Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin In 2002, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin inherited a budget shortfall, a sewer system near collapse, and voters short on trust. When she cut city jobs, raised taxes, and spent millions fixing the water works, many thought it was career suicide. Until she won re-election by a landslide.
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Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin

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Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

All this month we're celebrating women in leadership with our series Leading Ladies. Today we're going to take you South to the ATL, that's Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin usually wears a giant flower in her lapel, but she has a hard-as-nails reputation.

Elected in 2002, she inherited a broken budget, city hall corruption and a sewer system on the brink of collapse. So she did what analysts normally call political suicide - she cut city jobs, raised taxes and spent millions repairing the waterworks. But Atlantans loved her for her no-nonsense leadership.

Mind you, this is the woman who created a pothole hotline, 404-POTHOLE, to keep it simple. Locals raved about city service and Franklin won reelection in 2005 by a landslide. The same year, Time magazine named her one of America's five best big city mayors. She's the first female mayor the city has ever had; she's also the first ever African-American woman to run a major Southern city.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke with Mayor Shirley Franklin, who credits her time in college with pushing her into politics.

Mayor SHIRLEY FRANKLIN (Atlanta, Georgia): I spent most of my early years at Howard University and in the University of Pennsylvania during the 1960s. And the political climate in this country was very much charged and very much influenced by young people. And though I was a observer, not a full participant, I was taken by how much young people - the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the study movement were able to change public policy. And that stuck with me even from my twenties well into my fifties when I finally ran for office.

MICHEL MARTIN: Before you went to Howard, you also went to an all-girls high school. Do you think the environment there played some role in allowing you to have a confidence to step forward and seek public life?

Mayor FRANKLIN: Well, I do think that for me going to an all-girls high school, Philadelphia High School for Girls, which is a public school in Philadelphia, made a big difference because women, young women starting at the age of 13, had a chance to participate for every level of leadership within the school. And when I went to high school, all of the faculty and the administrators were women, many of them accomplished in their fields. So there's no question in my mind that that helped to form my confidence that I have later on in life.

I reflect on those experiences even today. I say that when I graduated from high school I thought women would and could and should rule the world. And I wasn't quite sure that we needed partners in that. As I've aged, I believe that we need partners.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about something that Debbie Walsh said. You know, Debbie Walsh is the director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers, and we spoke to her earlier in a series. She says that family obligations is still one of the main reasons talented women like yourself who have the potential to get into the game a little later in life or perhaps stay out of politics altogether. Now I know you have three children and I know that it's a little of a personal question, but I'd like to know was there a time earlier in your life before you got into politics when you said to yourself, you know, I really would like to be doing this, I just don't have the time.

Mayor FRANKLIN: No, there is no question that I waited until my children were college age, two of my children had graduated from college. And I felt that my first obligation was to my family, especially to my children. And then even when I ran in my mid-fifties when I was running for mayor, I felt very strongly that it was important that my family, my mother, my father, their respected spouses, as well as my children, were not only emotionally stable themselves but would be able to live their lives without being too concerned about what their mother was doing.

So there's no question in my mind that that was a heavy influence on me. As a matter of fact, taking a stock of how my children were doing and how they would relate to my running for office was the first hurdle I had to overcome before I ran.

MARTIN: When men say that they're stepping out of politics or they're stepping away from public life and they cite their families as a reason, people tend to guffaw. They think, okay, what's the real reason. I mean, that can't be the reason. Do you think that that is actually more typical for women? That if women say it's really my family, then it really is my family? And is that okay that that is the case?

Mayor FRANKLIN: Well, certainly I think it is okay. I mean, as a parent, I'm still - my children are in their late twenties and thirties and I still consider them my primary responsibility. I mean, their health and welfare and their ability to navigate life is still uppermost in my mind when I get up in the morning and when I go to bed at night. I don't know how other people feel about that, but I would suspect that there are fair number of men who feel that way as well, maybe not as early in their careers.

But there are men who - and women who travel constantly and who miss too many holidays or too many birthdays or too many first steps or first words spoken, and they just reach a point where they don't want to sacrifice the interpersonal relations with their family. I think we have to find a balance in our life. That's one of the hardest things I do every day - to balance my personal life with my professional life so that I feel as if I'm not sacrificing my professional responsibilities but also not just ignoring my family responsibilities.

MARTIN: People have been asking this question for, you know, however many years since women have been in visible leadership positions: But do you think women bring a different style to leadership, or is the gift that they bring just the fact that they are different, people learn to look for a different style?

Mayor FRANKLIN: Well, I don't think that my style is innate. No, I don't think it's in my genes. I do think it grows out of my experiences, combined with my education. And in most of my life I've felt as if I was underestimated, that people felt I was never the smartest person in the class. I was not particularly outgoing when I was young. So most people assumed that I wasn't a leader.

The bottom line is that I'm a late bloomer. Maybe I had bloomed earlier than even I knew, but from my standpoint I'm a late bloomer. And I'm comfortable with my leadership style really being developed past 40 years old. So I was not on a fast track for leadership. It was not until I was given a chance to work with Maynard Jackson in my forties and then later with Andrew Young closer to 50 that people began to see me as a leader, but they still saw me as kind of a second rate leader, someone who could not make things happen but who could put to pieces together for the leader to make them happen, someone from behind the scenes.

I learned a lot just running for office, both about myself and my style. I mean, I learned to add humor, which I didn't have before. I was always the most serious person in the room. I learned to see my self in the context to the rest of the world while I was running for office.

MARTIN: We asked former Senator Carol Moseley Braun about the fact that she feels that some women still experience a double standard, that there is a double standard for women in leadership. And she said she looks forward to the day when the press asks men when they last did their nails. Do you think that there is a double standard for women in leadership?

Mayor FRANKLIN: Absolutely, absolutely, I mean, the coverage of what women are wearing, the demands that women place on women on how you are dressed and how you present yourself.

MARTIN: How about you, have you experienced that?

Mayor FRANKLIN: Absolutely. I mean, Maynard Jackson, who was one of my most important mentors, called me during a campaign and said, you know, advised me that I needed to change the way I was dressed during the campaign because women did not see me as representative. And the women that he was talking to did not see me as representative of the kind of person that they would want to be in leadership.

MARTIN: So what did you do?

Mayor FRANKLIN: I changed the way I dressed.

MARTIN: What did you wear?

Mayor FRANKLIN: I started being more consistent in what I was wearing, more conservative in some ways. I basically made a decision that it was more important to get elected and to provide leadership than it was to express my creativity through my, you know, dress or suit. And so I started wearing more traditional tailored attire. Now, I wear a flower now, which is something that is a big deal in Atlanta.

And one of the reasons I wear the flower is because it immediately signals to some people in the - some of my constituents I may not be quite as tough as nails as other people think I am. So it's softens my image. And then I love flowers. I mean, the combination of loving flowers and softening my image is something that I did really to make people feel more comfortable with some of the tough issues that we've tackled.

MARTIN: Is there any way in which being a woman is an advantage in public life?

Mayor FRANKLIN: Well, I think it is. And I think it's an advantage, I mean, I think I've used my experience as a woman to win advantage. I think I have a broader sense of the social dynamics, whether it's in politics or in a business field. I mean who is speaking, how they're speaking, what the body language is. I mean, it's almost as if I studied the social dynamics and the personal interactions as much as I listened to the deal points.

MARTIN: You know, this year is, as of course you know, we've seen Nancy Pelosi become speaker of the House, Senator Hilary Clinton has begun what I'm sure everybody considers a viable bid for the presidency. The new president of Harvard, the nation's oldest university, is a woman. Have we reached a watershed in female leadership? Is there ever a point when we won't notice gender, and would that be a good thing if we didn't notice gender?

Mayor FRANKLIN: Well, let's start with - in my lifetime, I'm 61 years old and if I live to my full life expectancy I think we will still be talking about women first. The best compliment that I can imagine is that we will celebrate the fifth and sixth and seventh mayor of a major Southern city. And my job is to be sure that we've laid the foundation that there will be many women to follow.

Now with respect to whether it matters or not, I mean, do we ever need to forget gender or it won't become an issue, I think that there is some clear advantages to understanding the unique contributions that women can make. If we use our intuition and we use our imagination and creativity, if we use our ability to balance roles, to wear multiple hats, I think that the country and the cities and states will be better off for that. We have a lot to contribute and our experiences are different.

MARTIN: I bet nobody is underestimating you anymore.

Mayor FRANKLIN: Oh, you'd be surprised.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Shirley Franklin is mayor of Atlanta and the first African-American woman ever elected to head a major Southern city. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mayor FRANKLIN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Again, that was Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin speaking with NPR's Michel Martin. We've posted several online-only audio clips at our Web site where you can hear Franklin talk about her first passion, dancing. That's at And just ahead, the U.N. wants more ladies making nice, and Queen Latifah battles AIDS in her latest TV movie.

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