Atlanta's Mayor Shirley Franklin steps down today, after serving eight years in office (the legal limit) and refusing at her final press conference to predict her legacy. She understood that her legacy would be defined by others, no matter what she said, but she was also comfortable letting her record speak for itself. And no wonder: it's an extraordinary record.
Shirley Franklin was the first woman to serve as Mayor of Atlanta and the first African-American woman ever to run a major Southern city. She was re-elected in 2005 with more than 90 percent of the vote. That same year she was named by Time magazine as one of America's five best big-city mayors. In 2008, she served as Co-Chair of the Democratic National Convention at which Barack Obama received his historic nomination for President.
As Mayor, she had the benefit of having worked for two of her predecessors -- Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, both legendary leaders in their own right -- but she had to gain the public trust and define her own priorities at a different time, facing new challenges. Like any chief executive in government in these difficult economic times, she has had her share of criticism, but that should not diminish her outstanding achievements.
Having worked closely with her at City Hall when Andrew Young was Mayor, I had no doubt that she would excel, but her record as Mayor is especially impressive. That record has been shaped indelibly by a number of remarkable traits, including, among others, the following:
o A tireless focus on the essential services and infrastructure that underpin economic activity, as exemplified by the rebuilding of the City's sewer system at a cost of $4 billion, after a federal judge ruled that the system violated the federal Clean Water Act;
o The courage to make the tough choices needed to ensure the City's financial well-being, as evidenced by her receipt of the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation for her "willingness to make the difficult and unpopular decisions necessary for good governance;"
o A visionary approach to urban planning, typified by her championing of the BeltLine, a development now underway -- along 22 miles of historic rail segments that encircle Atlanta's urban core -- that will add 22 miles of light rail transit, more than 1200 acres of new greenspace, and Atlanta's largest investment ever in affordable workforce housing, among other benefits;
o A passionate commitment to Atlanta's civil rights leadership and legacy, evidenced by her successful drive to secure for Atlanta the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (after Dr. King's children put them up for sale), and her dedication to building the Center for Civil & Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, where those papers will be displayed.
o A personal commitment to the next generation (even though the Mayor of Atlanta is not responsible for the school system), as evidenced by her decision to "adopt" Atlanta's public school seniors -- inviting them each year to come to her office and meet with her one-on-one to discuss obstacles that they face to their ongoing education.
Shirley Franklin will now join the faculty of Spelman College, where her students will have a great opportunity: the chance to learn from a leader of historic achievement, who will be opinionated, feisty, and challenging, but also engaging and accessible.
Spelman students will benefit greatly from her presence, but I wonder how long the college will be able to keep her. She would be a great catch for the Obama administration. She's a no-nonsense leader, with an extraordinary record of accomplishment, dedicated to competent, honest, productive, and even visionary government.
At a time when President Obama needs federal officials with those credentials, it seems hard to believe that Shirley Franklin will be allowed to stay out of government for long. For now, she will surely be happy for a change of pace and fewer worries than she's had for the last eight years.
She recently told the New York Times, "If you have to worry about your legacy, you don't have one." That's one thing she doesn't need to worry about at all.
The author is Chief Operating Officer of Goodman Media International (www.goodmanmedia.com), the New York City-based public relations firm, and a former Deputy Chief Administrative Officer of the City of Atlanta.