From city council to VP contender: The rise of Keisha Lance Bottoms

The Atlanta mayor was one of the earliest endorsers of Joe Biden.

June 17, 2020, 7:10 AM

Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Atlanta mayor, finds herself here: at the helm of a city wrestling with the fatal shooting of a black man by a police officer during a national crisis over racial injustice and at the center of speculation for the country's second highest office.

Since the weekend, Bottoms and her administration have been dealing with the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer, which has engulfed the city and prompted the immediate resignation of Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, the firing of the officer who shot Brooks and new protests in the city.

"I firmly believe that there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do," Bottoms said, signaling her firm stance about the officer's actions in the first 24 hours after Brooks was killed. "I do not believe this was a justified use of deadly force."

Bottoms has been balancing the dual roles of leading Georgia's largest city, only the second woman to hold the position after Shirley Franklin, and serving as a key surrogate for former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign since June 2019, when she offered an early endorsement of support - from nearly the beginning - for a candidate who is now the presumptive Democratic nominee after a highly competitive primary race that put him, for the most part, on the ropes.

It's the relationship between Biden and Bottoms, which has unfolded publicly and privately since her endorsement last year, that might position her as a top contender among the other women widely considered to be on the list.

While the other VP short-listers were running for president themselves, or standing on the sidelines, she was stumping for him early and often - and it’s a difference-maker.

Bottoms is higher on the list than some might think, sources close to Biden's orbit tell ABC News, adding that driving her rise is in part due to the fact that the team values her early endorsement.

In early June 2019, she attended a fundraiser for the Biden campaign in downtown Atlanta. A few weeks later in late June, she sat alongside Biden's wife, Jill, at the first presidential primary debate in Miami as a special guest of the campaign. Throughout the primary season, as Biden's campaign was cast as faltering and lackluster, she stumped for him in Iowa, Texas, Georgia, and the all-important state of South Carolina, which revived his candidacy.

PHOTO: Former Vice President and 2020 democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reacts as he is introduced by Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during an assembly of Southern black mayors, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta.
Former Vice President and 2020 democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reacts as he is introduced by Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during an assembly of Southern black mayors, Nov. 21, 2019 in Atlanta.
John Amis/AP, FILE

As attention fell elsewhere, even on other Democratic leaders within her own state, such as Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader, allies of Biden were keeping a careful watch on Bottoms.

"There is a young lady right there in Georgia who I think would make a tremendous VP candidate, and that’s the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms," House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., told the Financial Times in March of this year.

Bottoms, 50, grew up in Atlanta, and is the daughter of Sylvia Robinson and Major Lance, an R&B singer who had a number of hits in the 1960s. After serving as a judge and a city council member, she was sworn in as the 60th mayor of Atlanta in 2018 after narrowly prevailing by just over 800 votes against Mary Norwood, a former member of the Atlanta city council, in the 2017 contest.

In 2018, Bottoms joined a campaign event for Abrams, then the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, featuring former President Barack Obama at Morehouse College, a historically black men's college in Atlanta. As one of the early speakers on the stage, she told the crowd that the first time she met Obama, she introduced herself as an Atlanta city council member. "Good for you," he told her. But she said to the audience, when she reintroduces herself to the former president, she will tell him, "Atlanta's got a mayor named Keisha."

That story, an effort to energize the crowd of Democrats, also reflected just how far she had come at the point. "When we exercise our right to vote, not only can Atlanta have a mayor named Keisha, but Georgia can have a governor named Stacey," she said. Although Abrams went on to lose the governor's race in one of the closest contests of 2018 to Republican Brian Kemp, Georgia is now considered in play in 2020.

And Bottoms is still rising.

Her ascent has now landed her on Biden's shortlist for vice president, as the search committee charged with vetting the diverse group of female prospects works towards an August target date to formalize a selection. The committee includes four co-chairs: Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, Delaware Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Cynthia C. Hogan, former White House and Senate counsel to Biden, as well as Bob Bauer, the former White House Counsel under Obama, Dana Remus, general counsel for the campaign, and former Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco.

Last week, Bottoms said that amid such a turbulent moment for her city and the country, she hasn't given much thought to the role, but added she would give "serious consideration" to joining Biden on the ticket if asked.

"I can tell you, COVID had me thinking a lot less about a VP conversation and with what's been happening with the murder of George Floyd and so many others, and what we're seeing on our streets, I've not given it a lot of thought at all," Bottoms said in an interview with Axios on HBO. "But, you know, if the vice president felt that I would be the person to help him win in November, and I would be best suited, it is certainly something I would give serious consideration to."

The mayor's office did not respond to ABC News' requests for comment.

Bottoms has long been a loyal soldier of the campaign, making dozens of trips to early and battleground states and serving on the leadership committee for "Women for Biden." On Thursday, she will host a national "Women for Biden" call alongside Valerie Jarrett, a longtime senior adviser to Obama, to commemorate Juneteenth, which marks the day when the last people who were still enslaved were told they were freed, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery.

But as the country grapples with a confluence of crises - first the coronavirus, and now one that has further exposed the deeply-rooted racial disparities in America - she is stepping into a more public role for the campaign, after being tapped, alongside Congresswoman Val Demings, D-Fla., to be a top surrogate amid the unrest.

The decision was made in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, some 1,100 miles north of Atlanta, when Bottoms' marked her introduction into the national spotlight with an emotional plea in the aftermath of that fatal episode.

"I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old. And when I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt. And yesterday when I heard there were rumors about violent protests in Atlanta, I did what a mother would do, I called my son and I said, 'Where are you?' I said, 'I cannot protect you and black boys shouldn't be out today,'" she said at a press conference on May 29, as protests raging in the city, fueled by outrage and frustration over the exasperated racial inequities, slipped into violence and destruction.

"What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta," she said. "This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos."

During a virtual roundtable with four mayors, including Garcetti, earlier this month, Biden lauded Bottoms for her leadership and clarity during such fraught times, saying that she has "been incredible." And it isn't just Biden taking notice, Democrats and Republicans praised Bottoms' response, too, with Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, saying in a press release, Bottoms "rose to the occasion."

Back at the first presidential debate, which was most memorable for the clash between Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., another woman under consideration to be Biden's running mate, and the former vice president, Bottoms' appearance as a special guest of the campaign was followed by her endorsement the next day.

PHOTO: Protesters demonstrate outside a Wendy's restaurant in Atlanta, Saturday, June 13, 2020, where Rayshard Brooks, a black man, was shot and killed by Atlanta police Friday evening following a struggle in the drive-thru line.
Protesters demonstrate outside a Wendy's restaurant in Atlanta, Saturday, June 13, 2020, where Rayshard Brooks, a black man, was shot and killed by Atlanta police Friday evening following a struggle in the drive-thru line.
Hyosub Shi/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Largely flying under the radar, her backing provided Biden with critical support from a prominent, black, female force from the South, at a time when Harris' sharp attacks wounded his campaign.

"For me, it was most important that we have a president who doesn’t have to walk in the door and figure out where the light switch is, that we have somebody who can lead on Day One," Bottoms told the Associated Press in an interview before her endorsement announcement - a quote that is displayed prominently on Biden's endorsement page of his campaign website.

Her sentiment is one that is mirrored in Biden's own public discussions about his search for a running mate. He has long said that the "first and most important attribute" he is looking for is readiness to step into the role of president if anything were to happen to him. He also often adds that Obama urged him to look for a partner who is "simpatico" and "agrees strategically" with him.

Whether that is Bottoms remains to be seen, with a little over a month until Biden's imposed date of Aug. 1 for when he said he would like to have pick by.

Still, even as Bottoms' stock has risen in recent weeks, in part due to her candid response to the violence spilling out in the streets of her city and her leadership during the crises, she has taken a far more taciturn approach about being vetted by Biden's team for the number two slot.

"I think those are appropriate questions for the Biden campaign," she said in early June, when asked during an interview with MSNBC if the campaign reached out to her about the vetting process.

"I endorsed Joe Biden back in June of last year, so I'm in constant contact with the Biden campaign, because I have been a part of the team for almost a year now. And so it's not unusual for me to speak with someone from the team very regularly," she later said, when pressed a second time on if she's spoken with the campaign recently.

In the meantime, Bottoms is focusing on her hometown and the city she now runs.

On Monday, she announced a series of administrative orders directly aimed at significantly reforming the use of force policy in Atlanta after the shooting of Brooks.

"It didn’t have to end that way. It pissed me off, it makes me sad and I’m frustrated. Nothing I am gonna do is going to change what happened on Friday," she said of the shooting that thrust her once again into the spotlight.

ABC News' Molly Nagle, John Verhovek and Chris Donato contributed reporting.