Keisha Lance Bottoms exits Atlanta's mayoral race without ruling out political future

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Keisha Lance Bottoms said Friday morning that she would not seek a second term as Atlanta's mayor, citing the tumultuous last four years.

Bottoms alerted staffers and allies of her plans to exit the race on Thursday evening in a call first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. During a news conference at Atlanta’s City Hall on Friday, Bottoms held back tears as she called her term as mayor her “highest honor.”

“In the same way that it was very clear to me almost five years ago that I should run for mayor of Atlanta, it is abundantly clear to me today that it is time to pass the baton on to someone else,” Bottoms said in her remarks to reporters.

The mayor immediately squashed speculation around her decision, including that her exit from the race was driven by a family crisis, administrative scandal or possible move to work for Walgreens, whose CEO, Rosalind Brewer, is a friend of the Bottoms family. Bottoms did not rule out future political ambitions in her news conference nor in a letter she wrote to the City of Atlanta that was posted online late Thursday evening. But she did not provide any specifics.

“While I am not yet certain of what the future holds, I trust that my next season will continue to be one full of passion and purpose,” she wrote.

The state of Georgia has moved rapidly in Democrats' direction in recent years, capped off by President Joe Biden carrying the state in November and now-Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock winning runoff elections in January that won Democrats control of the Senate. But those narrow victories have limited the options for higher office in the state. Warnock is running for a full term next year, and Ossoff won't be on the ballot again until 2026. Stacey Abrams, the former state House minority leader and 2018 gubernatorial candidate, is widely expected to run for governor again in 2022.

“There is no obvious in-state political reason to do this," said one Democrat with experience in Georgia politics, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "What else is there to run for?”

“She could go do something for Biden, no question," the Democrat added. "But does that really put you in a better place? And why do that now? It’s all just very odd. Was it going to not be the easiest reelection in the world? Sure, but it’s not an impossible reelection."

Another Democratic consultant, who also requested anonymity, called Bottoms a "star" and said she could join the Biden administration or be an ambassador.

"But there's no office to run for in Georgia right now," the consultant said.

Bottoms, 51, served as a judge and city council member before winning the mayor’s race by fewer than 800 votes in 2017. While mayor, she oversaw a city marred by multiple crises, including a sweeping citywide cyber attack in her first three months, last summer’s protests following the police killing of Rayshard Brooks and a spike in violent crime across the city.

During the news conference, Bottoms said that she had been considering her exit from the mayor’s race for “a very long time” and that she knew as early as her first year in office that she might not seek a second term, citing these issues among others.

Bottoms also served as a surrogate for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign from its early months and was later floated as a possible vice presidential candidate or cabinet secretary — a position she said she turned down to complete her four years as mayor. Before announcing that she would not run again, Bottoms hosted a fundraiser with Biden that she said raised more than a half million dollars.

“If the race for mayor were held today, I would win this race without a runoff,” Bottoms said, citing internal polling. “Just because you can do it doesn't always necessarily mean that you should do it. I can be mayor again. But there is a reason that there are elections every four years.”

Her departure from the race is sure to open it up to a wide range of prospects, including a handful of city council members who have already toyed with the idea of running or have launched campaigns. City Council President Felicia Moore has announced her intention to run and former mayor Kasim Reed is rumored to be exploring a comeback bid.

In a statement posted to his Twitter, Reed thanked Bottoms for her service and wished her well in future endeavors, but did not address the mayor's race.

Emily Cain, the executive director of EMILY's List, a major Democratic organization that supports women for office, praised Bottoms' tenure as mayor in a statement, calling her a "national example of strong leadership in challenging times." She also signaled that the organization could get involved in Atlanta's upcoming elections and back another candidate for mayor.

"We are excited to see what Mayor Bottoms does next, and the EMILY's List community looks forward to working with the people of Atlanta to ensure that her tenure is followed by more Democratic pro-choice women in leadership positions across the city and at all levels of government," Cain said.

Bottoms said she announced her exit from the race early enough to give a candidate who is “not self-funded” the opportunity to organize. She would not identify anyone in particular who she would like to see succeed her.

Bottoms ended the press conference saying the next mayor will have a number of issues to aim to rectify in Atlanta, including its income gap, crime rate and criminal justice record.

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