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Successes Aside, Atlanta Mayor's Back Is Firmly Against Wall

A federal inquiry into the awarding of contracts has cast a pall over Bill Campbell's record. He sees it as motivated by racism.

March 22, 2001|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Seven years ago, Bill Campbell was swept into the mayor's office with the highest expectations--a young, intense, well-connected African American politician destined for success on the national stage.

Now, in his final year as mayor of the largest city in the Southeast, he is under investigation for allegedly steering contracts to friends and padding his income with highly paid speeches.

It's been a seesaw seven years for Campbell: the world spotlight on him during the 1996 Summer Olympics and the disastrous Centennial Park bombing; a record-setting building boom and metro area population explosion; a near offer for a Bill Clinton Cabinet post; and these days, talk of a federal indictment.

"It's been quite a journey," Campbell said in a recent interview.

And Atlantans are sharply divided on what to make of it.

While many have criticized his personal affairs and his combative, you're-either-with-me-or-against-me style, others credit him with improving public housing, helping cut the city's murder rate to a 34-year low and advancing affirmative action.

His focus on these issues has kept his popularity high in the poorer neighborhoods of this majority black city of 430,000. It's also allowed him, when he feels cornered, to reach for the race card.

This September he called the FBI agents who are investigating him "forces of evil" motivated by racism. Later, on a black radio station, he said: "The FBI has never been a friend of the African American community, and [it's] not a friend now."

Both the head of the FBI office and the U.S. attorney in Atlanta who are investigating Campbell are black.

Such tactics make Campbell look desperate, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.

"It's simple," Bullock said. "Bill Campbell was first seen as a person with vision. Now at the end of his term he looks like just another politician trying to line his pockets. That's not racist. That's reality."

Campbell, 47, is known for his fierce pride and paper-thin skin. He's always been like that, say those close to him.

At age 7 he integrated the public school system in Raleigh, N.C., walking alone with a fistful of pencils into an all-white elementary school to be the first--and only--black student. For five years he was pinched, punched and pelted with trash. Save the iron resolve of his mother, a college secretary, and his father, the local president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, he might not have survived.

Campbell went to Vanderbilt University, where he graduated with three majors in three years, and then Duke University Law School. Afterward, he moved to Atlanta to be a prosecutor and was soon elected to the City Council, where he served 12 years.

In 1993, at age 40, he won the mayor's race with 73% of the vote.

"At that time he was known as one of the smartest young politicians in the South," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a longtime Atlanta civil rights leader.

Under the Microscope

In the world of black politics, Atlanta City Hall is a closely watched venue. When the chiseled-jawed Campbell took office in early 1994, he had huge shoes to fill--the city's two previous mayors, Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson, were civil rights heroes. But it was a fantastic time to be mayor. Atlanta was booming, driven by a red-hot national economy, low labor costs and an expanding airport soon to become the nation's busiest. And the 1996 Summer Olympics were on the way.

Campbell helped use the Games, and his close ties with the Clinton administration, to land $750 million in federal money to replace the oldest housing projects in the country. After Clinton won reelection, it was widely rumored that Campbell would join his Cabinet. Campbell demurred, saying that mayor was the job of his life.

In his 1997 reelection race, Campbell stumbled en route to a narrow victory. His insistence on affirmative action had alienated elements of the business community, and the campaign took an ugly turn when Campbell and his rival, also an African American, clashed over who was "blacker."

Since then Campbell has been increasingly scrutinized by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the town's only daily paper. Some black leaders say Campbell is being persecuted.

"I don't know why, but it seems that the coverage of black leaders, going all the way back to Martin Luther King Jr., just isn't balanced," said Tyrone Brooks, a 21-year veteran of the Georgia Legislature. "Bill Campbell has done a lot of good. He just doesn't get credit for it."

Editors at the Journal-Constitution say they have been fair.

"But it has been difficult to cover Bill Campbell because he won't cooperate with us," said Mike King, the newspaper's ombudsman.

Almost every day there is a story on the status of the federal investigation. The yearlong probe is centered on Campbell's relationships with city contractors, many of whom benefited handsomely from the mayor's commitment to minority hiring.

'I Like to Gamble'

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