How Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms became part of the Biden VP conversation

Key Points
  • Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Atlanta mayor who sprung into the national spotlight for her handling of both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd, is reportedly on Joe Biden's vice president short list. 
  • She doesn't have federal experience like others under consideration, but her executive performance as Atlanta's mayor has thrust her into the spotlight.
In this screengrab, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks during "Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Effort" airing on April 22, 2020. “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” will provide financial, educational and community support directly to Black communities hit hardest by COVID-19.
BET2020 | Getty Images for BET NETWORKS

As the nation grapples with racial injustice, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is reportedly considering several Black women to be his running mate. 

Among the candidates is Keisha Lance Bottoms, the 50-year-old Atlanta mayor who sprung into the national spotlight for her handling of both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd.

While she doesn't have federal experience like other women said to be under consideration, such as Sen. Kamala Harris or former national security advisor Susan Rice, her executive performance during tumultuous times have put her on the Biden campaign's radar. Harris, Rice and fellow potential nominee Rep. Val Demings are all Black, as well.

"The idea that she's had some experience where she had to manage a bureaucracy and she's had to handle multiple offices would distinguish [Bottoms]," said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. Being a federal lawmaker is "very different than actually being in an elected position of power where the buck stops with you."

"It was the same type of argument that Pete Buttigieg was making: that having held executive office would probably make him better qualified than somebody who had been a senator only," Gillespie said. Buttigieg is the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who ran for president but dropped out just ahead of Super Tuesday.

But Atlanta, far bigger and more complex than South Bend, might demonstrate that Bottoms has even more leadership potential than Buttigieg did, Gillespie said. Atlanta has a population of about 500,000 people, according to U.S. Census records, five times the size of South Bend's population.

Coronavirus and protests

Born in Atlanta, Bottoms was elected mayor in 2017, after serving six years as a city councilmember. Her father, Major Lance, was a prominent R&B singer in the 1960s

As mayor, Bottoms, a mother to four kids, has delivered passionate speeches on Black children experiencing racial profiling. 

More recently, Bottoms earned national recognition for her critical response to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who she said was rushing the reopening process and endangering the state's population while the coronavirus continued to spread. Kemp announced reopening plans for the state as early as April 24, despite increasing numbers of confirmed cases in Atlanta at the time.

"I think that there was perhaps a way for us to be very thoughtful about a phased reopening," Bottoms said in an interview with NPR. "I don't think that that should have begun with hair salons and barbershops and places that people cannot appropriately socially distance or even have readily available access to the appropriate PPE. So I do think that there could have been a more thoughtful approach." 

It was around this time that Rep. Jim Clyburn, the most powerful Black man in Congress, floated the idea that Bottoms could be seen as a compelling VP pick. 

"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," said Clyburn, the House majority whip who endorsed Biden ahead of the crucial primary in Clyburn's home state of South Carolina. 

Bottoms' leadership was also tested during the protests against Floyd's death, where Bottoms made an impassioned speech calling for the end of destructive behavior that sprung out of the demonstrations. 

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

Protests erupted nationwide after video emerged showing a former Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck on Memorial Day for nearly eight minutes. Floyd, a Black man who was handcuffed and face down on the ground, told officers he couldn't breathe. His death was ruled a homicide, and the officer who knelt on Floyd's neck, Derek Chauvin, was charged with murder. 

Demonstrators march during a protest against racial inequality and the death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia, June 15, 2020.
Alex Hicks Jr. | USA TODAY NETWORK | Reuters

In an attempt to model peaceful demonstration, Bottoms herself participated in some of the protests calling for justice for Floyd. 

"In some ways she is trying to be responsive to the cries that might be coming from the progressive wing of the party for policing reform," Gillespie said, adding that Bottoms might also be trying to show conservative voters that police reform isn't necessarily something that "looks disruptive and disorderly." 

Neither the Biden campaign nor Bottoms' office immediately responded to a request for comment from CNBC. 

The Black vote

Bottoms could also help Biden further lock up the black vote for the Democratic ticket, although her lack of name recognition at the national level might be a drawback, experts say.

"I'm certain that the Biden folk understand that at this point African American women are pretty much one of the more significant constituents of the Democratic Party," said William Boone, political science professor at Clark Atlanta University. "But on the other hand, does she have that kind of national appeal? Do other African American women, groups and organizations know her well enough to say, 'Yeah, we pledge to support her.'" 

More than 90% of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. 

Given such strong support for the Democratic nominee and given also the nationwide response to Floyd's death, it makes sense for Biden to seriously consider a Black woman as his running mate, Boone and Gillespie said.

Harris and Demings, meanwhile, come with a reputation defined in part by their experience in law enforcement. 

"Right now, having had prosecutorial or police experience is not viewed as a plus," Gillespie said. Women like Demings and Harris have a challenge to show Biden why they would complement him best. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who served as a prosecutor in Minnesota, said on Thursday that she was withdrawing from consideration for VP because "this is a moment to put a woman of color on that ticket."

"Klobuchar is accused, often by law enforcement, of letting the murderers go, and Harris is accused of [putting] so many Blacks in prison," said Marilyn Davis, associate professor of political science at Spelman College in Atlanta. 

And while Bottoms isn't as well-known as Harris, that could work in her favor, Gillespie said. Bottoms has the opportunity to "define" herself.

"If you have someone who is much more of a known quantity, it's much harder to drive up the favorable and drive down the negative when people's opinions of them have already been formulated," Gillespie said.

Head to head with Mike Pence

But on the other hand, Bottoms' inexperience at the federal level might inhibit her on the debate stage against Vice President Mike Pence. 

Biden's running mate will face Pence on Oct. 7 during the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Pence, serving alongside President Donald Trump, has become a seasoned public speaker in national affairs after delivering numerous addresses on the coronavirus and other issues. 

Bottoms' performances in the debate for mayor's office fluctuated in terms of quality, Boone said. "Some were fairly good, and others were not so good."

"Pence has far more experience at the national level than Mayor Bottoms. So it becomes about how much prepping you have to do to get her up to speed, in terms of answering some of these questions," Boone added. 

But Bottoms, a longtime Biden endorser, has stumped for the presumptive Democratic nominee in Iowa. She pledged support for Biden as early as June last year, when there were about two dozen candidates for the nomination. 

And in the last few months, her efforts to control the protests and respond strategically to the pandemic showed her speaking power could galvanize the people of Atlanta and makes waves nationally. 

She went viral "because she commanded the stage and had presence," Gillespie said.

"Because of the challenges we've faced in the last few months, she's had some opportunity to build a national reputation and has had opportunities to practice that could translate well into her being able to give speeches at conventions, at rallies and to go up against Mike Pence on the debate stage."