Mr. Reed Goes to Washington?
Thanks to his parents’ sacrifices, Kasim Reed has opportunities in both law and politics
Published in 2005 Georgia Rising Stars magazine
on September 28, 2005
Updated on June 22, 2010
It was emotional political theater straight out of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Except unlike the anger and frustration of Jefferson Smith, the idealistic pol played by Jimmy Stewart, State Senator M. Kasim Reed’s emotional speech and tears were not scripted. Neither was the subsequent walkout by Reed and fellow Democrats when a contentious voting bill passed a Republican-dominated Senate on a Friday night last March.
Ostensibly designed to prevent voter fraud, the bill, signed into law in April, decreased the number of allowable forms of polling place identification from 17 to six. Now only government-issued photo IDs, such as a state driver’s license, are allowed. For Reed, whose grandmother used to ride a bus to the polls because she didn’t have a driver’s license, it felt like a 21st-century revival of the various Jim Crow laws that prevented many southern African Americans from voting in the first two-thirds of the 20th century.
In his speech, Reed, who says his political career has been built on bipartisan relationships, accused the bill’s supporters of crafting a discriminatory law based on hypothetical, abstract notions. He also said they were “stabbing race relations in the heart.”
“How many law-abiding citizens have to be adversely impacted for you to care?” Reed asked his colleagues, his voice cracking. “What is the number that creates the tipping point for you to care?”
For State Senator Tim Golden, a Democrat from south Georgia, it was an unforgettable night. “Kasim … took the sum of the argument and delivered a very personal, pointed message that nobody missed. He was right on target.”
Months later, in his office at Holland & Knight, where he is a partner specializing in employment law, Reed is less emotional but just as articulate. “I believe [that bill] damaged the fabric of the chamber,” he says. “It imposes a hardship on law-abiding citizens, places an affirmative duty on people who have not violated any law, in order for them to participate in the electoral process. This is not renting a video or buying a six-pack of beer. This is the first right among rights.”
Colleagues in both the legislature and the law fall over themselves to compliment Reed’s oratory skills. Lawrence Ashe, a former colleague and mentor of Reed’s at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, remembers repeatedly calling on Reed to play the role of the plaintiff’s lawyer in mock trials. “The client comes out of it,” says Ashe, “knowing that what they see in court won’t be nearly as tough as what they’ve just been through with Kasim.”
“I’ve watched him grill individuals testifying for our [higher education] committee,” says Sen. Golden, “and his questions are always to the point and effective. [He’s] always straightforward but a gentleman. He’s even better on the floor debating bills.”
Mayor Shirley Franklin foresees unlimited potential for the 36year-old native Atlantan. “Kasim is young enough to build a career that leads to the state attorney general’s office, or the governor’s office, or the U.S. Senate,” says Franklin.
Reed literally turned up on her doorstep. In 1998 he was vying for a seat in Georgia’s House of Representatives, going door to door, when he approached her house. “I was impressed that he wanted to connect directly with the public,” she says. “I mean, I was in a house that sat back off the road and it took some getting to. Years ago everybody campaigned door to door, but I thought, ‘Not anymore.’”
At the time, Franklin, a former city administrator from the days of Mayor Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson, was two years away from announcing her own mayoral intentions. Reed had never heard of her, nor she him. But after he won the House seat she stayed in touch. “The more I got to know him, the more impressed I was,” she says.
Victories kept coming. In 2000 he won re-election, and a year later he successfully managed Franklin’s campaign to become Atlanta’s first woman mayor; then he helped run her transition team. Influenced by Reed, the new mayor secured the pro bono assistance of private firms to help the city eliminate the $82 million budget shortfall Franklin inherited upon taking office.
“Kasim insisted I sit down and talk with [global management consulting firm] Bain & Company. He said, ‘Just because no previous mayor had used this technique was no reason for us not to,’” she remembers.
In 2002 Reed upped the ante a notch; he won a seat in the state Senate and was re-elected in 2004 to his second term. He’s been tapped to run Franklin’s re-election campaign, but beyond that, and despite his obvious successes, he isn’t sure if he wants to remain politically active.
“Early on I decided I was going to place my political aspirations on the front end of my life,” says Reed. “I could compete aggressively and take risks when I was young that I would never take as an older person with responsibility. That grows out of my family, because I saw the sacrifices my father made with us, having four sons and a wife. His fundamental responsibility was to us, period.”
M. Kasim Reed was born in 1969 and raised in predominantly black southwest Atlanta during the infancy of desegregation. His full name is Mohammed Kasim Reed.
“[At the time] my father considered converting to Islam, but he never did,” says Reed, who does not believe his Islamic name will be a detriment to his political career. “My grandfather was a United Methodist minister and he almost collapsed when my dad named me Mohammed. I was born and baptized and still am a member of the United Methodist Church, but the story of my name has become family legend.”
When he was in second or third grade, Reed was asked to write a report and paint a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up. Most of his friends turned in pictures of linebackers and policemen. Reed had no shortage of African-American heroes whose stories were a regular part of the family discussion — Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Andrew Young, John Lewis — not to mention his three older brothers, whom Reed says “were always heroic to me.” But Reed went a different route. He came across a photo of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in an old encyclopedia. “It was the first time I asked my parents what a lawyer was,” remembers Reed. “And there was that picture of Thurgood Marshall in his robe, and he looked so important. I learned that he went to Howard University, so that was the first time I heard of Howard. My parents and I talked about just how important he was in my life, in the lives of all Americans. I remember how much my parents respected Thurgood Marshall, and that made a lasting impression.”
Reed thinks his career path may also have something to do with family history. “My dad wanted to be a lawyer, and I think he put a lot of his own dreams on hold to build a family. He’s a very bright guy. [He was] a leader in his class in college.”
After quitting college to support his family, Junius Reed worked for 20 years in Atlanta’s Mead Packaging plant, and then ventured into the real estate business with developer H.J. Russell; he’s now retired. Reed’s mother, Sylvia, who also quit college to raise her children, was employed in food service management at Atlanta’s airport and now works for the United Negro College Fund. The couple divorced when Reed was still young, but the family remains close.
Their sacrifices allowed their children to prosper. Charles, the oldest, is pursuing a master’s degree in film at Howard. Carlton is a corporate trainer, but Kasim thinks he’s destined to be a minister. Tracy works for the city of Atlanta.
The youngest, meanwhile, wasted no time. He attended Howard University and became the first person to serve on the university’s board of trustees as both an undergraduate and a graduate student. (He still serves on the board as the youngest full trustee in the school’s history.) As soon as he got his undergraduate degree, he ran for state office. “This was before I went to [Howard] law school, when I was supposed to be taking a year off to prepare, study, work and travel. You know, take a breath,” Reed remembers. “I got crushed, and it was the best thing that happened to me. I learned about paying dues. I learned how damaging arrogance can be.” Since then he’s won every election with at least 60 percent of the vote.
Reed credits attorney Lawrence Ashe, who recruited him to Paul Hastings, with steering him toward what often is jokingly called the dark side of employment law — representing the employer. “He was my mentor,” says Reed. “He taught me what a powerful tool this area of law can be.”
Reed now represents Clear Channel Entertainment and American Airlines, among others. He has also become a fixture in entertainment law, especially in Atlanta’s explosive hip-hop and R&B music scene. Relationships, he says, going back to his days at Howard, led to that role. “I went to school with a group of people who were on their way up,” says Reed, such as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, who was “the most confident person I’ve met.” He got to know Mart Pitts, who became an executive with Arista, and Ryan Glover, who has since started a successful clothing line and music publishing company. He represents Shakir Stewart, vice president of A&R at Def Jam Recordings.
“There is something about my relationships in entertainment law that is intensely personal,” Reed says. “And it’s becoming more challenging now because the clients I’m attracting are more substantial and demanding. When I was an associate, the entertainment work was lucrative and there was a time when I could go into a studio and listen to an artist making a record. I don’t get to do that much anymore. I miss it.”
These days Reed spends most of his time generating business and creating value for the firm by building relationships. He keeps his political life separate from the firm — though his elected office, according to executive partner Rob Rhodes, does bring a certain cachet to Holland & Knight. But sometimes law and politics intertwine, as when the issue of tort reform came up in the state legislature last year. Reed, like most Democrats, voted against it. It passed anyway.
“The bill, as it was written, was clearly flawed and bad for people. But I don’t want to give the impression that I have any less of an appreciation of business and the contribution that business makes in this state,” says Reed. “I do think there are misconceptions because of the scandals related to bad business practices, the Enrons and the WorldComs, which have tilted public perception in the direction of demonizing business. The overwhelming majority of businesses are doing their best. One of my favorite quotes is ‘You can’t hate business but love jobs.’”
As for how law and politics intertwine in Reed’s future? “He’s got to decide where to focus his very considerable talent,” says Lawrence Ashe, who now chairs Ashe, Rafuse & Hill. “Depending on what direction he goes in, he could be Georgia’s first African-American governor.”
“I really think that’s a decision that will ultimately have to wait until I’m married,” declares Reed, who is in the middle of what he terms a serious relationship. “Both career paths have sacrifices. But one might be more acceptable once you share your life with someone else.”