Not long after Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin took over in 2002, she was being hailed as one of America’s best leaders by national magazines.
The self-proclaimed reformer had quickly tackled Atlanta’s crumbling infrastructure and enjoyed wide popularity in a city scarred by a scandal surrounding her predecessor. When the city’s first female chief executive cruised to re-election in 2005 with 91 percent of the vote, her prospects seemed limitless.
But as Franklin enters her final months in office, her luster has faded. In her second term the city has plunged into a budget crisis and her family’s legal woes have been thrust into the spotlight.
Franklin was roundly booed last summer when she proposed shutting down the city’s oldest fire station to save money. She’s feuded with a rebellious city council. And she leaves office pushing for an unpopular property tax hike.
It’s not easy for any big-city mayor during a recession. Still, for Franklin the fall from grace has been particularly steep. The Democrat is no longer routinely mentioned as a candidate for statewide office.
With roughly five months left until a successor is chosen, Franklin, 64, said she’s not spending much time second-guessing the tough decisions she’s had to make or fretting about her legacy.
“I find being depressed and regretful are time-consuming and unhappy and contentious,” she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
“As a working, single mother for most of my life I’ve just decided there are some things that don’t have a place in my everyday life and one of them is crying over spilled milk.”
Franklin had never run for office when she jumped into a rough-and-tumble mayoral contest after working under two of the best known occupants of City Hall. She was commissioner of cultural affairs under Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor, and chief administrative officer under Mayor Andrew Young, also a civil rights leader and former United Nations ambassador.
She was also the top-ranking female executive on the committee that put on the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The petite pol stood out on the campaign trail by dressing up dour business suits with large flower pins that quickly became her signature. Once in office, her down-to-earth candor and pledges of transparency served her well after allegations of corruption dogged the two terms of her predecessor Bill Campbell. He was convicted of tax evasion after leaving office.
Franklin inherited a massive budget deficit and was able to win a property tax hike of nearly 50 percent to erase it.
After a federal judge demanded improvements to Atlanta’s aging sewer system, Franklin was able push through a $4 billion overhaul that relied on steep rate increases. Franklin acknowledges the city’s sewers, while decidedly unglamorous, will almost certainly be remembered as her crowning accomplishment.
However, funding snags recently hit remaining sewer improvements and the effort she spearheaded to turn abandoned stretches of railroad right of ways into parks and housing and commercial developments.
The city is again experiencing debilitating budget woes, which some say could have been partly avoided with stronger fiscal stewardship and earlier attention to the city’s Byzantine accounting methods.
“She’s mismanaged this city terribly,” said John Sherman, president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Association. “There’s been a horrible degree of hype and PR resulting in her pictures on the covers of national magazines. There’s much too much hype and not enough results.”
Franklin’s family woes have also made headlines.
Her daughter, Kai, pleaded guilty in 2008 to illegally structuring a financial transaction for her ex-husband, who is serving a life sentence on drug charges. That same year the state shut down three stores at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which had been owned by the mayor’s former husband for failure to pay $176,000 in taxes and penalties. The two had divorced in 1986.
Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell counters criticism of Franklin’s job performance, saying that if she’s guilty of anything, it is of trying to tackle too much at once. Other accomplishments of Franklin’s include a successful 11th hour campaign to keep Martin Luther King’s papers in the civil rights leaders hometown of Atlanta, cobbling together $32 million in donations from the public and private sector. She also pushed successfully for a civil rights museum in Atlanta.
“She bit off much more than I would have had I been in office,” Massell said. “She has shown boldness throughout both terms.”
Franklin did allow that she will leave her successor “plenty to do,” but she’s unapologetic.
“I don’t feel badly about that. I feel that I’ve done my part,” she said.