News - Inside the machine

Corruption in City Hall may lead us all to ruin

For more than 50 years, there has been an unspoken rule in Atlanta among its politicians and business leaders: Don't make waves on the racial issue. Keep it under wraps. Oh sure, you can talk about it with members of your own race, behind closed doors. Just don't talk about it publicly. We don't want the rest of the world to know anything about our dirty racial laundry. It's bad for business.

From his philanthropic bully pulpit, Coca-Cola magnate Robert Woodruff championed this concept all his life. He believed that the public perception of his company would suffer if race problems in Atlanta were publicized. He laid down the law to prominent whites and blacks alike: Stay away from this subject. It was not to be discussed in polite company, and if anyone asked, everyone should reply that Atlanta is a model for race relations in the South.

That was then. This is now.

For almost 30 years, the city of Atlanta has been governed by elite African-American mayors who have drastically changed how the city operates — and often, not for the better.

In the beginning, there was great concern that having a black mayor would reveal our public boasts of racial harmony as false. Maynard Jackson's historic election in 1973 prompted white flight and sparked new prejudice in the hearts of displaced white leaders who had talked a good game of racial cooperation, but ran from the chance to demonstrate it.

Even so, not only did the city collapse, it grew astonishingly over the next 25 years, closely following the manufactured public image mandated by the city fathers so long ago.

But like a cancer, institutionalized corruption slowly grew inside city government. Today we have federal investigators swarming around Mayor Bill Campbell, trying to determine if his aloof and insular public facade has been erected around a snake's nest of debauched personal behavior and abuse of power.

Since 1974, the citizens of Atlanta have found themselves having no other choice but representatives of an African-American elite for mayor. No one else. Whites need not apply. Hispanics need not apply. Asian-Americans need not apply. In fact, if you ain't black, get the hell out. When it comes to city government, A-town is a black town.

One day this will change. Atlanta desperately needs to wake up and recognize our true diversity, before the worst-case scenario unfolds: a continued demographic shift toward gentrification that favors the election of a conservative white Republican male — one with extreme views on race and business. Think it can't happen? Ask Rudy Giuliani in New York. Or Richard Riordan in Los Angeles. Both ran against entrenched black mayoral regimes in their cities and won handily. Now both are hailed as icons of the right wing, which long has prayed for a political mandate in urban America.

Atlanta, of course, is a different bird altogether. But that doesn't mean that a white conservative couldn't somehow capture the hearts and minds of an evolving population desperate for real change in a city government that has metastasized into a massive candy store for well-connected, inept hacks and political hangers-on.

There are plenty of highly ethical, well-qualified and ethnically diverse men and women who could mount a credible run for mayor, but none seem willing. The non-black business community maintains the 1960s mindset, in which race and the political status quo are kept under wraps. As long as the business climate is favorable, whites and other minorities are expected not to make noise.

But the political machine in City Hall has become bloated, rotten and highly visible. The FBI is leaking details of the Campbell investigation like a sieve, and national press coverage of our city's problems has become more than embarrassing. Another eight years of this foolishness and the business outlook for Atlanta's next generation may be threatened.

When, O Lord, will a mayoral candidate from outside the old-line black political establishment emerge to save us from the corrupt machine that has entrenched itself in City Hall? When will we finally begin electing mayors with integrity from diverse ethnic backgrounds so that we can prove Atlanta truly is the multicultural melting pot its leaders have always claimed it is?

Obviously not in this mayoral election cycle. But I have a dream.??

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