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Scandal Stirs Issues of Race in Atlanta

After a seven-year probe of City Hall, ex-Mayor Bill Campbell faces trial. But alleged prejudice, not corruption, has been the city's focus.

January 23, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — A janitor's son, Bill Campbell worked hard to build a legacy.

He was the first black child to integrate public schools in Raleigh, N.C. He went to Vanderbilt, then Duke, and eventually became mayor of Atlanta, steering the young Southern city through its 1996 Olympic heyday.

But today, the 52-year old former mayor will defend himself against federal prosecutors who accuse him of running City Hall as a criminal enterprise during his time in office.

He is charged with accepting more than $160,000 in payoffs and $137,000 in illegal campaign contributions. The 48-page indictment accuses him of seven counts of racketeering, fraud and bribery, including allowing a city contractor to pay for a trip to Paris and accepting $50,000 from a strip club operator who wanted a liquor license.

The trial follows a seven-year federal probe into alleged corruption at Atlanta's City Hall. Twelve city officials and city contractors have pleaded guilty or been convicted on corruption-related charges.

Yet race -- rather than corruption -- has preoccupied the city before the trial.

Since the beginning of the investigation, Campbell, who maintains his innocence, has vigorously attacked federal prosecutors, charging that their investigation is racially motivated. "The FBI has never been a friend of the African American community," he said six years ago while in office, "and they're not a friend now."

Campbell's supporters say that he has been unfairly singled out as a black man. His critics respond that he is the only mayor to be charged with corruption in a city that has elected African American leaders since 1973.

"It is a tale of two cities," said Democratic state Rep. Bob Holmes, who is writing a book on Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's first black mayor. "White people think he was an awful, corrupt mayor. African Americans see him as a champion of the poor."

Yet some Atlantans resist such neat categorization. One of Campbell's harshest critics is Cynthia Tucker, the editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Tucker, who is black, wrote recently that Campbell's attempt to portray himself as the victim of racist prosecutors "is almost as dated as wide ties and leisure suits."

During jury selection last week, U.S. District Judge Richard Story, who is white, told legal teams that their wrangling over the racial composition of the jury "broke my heart." Defense lawyers sought to strike 10 whites from the jury pool, and prosecutors attempted to remove five blacks and one white.

"I'm not asking for political correctness or anything else, but I want a trial based on law and evidence and that is fair and doesn't judge a man by the color of his skin," Story said. "I don't think this is about race, but I worry about the perception."

The case will be heard by a jury of seven blacks and five whites.

For many, the Campbell trial serves as a reminder that the city has moved on since Mayor Shirley Franklin took office in 2002. Franklin, who is black, is praised for her conciliatory, hands-on style. This month, she began her second term after receiving about 90% of the electoral vote.

"It's almost as if Bill Campbell's name has been erased from the history books," said Frank Ski, the morning host of V103-FM, an R&B and hip-hop radio station in Atlanta. He said Atlantans mentioned African American former mayors Jackson and Andrew Young far more than they mentioned Campbell.

"They portray him as a Don Corleone, the godfather of Atlanta," Rep. Holmes said. "Yet the economic impact during his time was greater than Maynard and Young combined."

Campbell was mayor from 1994 to 2002, a prosperous era during which the city enjoyed its first population growth in three decades. Campbell hosted the Olympics and two Super Bowls, rehabilitated public housing, reduced crime and expanded the city's airport.

Yet he also left the city with an $80-million budget deficit and a crumbling sewer system, which cost more than $3 billion to repair.

Campbell, a lawyer who became a city councilman at 28 and went on to succeed Jackson as mayor in 1994, became more defensive as criticism mounted.

According to Debi Starnes, a former Atlanta city councilwoman and neighbor of Campbell's, he was particularly sensitive to the scrutiny he received in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"The warrior side of his personality took over, at the expense of his charming side," she said. "He armored himself. He trusted fewer and fewer people."

Michael L. Lomax, who ran for mayor against Campbell in 1993 and is now president of the United Negro College Fund, said that although Campbell "lived an exemplary life of assimilation" -- he lived in a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood and sent his children to an elite private school -- the former mayor became increasingly outspoken in his black advocacy.

In that sense, Lomax said, Campbell was an anomaly in Atlanta -- an aspirational place that prides itself on being the city too busy to hate.

James C. Cobb, a University of Georgia history professor and author of "Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity," said he believed Campbell's legacy was tarnished, whether he was found guilty or not.

"He played the race card," Cobb said. "And what strikes me is the huge number of African Americans in Atlanta who don't buy that. That was never Atlanta's style."

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