"And then what happens?" the boy asks.
The palm reader responds: "Then you'll get used to it."
Atlanta has suffered so long from galactic-class public corruption and mismanagement, there's a strong argument to be made that, like the young boy, we've grown comfortable with the slime oozing out of City Hall. Sprinkle enough perfume on it, and you hardly notice the smell.
Those who tout this theme don't defend that paragon of awful government, Mayor Bill Campbell. Still, what they decry isn't so much what Campbell has done -- it's just that he did too much of it.
Here's how Atlanta's consummate political schmoozer and fixer David Franklin puts it: "People really don't want an outsider coming in and changing things. They've told us" -- "us" being the handlers for ex-wife Shirley Franklin's mayoral race -- "that they like what they've had in the past, like with Maynard (Jackson). They want someone who can hit the ground running."
David Franklin attributes the city's current disastrous state to Campbell's personality flaws -- basically that the humble-origin mayor has class envy of the old-guard black establishment.
Others who navigate Atlanta's murky political waters blame the mess on Campbell's arrogance, greed and, as one put it, "his gambling habit. He'll bet on anything."
(Hey, Bill, are you giving even odds on whether you'll be indicted? If so, I'll lay down $10.)
Back to David Franklin, who is an enjoyable and engaging guy. His power is based on his skill at standing just outside the glow of the spotlight. To get to those in the limelight, it has been easier to befriend Franklin than go around him. He was Jackson's pal, and Andy Young's. When someone needed to lobby those mayors on, say, airport concessions -- as was the case in the 1980s when Young was mayor -- Franklin was the guy to see. Franklin now is an airport concessionaire himself, a fact that Shirley Franklin repeatedly must parry in election debates.
David Franklin took time last week to joust with me over my last column, in which I called for sweeping reforms, if not raise-the-barricades revolution, at City Hall. I said cash-challenged Gloria Bromell-Tinubu was the best bet, in part because she was relying on issues, not a massive war chest, to win votes.
"It'll never happen," Franklin told me, and I think he's right.
Franklin disputed my accusation that, at the street level, votes are bought and sold with "walking-around" or "get out the vote" money. "I read your column and said, 'Here's a guy who doesn't know what he's talking about.' That bullshit about vote buying comes from people from south Georgia counties" -- racists with their cracker disdain for Atlanta politics -- "or from liberals from northern cities."
I didn't have time to explain that I didn't fit into either category before Franklin launched into his spin of what goes down in the final days of electioneering. White people, he said, often end up with jobs and business deals from a new administration. "But with black people," Franklin said, "especially in the old days, they don't have transferable skills. Like with Andy's 1981 race, only two people moved from campaign workers to jobs with the city, and Shirley was one of them."
So, to compensate the black community for not getting the jobs and deals, money is spread around by paying the legions of campaign workers. "If you didn't pay the campaign workers to hand out leaflets, the [black] community wouldn't get anything," Franklin said.
"I've never seen anyone get paid for voting."
That little repartee got my interest so, without too much work (effort that could be easily duplicated by, say, federal agents), I located a man who had worked as a walking-around money field captain for several campaigns. He explained how things go down. "What you do is pay $20 or $30 for people to wear a T-shirt or hand out leaflets. It doesn't really matter what it is that they do because that's not what you're paying them for. They agree, and it's very clear, that they won't vote for anyone else. Are you buying votes? That's not what you call it on the street but that's what it is. Anyone who tells you different is telling you a load of crap."
Another interesting twist is to pay people to steal your opponent's yard signs. The going rate is 15 cents per sign. "They don't take them to your candidate's headquarters, of course," the field supervisor said. "That would get the campaign in trouble. They take them somewhere else. But it's going on right now, tonight."
I agree whole-heartedly with Franklin on one point. It's hard to argue that a poor kid is a criminal for pocketing a little money for selling his vote -- while at the same time, the quid pro quo expected by a well-heeled white businessman who funnels money to a campaign expecting a taxpayer-paid-for plum in return is an honored tradition.
The real gangrene is found with the system and the candidates. If they swim in a sewer, they can't expect to smell like a bouquet.
If we very self-assured pundits are right, Shirley Franklin will be our next mayor.
My prediction is she'll get it without a runoff. Truth be told, she'll probably be a pretty good mayor. Of course, after Bill Campbell, anyone would be an improvement.
The problem will be The Machine. Standing behind Franklin at her never- ending rallies where one high roller after another endorses her candidacy, you'll almost always see the looming bulk and frozen smile of Maynard Jackson, the king of The Machine.
At a Common Cause forum last week, G.B. Osborne, a no-money mayoral candidate, made a stunningly good proposal: No mayor should be allowed to do business with the city for 20 years after leaving office. I would suggest extending that ban to any companies with which the ex-mayors are affiliated.
It'll never happen, of course.
And, Franklin won't be able to shake The Machine. She took hits at the Common Cause forum for not opposing the inherently corrupt practice of allowing a mayor to reward buds with contracts extending many years beyond the mayor's term in office. To oppose those contracts would be to offend The Machine.
If Franklin is lucky, she'll be able to restrain The Machine to its usual playgrounds, such as Hartsfield International Airport, and get on with what will be a truly daunting job of trying to save the city from a financial crash and burn. Yes, bankruptcy is a possible Armageddon facing the next mayor.
But Franklin will need help, perhaps somewhat unwanted help. The Machine will want another "nod squad" on the City Council. If that happens, Atlanta is screwed. The candidates running for council president range from the dangerous (Campbell's "floor leader," Michael Bond) to the well-intentioned (ethical but ineffective Julia Emmons) to the question mark (populist but Machine-friendly "Able" Mable Thomas).
Then there's Cathy Woolard. She's progressive, independent, capable and has ethics beyond reproach. As president, Woolard would be in a position to turn the council into a true check on the mayor's power.
"Corruption is so bad that not only do we pay for bad deals the first time, but we end up paying for the same job again after it's been screwed up," Woolard told CL. "People are tired of that. They want a change."
Senior Editor John Sugg -- whose motto is: Spend that walking-around money on newspaper advertising -- can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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