Accused mayor's outburst revives old race divide

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The Independent US

Like so many of his peers around the country, the Mayor of Atlanta is not humble about his position. "Mayor William Campbell Welcomes You," declares the large sign as you exit the airport towards the city. He gets top billing too on numerous building sites where public facilities are rising. "Your tax dollars at work".

Like so many of his peers around the country, the Mayor of Atlanta is not humble about his position. "Mayor William Campbell Welcomes You," declares the large sign as you exit the airport towards the city. He gets top billing too on numerous building sites where public facilities are rising. "Your tax dollars at work".

But four years after he skilfully used the previous Olympics to cement Atlanta's image as the American South's boomtown, his name is suddenly showing wear. The mayor finds himself ensnared in a fast-widening corruption investigation being led by the FBI involving alleged bribes and kickbacks in the bidding for government contracts. What shocks many Atlantans are not the allegations, but the ferocity of the mayor's response.

In recent days, he has lashed out in a way that has evoked a past of racial division and intolerance that most people in this town would much rather forget. It is also throwing an unflattering spotlight on Atlanta's proud, but troubled, history of affirmative action.

"This is not an investigation, but an inquisition," he told one black radio station. In other interviews he dismissed federal officials as the "forces of evil" and likened the FBI to the "KGB in Communist Russia". Mr Campbell, whose standing with the city's African-Americans has never been as solid as those of his two predecessor black mayors, even came close to comparing himself to Martin Luther King, the murdered civil rights leader, who was indeed the victim of FBI persecution and dirty tricks in the era of J Edgar Hoover. All this is especially remarkable since both Atlanta's FBI chief and the local US district attorney are black.

One explanation may be that the investigation seems to have moved into Mr Campbell's personal life, particularly his rumoured penchant for gambling. Nor can he have liked a report saying agents were looking into whether he took bribes from a strip club owner.

But it is where the investigation began that may be more important. The FBI was first called in to investigate alleged graft in the city's vaunted programme of minority "set-asides" under which a proportion of all construction contracts must be awarded to minority businesses. Already, the commissioner of Fulton County, which comprises most of Atlanta, has been convicted of taking bribes on set-aside related contracts.

While affirmative action as a means of boosting black Americans has in recent years begun to fray, here it remains a sacrosanct pillar of public policy - and Mayor Campbell does not take kindly to anyone who seeks to challenge it. When the Southeastern Legal Foundation sued last year to have affirmative action policies scrapped, he publicly branded them a wing of the Ku Klux Klan.

But it's uncertain how well his most recent tirades are playing. Most business leaders have professed themselves appalled. "I am deeply concerned that this is couched as an issue of race," said Kermit Hairston, head of the South Fulton Chamber of Commerce, who is black. "Unless there is absolute concrete proof of racial motivation this is going to do more to taint our image than anything".

But many black leaders are behind him. "J Edgar Hoover may be gone, but there's still a Hoover mentality among the employees of the FBI," said state representative Tyrone Brooks. "Why else would they be leaking information about the mayor without showing any evidence? They're just trying to destroy his reputation". And on the city's streets, most blacks seem inclined to support the mayor even if they don't especially like him. "It's a fine time to play the race card, when he has hardly been pro-black as a mayor," said Leonard Tate, who runs a soup kitchen for transient men just across from City Hall. "Campbell is no Martin Luther King. But he just happens to be telling the truth here."

Whatever the outcome, none of this is good for the city. "People are beginning to worry about what kind of an image this promotes for Atlanta, which has always prided itself on its progress on race relations," notes Michael Rich, who teaches politics at Emory University here. "There has to be concern when a mayor accuses the government of being racist."

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