If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, was the message Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed delivered to an audience at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies annual anniversary gala dinner in Washington, D.C.

Reed was honored Tuesday with the Joint Center’s 2012 Louis E. Martin Great American Award.

The Louis E. Martin Great American Award, named after the legendary journalist and presidential adviser and founder of the Joint Center, honors an individual who has promoted racial harmony while championing policies that have made a difference in American society. Previous award recipients included the late civil rights activist Dorothy I. Height, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and the Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Reed, a former Georgia legislator who was elected to terms in both the state House and Senate, won a narrow election in 2009 to succeed the popular Shirley Franklin, for whom he worked as campaign manager for her campaigns in 2001 and 2005. After Franklin’s first election, Reed headed up her transition team.

Prior to becoming mayor, Reed served as vice chair of the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus and was a partner at the Holland & Knight LLP law firm.

He has developed a reputation for being a fiscal reformer, overhauling the city’s pension plan for new hires and existing employees and increasing workers’ contributions across the board to the plan.

Reed said when he was in Washington in October for the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, former Atlanta mayor, U.N. ambassador, congressman and King lieutenant Andrew Young said creating change in the civil rights movement wasn’t always easy.

Reed said that Young told a group at the White House after the meeting: “Things don’t always turn out all right. We made mistakes. Things are not always easy, but be fearless, have a plan and if the plan fails trying again and if you keep at it, you might just change the world.”

Reed said although the nation is facing a rough economy and many people are struggling to stay ahead of trouble, staying the course is the best move.

According to Governing the States and Localities, Reed has put the city on its most solid financial footing in a generation, reopened community centers and pools, hired new police officers and won modest pay raises for police and firefighters.

On Tuesday, Reed said he, with the help of his administrative team and city workers, had grown the city’s reserves from $7.4 million when he took office to $100 million.

The Democratic mayor also has won the respect of lawmakers of Democrats and Republicans alike. Reed “genuinely puts what’s in the best interest of the city or the state ahead of politics,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican, said in an interview with Roll Call. “I think that’s really the defining attribute of a statesman.”

In an interview with Governing the States and Localities, Reed said he doesn’t think only of his legacy, but the shape he leaves the city in for his successor.

“I believe a lot of the work I’m doing is really for the next mayor,” he says. “At some point, there’s going to be a mayor in this office when our economy gets back to the 2008 level. And when it does, the mayor will have a government that is leaner, more efficient and built for the future.”

Reed also said he believes that cities are the key to achieving a breakthrough with the struggling economy.

“If you look at the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, less than 10 percent of those dollars went into cities, where 80 percent of GDP occurs,” he said. “We’re going to have to shift national politics, and we’re going to have to shift state politics. Governors have a better lobby than mayors do,” Reed told The Atlantic, a co-sponsor of a recent forum in New York City of big city mayors.

“That’s why they got 90 percent of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, when that money should have gone to cities. Because we deploy it faster, we’re more creative, and we’re more representative of the majority of the United States of America.”

Reed applauded the work of the Joint Center to spread that work across the nation.

“The level of connectivity is going on is something that should be exploited at all times,” Reed said Tuesday night.

“In the coming days and weeks ahead we need to have the passion and we need to stop being so polite” to the arguments of the far right

“Winston Churchill said ‘worry about the men who smile while they are arguing,’” Reed said.

“We can’t miss this moment,” Reed said, “because the generation that’s coming behind us does things that my generation never did,” citing a young associate at a major law firm saying she needed to leave to go to read to some underprivileged kids even if it cost her her job.

“When we don’t stand up for folks, real people get hurt,” Reed said.

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