Drama of Ex-Mayor Plays Out in Atlanta Courtroom

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006

ATLANTA -- When he was first elected in 1993, William C. Campbell looked every bit the new black leader, polished in stylish suits, beguiling with a razor-sharp mind, and casting himself as an updated version of trailblazing mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young.

Now, Campbell, 52, stands alone -- in the worst possible way. He is the city's first mayor in recent memory to become embroiled in a major federal racketeering trial, accused in a 48-page indictment of running City Hall like a criminal enterprise, fixing contracts in exchange for nearly $200,000 and evading taxes.

The scandal is playing out in a federal courtroom like an episode of the "The Sopranos," with tales of greed, bribes and gambling, and of a sexy mistress who was lavished with gifts, whisked to exotic lands and bedded in five-star hotels.

Whether he wins or loses, Campbell, who left office in 2001, appears to have squandered his chance to build on the accomplishments of Jackson and Young, the city's first black mayors. The trial has also raised tensions and feelings of embarrassment in a city that jealously guards its image as the racially enlightened, sophisticated first city of the South.

"He seemed to be, if not the heir apparent to Jackson, very close, in terms of his potential for moving the city forward, but it didn't happen that way," said William H. Boone, an associate professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black school.

"This is the type of thing that happens in Detroit, not Atlanta. The Atlanta chamber and others have concerns about how this makes Atlanta look," Boone said.

Campbell is fighting back, vehemently proclaiming his innocence. He has reached out to African Americans with a strong appeal to help him fight white prosecutors who, he says, are trying yet again to bring down a strong black man.

It is a charge that often resonates with African Americans who point to figures such as former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, former senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, to name only a few, as people who have been caught in federal dragnets. In Campbell's case, the suspicion of a kind of white conspiracy is bolstered by the sense that much of the case against him is built on circumstantial evidence. "This trial is not based on a great deal of factual information," said Michael Langford, the director of community affairs under Campbell. "There are no credible witnesses here. A lot of this is based on the mayor's strong stand on affirmative action. This is a result of his . . . saying there would be minority participation in contracting."

Defense attorneys may be hoping that such an appeal to racial solidarity will gain Campbell sympathy from some of the seven black jurors on the 12-member jury.

Since his boyhood in Raleigh, N.C., Campbell seemed destined for struggle. His father, a local NAACP president, forced him to integrate a school at age 7 by walking a gantlet of white segregationists who cursed and spat at him.

He graduated from high school with honors, attended Vanderbilt University, married and sat on the Atlanta City Council. As the city's third black mayor, Campbell seemed conflicted by race. He appointed a white man as his top aide -- a first -- but alienated the city's white business elite with sharply worded speeches.

Meanwhile, the city's infrastructure, particularly its aging sewers, "literally crumbled underground," Boone said. Campbell dismissed skilled political aides who tried to resolve the problem, saying he trusted only loyalists "who would take a bullet" for him. The replacements later confessed to taking bribes.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company