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For two years after she was elected mayor of Atlanta in 2001, Shirley Franklin talked sewers every chance she got. Few were convinced that the city's pipes were crumbling or that the city was bleeding $20,000 a day in fines. And few wanted to raise rates on water to fix the problem. At high school graduations, Franklin talked about clean water. At the supermarket, she talked about pipes to whoever was next to her in line.
"I was a one-person chant, a drumbeat for infrastructure," says Franklin, 60, who dubbed herself the "Sewer Mayor." Her persistence paid off when voters passed a $3.2 billion overhaul of the aging water and sewerage system.
Franklin, a Democrat, knows sewers aren't sexy, but that's exactly the kind of policy problem she likes to focus on. Scan her first-term record, and it might look different from a typical politician's: She has raised the sales tax by 1 percentage point, eliminated more than 1,000 city jobs, and spent her time talking potholes and sewers.
"If you look in a book on how to get re-elected, it's kind of like the not-to-do list," says the 5-foot-1, blond-haired Franklin. Yet her approval ratings exceed 75 percent, and her few challengers aren't laughing about her re-election bid this year to continue as the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of a major southern U.S. city.
That's largely because Franklin has restored trust in government by rooting out the corruption that had infected America's southern darling following the 1996 Olympic Games. The previous administration had racked up an $82 million budget deficit, which Franklin learned of only after taking office.
In her first term, she has shown Atlanta no-nonsense, back-to-basics policymaking based largely on broad public-private partnerships. As a longtime city administrator, she has focused more on selling policies and shoring up the basic systems of government--instituting walking beats for Atlanta's police, for example--than on winning political points, though she is quick to say she doesn't sit on the political sidelines. "I like politics, now don't [get me wrong]," she says. "But I don't believe in playing politics with government policy. We ought to give the people our best thinking based on the research data and best practices."
Experience. Supporters credit her success partly to her long career as a city administrator under Mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, as well as her six years working on the Atlanta Olympics. That experience has shortened her learning curve, of course. But she had also not had to win votes or score political points in the past, since she had never run for elective office. That, no doubt, has guided her approach to the job. "I'm kind of an unintentional politician," says Franklin. "I've always been interested in the policy and not in the political strategy."
As a sociology major in the 1960s at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Franklin worked on a mayoral campaign and was active in the civil rights struggle. She attended the 1963 March on Washington with her mother. Franklin says the social movements of the 1960s, and people like Coretta Scott King, still inspire her to have the energy and courage to push for reform. "I try to emulate that in my life, bringing the sheer will to get something done," she says. She went on to graduate school and worked at the U.S. Department of Labor before teaching political science at Talladega College in Alabama.
Explore the rebirth of New Orleans.