energy that Franklin embodied early in her first term was always a more complicated personality.

In contrast to the smooth-talking, shifty Bill Campbell, Franklin came across as more accessible and down-to-earth. That part was genuine. But Franklin was trained as an executive, and like most top executives, she possesses a confidence in her own decisions – as well as a stubbornness that didn't reveal itself when things were going her way.

Arguably, one of Franklin's failings as a politician was that she never cultivated a legislator's instinct for building consensus. She didn't relish the horse-trading and lobbying that often goes with getting legislation passed by City Council, and if she didn't respect a councilmember's opinion, she effectively ignored it. That approach worked well enough early on, when Franklin was riding a wave of popularity and her agenda – cutting spending, fixing the sewers – seemed to carry a public mandate. But it backfired later when her star had dimmed, such as with her unsuccessful mid-2008 effort to persuade Council to pass a small tax increase to stave off employee furloughs.

And while her early press was glowing, Franklin by all accounts never enjoyed dealing with reporters. Even from the start, insiders say, Franklin would bristle privately over articles linking her to her ex-husband, David Franklin, a prominent political operative and airport contractor. In 2007, when CL and the AJC reported on her daughter's legal troubles – the daughter's ex-husband, Tremayne Graham, is now serving a life sentence for drug trafficking and other offenses – Franklin apparently wrote the local media off altogether.

By then, Franklin was already beleaguered by her administration's poor handling of the murder of 92-year-old Vine City resident Kathryn Johnston by corrupt narcotics officers in November 2006.

Following the highly publicized – and deeply troubling – Johnston killing, Franklin didn't fire Pennington. Nor did she toss out Atlanta finance director Janice Davis in early 2008, after it was revealed that the city was facing a huge budget shortfall brought on in part by lousy accounting practices. And earlier, when then-Chief Operating Officer Lynnette Young was blamed for botching the smooth implementation of a new city government computer operating system, Young was given a golden parachute as the highly paid executive director of Sustainable Atlanta.

Just as Franklin stubbornly stuck with a furlough program that had caused property crime to soar, she stubbornly stuck by the department heads she'd brought to City Hall. As the media and critics seemed to close in, she retreated from sight, drew up her defenses and rode out the last year or so in a bunker of her making, occasionally taking pot-shots at her tormenters through late-night commenting sessions on local blogs.

Eventually, however, residents' reactions to their confrontational mayor will grow fainter, and we'll be left with the hard evidence of what got fixed and what didn't. Only then can Franklin's legacy be judged for real.