July 17, 2020

Keisha Lance Bottoms

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who tested positive for COVID-19, discusses Georgia’s surge in cases and Atlanta’s recent spike in gun violence. She also addresses the speculation that she is a possible Biden VP pick, saying she’s “absolutely” qualified.

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How do a series of crises make a first-term mayor a top vice presidential contender?
This week on ‘Firing Line.’

Stay home.
Listen to the scientists.

With Atlanta hit hard by COVID-19, the city’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, responded.

Our state opened up too soon and we are paying the price for it.

After the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, some destructive, she said this.

If you care about this city, then go home.

Then came the death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta at the hands of a white police officer.

It didn’t have to end that way.

And over July 4th, a devastating surge in gun violence.

It’s got to stop.
It has to stop.

Mayor Bottoms’ response to crisis is fueling speculation that Joe Biden may pick her as his running mate.
She also just announced that she has COVID-19.
What does Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms say now?

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Welcome to ‘Firing Line,’ Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Thank you for having me.

You are the 60th mayor of the city of Atlanta, and your national profile has risen as you have faced more crises in the past several months than many politicians face in an entire lifetime.
From the pandemic to these fatal shootings, both at the hands of police and civilians in your city, to the protests that rocked your city in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
You are also considered to be a top V.P. contender for a Biden ticket.
And so we have a lot to talk about.
But first, I want to talk to you about what happened more than a week ago when you tweeted this out to the world… How are you feeling now, Mayor?

You know, I feel good.
When I look at what’s happening across the country and there’s so much death and sickness, I count myself very fortunate.
My husband and I don’t have underlying health conditions, thankfully.
So he is sleeping more than I’ve seen an adult sleep, and my child is asymptomatic.
I’m just a little fatigued, but I can’t tell if that’s COVID or if that’s just this very stressful job that I have.
So we consider ourselves fortunate.
I think the unfortunate part of this is that the story of our family is a story of what’s happening across America.
We were tested on June 29th, just routine testing.
I was getting tested.
Decided to get my family tested at that time.
That was on a Monday.
By the end of the weekend, I just noticed that my husband was sleeping more than usual.
We still didn’t have those results back.
I was able to get tested again through Emory University, again, just decided to have the entire family tested.
Three of us tested positive at that time.
On Monday the 29th, had we gotten those results back in a timely fashion, we would have known that we had an asymptomatic child in our house.
It’s disappointing because we are encouraging people to get tested, but we can’t go out and sell to the public that the testing is the end-all, be-all and it’s readily available.
Go and get it done and then not be able to deliver on that.
And I think that’s where we are failing nationally and certainly where the state of Georgia is failing us here.

So how has your experience of testing positive changed your understanding of this disease?

It really highlights a lot of things that I already knew.
I always felt as if this temperature checking was a false sense of security.
I would have made it through a temperature check.
And my husband likely would have as well.
The other part of that is the testing is only as good as it is at that point in time.
On Monday the 29th, when I got those results back eight days later, I was negative.
And my husband was negative.
The following Monday, we tested positive.
And so for us to make real progress with this COVID testing, you’re going to have to be able to get people tested, get their results back to them quickly, and you’re going to have to be able to offer it to them frequently because certainly even within a week’s time, you can be exposed and become positive and asymptomatic.

So you took a little bit of heat from your local press corps for conducting a press conference while you were waiting for that COVID test that you just described.
As you look back on that experience, is there anything you’d do differently this time or knowing what you know now?

And I had a conversation with a local newspaper about that.
I think they misunderstood the series of events.
But there was nothing to make me think that I needed to quarantine at that time.
One, I would never intentionally and recklessly put anyone in harm’s way.
It’s the reason that I always wear a mask in public, frequently wash my hands.
And even with that press conference, I had on a mask up until I was standing at the microphone alone.
But again, I think it really speaks to how easily and quietly this virus can be spread.
I think we all need to be very careful, especially when we are out in public, so that we don’t inadvertently put people in harm’s way.

And how about everyone you came into contact with in that intervening time?
Have they all been tested?

Well, I did my own version of contact tracing.
I’ve called everyone who I’ve come in contact with.
Thankfully, no one on my senior team who I met with during the week has tested positive.
And my mother and my three other kids have not tested positive.
So thankfully, thus far, nobody seems to have been exposed from me.
And again, I think it’s because of wearing my mask.
But I’ll tell you, just the sense of comfort we all tend to get, even before I was retested, I was in a car with my mother, and thankfully, my mother kept her mask on.
But while we were driving around, I took my mask off and thankfully, she tested negative.
But we can’t get comfortable with this virus.

Well, we’re we’re glad to hear that she’s okay and she didn’t get it.
You got COVID and your state is experiencing a spike, a surge in COVID cases.
Newly reported cases in Georgia have increased since the middle of June, hitting a record last week of more than 4,000 new cases in a single day.
That was July 10th.
Hospitalizations have been increasing in your city and the death toll surpassed 3,000 this week.
What do you attribute the surge to, Mayor Bottoms?

Reckless reopening.
It’s plain and simple.
We opened without any regard to science, without any regard to data and metrics.
And when Georgia reopened, cellphone data shows that other people flock to our state.
And so it’s not a secret.
I was looking at the numbers today, and it just shows that the governor did not follow the data and the science, because if he had, we’d be on a trajectory like other states like New York, perhaps, that got on the other side of this and was able to flatten the curve.
But we did everything wrong that possibly could be done in the state of Georgia.

Well, the state of Georgia reopened, as you well know, without following even the White House corona task force guidelines.
I mean, you have said that your family is personally paying the price for this reckless reopening.
Do you lay the blame at the feet of the governor?

I certainly do.
And I think every single person who has tested positive in this state can lay the blame at his feet because we haven’t been thoughtful about it and we are running out of hospital beds in our ICUs.
Many hospitals are already at capacity.
Our black and brown communities, our senior communities are being especially hard hit.
And the story continues.
And for what?
That’s the question I continue to ask myself.
Was this about reopening the economy?
Because if it was, we failed at that because now we’re having to go back and encourage people to stay at home because we are in the middle of another surge that didn’t have to happen in our state.

So you’re doing what you can as mayor.
You know, you have announced plans to mandate face masks in public.
You’ve also announced that you are going to revert back in Atlanta to phase one, which is essentially a stay-at-home order.
Here’s what Governor Brian Kemp had to say about your new actions… What’s he talking about?

I have no idea what he’s talking about.
But what I do know is that when I talk with healthcare professionals, when I talk with people who are working in and running our hospitals and people who are national experts on infectious disease, they are telling me that wearing masks in public is a way to slow the spread.
I didn’t make that up.
I got that from the scientists and the public health experts.
I don’t know what the governor is basing his decision making on other than talking points and recommendations from Donald Trump.

Just a few months ago, you had said that you and Governor Kemp had a good working relationship, but it certainly seems like that has changed.

Well, we continue to work together on those things that we can work together on.
But as it relates to COVID, I will, every single day, do what I think is best for the people of Atlanta.
So I take no joy in being at odds with the governor on this, but we’re going in the wrong direction.

So how detrimental to progress for the pandemic is having a different set of messages than the governor of your state?

It slows the progress in this state and it slows the progress in our country because we don’t have very clear guidelines.
Some of us are making decisions based on science and data and recommendations from national health experts, and others are making decisions based on nothing more than their willingness to put people at risk so that we can reopen our economy.
I support having a robust economy.
We are hurting in Atlanta.
We have a large tourist industry in Atlanta.
It’s suffering.
People are out of work.
We are hurting in this city economically, but also people are dying.

How often do you guys talk?
How often do you and the governor speak?

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve spoken with the governor.
But that’s not unusual.

A couple of weeks?

I know that our chiefs of staff have communicated.
But I don’t talk to the governor weekly, and I don’t have an expectation to speak with him weekly.
But unfortunately, there has been a complete breakdown as it relates to COVID and our communications at this point.
And we are where we are.
But again, there’s a finite of energy that I have as mayor, and I don’t choose to use that energy taking swipes at the governor.
What I choose to do, use that energy is to put it towards making sound decisions on behalf of the people of Atlanta.
And that’s what I’ll continue to do.

I want to move on to schools because you brought up schools.
You have this hysterical tweet where you said… [ Chuckles ] Look, it makes us all chuckle.
But Atlanta is in the news as one of the cities that is likely not to go back to school, in addition to Los Angeles and San Diego and to start virtually.
So how long do you expect Atlanta schools to work virtually?

The superintendent has pushed back that opening until later in August, which is still pretty early compared to a lot of other school systems and is taking a nine-week approach.
First nine weeks — virtual learning only.
I think that’s a smart approach.
It gives an opportunity for the superintendent and school board to reassess after the nine-week period.
But just to tell you how difficult this is on so many people, someone was sharing with me that when a friend received that news that she burst into tears because she’s a single mom working from home, and just the added stress and thought of going back into the fall with kids at home made her cry.
It’s not where any of us want to be.
And I found myself yesterday just so disgusted that we are here.
We had all of spring.
We had all of this summer to get it right, at the very least for our children to be able to go back to school in the fall.
And here we are not ready and not prepared to safely send them back in the classrooms.

Mayor, how do you also think about the fact that the American Association of Pediatricians has not only talked about sort of the mental health of children, but also the widening racial and economic gaps that happen because kids aren’t in school.
They say… As a mayor, how are you thinking about that dynamic?

It’s heartbreaking.
You have children in our communities who don’t have access to broadband.
They don’t have access to tablets.
So we are attempting to make sure that all of our kids have what they need.
But it is certainly a challenge.
What’s most heartbreaking is that our reports of child abuse are down.
And the reason they are down is because our children aren’t physically presenting themselves in school where quite often teachers are able to assess what’s happening with our kids.
So it is — it’s heartbreaking on a number of levels.
And it’s disappointing that the United States of America is failing its people as it relates to COVID-19.

I want to ask you about another tragic set of circumstances that has roiled your city, and that’s the increase in shootings in Atlanta.
31 people were shot during July 4th weekend alone.
The 20 percent increase from over the same time last year.
And among those killed, as you know very well, was an 8-year-old girl, Secoriea Turner, who was in the car with her mother very near the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was shot.
You have said that the increase in gun violence in your city is ‘a perfect storm of distress in America.’
Help us break down.
What are the components of that distress?
What is — Why is this happening in your city right now?

There are so many factors.
People are distressed about COVID-19.
They are losing loved ones and watching people die.
They are losing their jobs.
They are losing hope.
And violence is often a byproduct of that.
There are systemic issues that lead people to act out in the way in which they do.
And including we’ve talked a lot about during COVID lack of quality access to healthcare in black and brown communities.
But you add on top of that, almost nonexistent access to mental healthcare and COVID, has highlighted so many things that need to be addressed, these systemic issues, and I believe it’s what Dr. King referred to, this fierce urgency of now.
We don’t have the luxury of waiting to provide resources and access to healthcare and mental health services for our communities.
We have to do it now because our communities are suffering and innocent people like Secoriea Turner are on the other side of what’s boiling over in our streets.

I want to play for you a clip of what you said at that press conference on July 5th, the one where you didn’t know that you had COVID.
Here it is.

Well, we are shooting each other up on our streets in this city.
And you shot and killed a baby.
You can’t blame this on a police officer.
You can’t say that this is about criminal justice reform.
This is about some people carrying some weapons who shot up a car with a 8-year-old baby in the car.
For what?
And I wish that I could stand here as mayor and tell you what the answers are and what the solutions are.
But it’s simple.
Just… We got to stop this.
We are doing each other more harm than any police officer on this force.

Of course, you’ve dealt with police brutality in your time as mayor.
Not very long ago.
But in this case, you place the blame on the community.
And you refused to take the bait and to blame the police force, which caused quite a bit of protesting.
Do you stand by that?

You know, there are — I understand that people took exception with that.
And what I would say is this.
Perhaps I should have made this more clear.
There’s a period at the end of each of those sentences.
Issues and challenges with our police department are real, period.
Issues and challenges of racial profiling and injustice as it relates to our interactions with people in authority continue to be a problem, period.
There is also a problem that we have in our communities, and that is violence that’s erupting within our communities, period.
Now, do I believe that — I think that there is a convergence of frustration and anger and all these things that I talked about.
And I think this is the byproduct of it.
But I also know that when this is happening within our own community, we have to take responsibility for what’s happening within our own community in the same way we are demanding that our police officers take responsibility for what’s happening with interactions with our communities.
One does not cancel out the other.
One does not negate the importance of the other.
They are are both problematic.
And I can tell you to the family of Secoriea Turner, it didn’t matter which one it was.
At the end of the day, their daughter was dead.
The irony of it was that she was killed near the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed.
That was the reason that I mentioned them together.
This was supposed to be about protesting and honoring Rayshard Brooks’ life.
And here we are talking about the death of an 8-year-old child who was killed by somebody from the community who was supposed to be in the area honoring his life.

You have instituted several reforms since the shooting of Rayshard Brooks and the murder of George Floyd.
There are reforms to the police, and one of them is a citizen’s review board.
And this idea of a citizen’s review board was actually first debated as a policy solution in 1966 on this program.
Here is an argument that William F. Buckley Jr.
made against it.

There is a general feeling that in other towns in America where civilian review boards have been instituted, it has clearly been the result of political pressure and that nothing very much was accomplished, certainly nothing positively, but almost certainly, at least in some cases, something negative.
For instance, Rochester after the riots there.
One city with an outside review board, the police were so careful to avoid accusations of improper conduct that they were virtually paralyzed.

So a lot has happened with citizen review boards since 1966.
You didn’t institute one.
Forgive me.
You actually expanded the powers at the citizens review board.
And the argument that it can paralyze the police force, how do you tackle that argument or that aspect of the policy?

Well, it’s not just as it relates to our citizens review board.
That’s what we’re facing with our police department in particular, and we’re seeing it across the country.
And I’ve heard that feedback.
I’ve heard everything from our officers feel afraid and paralyzed to they are simply confused about what the policies are.
And this is a tough conversation that is happening with police departments throughout America.
It’s going to take thoughtful consideration and input from all sides.
I had a meeting with some student activists, and I love what one of the students said.
We’ve got to stop having a ‘we versus’ — an ‘us versus them’ conversation.
It has to be a ‘we’ conversation.
So even in the recommendations that we’re going forward with or looking at implementing with reforming our police department, we’re going to get input from our police officers because that’s going to be extremely important.

You have really catapulted to national prominence, by the way you have handled the crises in your city.
And you were on Team Biden long before you caught the eye of the nation.
Why was it so clear to you that he was your candidate as much as a year ago?

I’m so glad that the rest of the nation has seen what I saw and knew back in June of 2019, and I said it very simply.
I know Joe.
We know Joe.
And it always struck me and so many other African-Americans across this country and I think is even more significant with where we are in America.
This is an older white man who was willing to stand beside and behind a younger African-American man.
And many people may not have recognized that significance, but for communities of color, it spoke volumes to who he is and what he values.
And he is the candidate that we need for such a time as this.
He has empathy.
He has compassion.
He’s shown leadership.
He is everything that Donald Trump is not.
And I knew I was right last year, but I’m just glad that the rest of the Democratic Party now agrees with me.

You have reportedly been in conversations with the vetting team at the Biden camp.
Can you confirm that?

No, I’ve referred all questions regarding the vetting to the Biden campaign.

As any savvy pol would.
Listen, if you were to be chosen, do you think that your experience as a mayor qualifies you to serve as a vice presidential candidate?

Absolutely.

What about it makes you prepared to potentially be president?

Well, for me personally, I’ve served in three branches of government.
I’ve served as a judge.
I’ve also served on our city council.
And I’m now mayor of the city that is the anchor of the largest — 10th largest economy in the United States.
And we really are representative of America.
We have all of the challenges before us on a daily basis that faces all of America.
Being a vice president, every vice president is a first-time vice president up until re-election.
And so what I’ve dealt with as mayor, there’s been no handbook for this.
It’s been about leadership, and the same leadership that gives you the ability to navigate challenging issues in a major city in America is the same leadership that you’ve taken to the White House.
You have to deliver for people each and every day.
And I think that’s important for anyone who wants to lead this country.

Mayor Bottoms, thank you very much for your time.
Thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line.’
And we wish you best of luck with the challenges your city continues to face.

Well, it’s an honor to have joined you.
And thank you for having me.

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