King makers 

Shirley Franklin inherits the chance to rebuild the 28-year-old network that installed three previous mayors

The Rev. Leon "Rabbit" Harris sits at a makeshift bingo table in the Ralph D. Abernathy Tower, home to about 100 senior citizens. Harris is a big, roly-poly kind of guy with a stubbly white beard and the reputation as a lovable scoundrel.

His teeth are large and grouped in a scattershot row. The front two poke out at angles. You get the nickname. On the table in front of the 66-year-old sits a cell phone -- on his belt, a pager.

"I know this high rise ain't going to let anybody in but Shirley," Harris says. He's talking about Atlanta mayoral candidate Shirley Franklin.

Harris has worked Atlanta's elections since 1972 -- the year of Andrew Young's successful bid for Congress. His candidate has rarely lost, and he is widely considered the undisputed king of getting out the vote in the city's 23 senior citizen high rises -- worth thousands of votes.

Over the years, others have tried to move in on his game, "but they just mess it up," he says.

When it comes to senior citizens, there are few better plugged in than Harris. He eats where they eat, sleeps where they sleep. He operates a table game program -- bingo, dominoes -- in the high rises and knows the faces in his small fiefdom intimately. Come election day, he'll buy doughnuts and coffee and roll out 50 volunteers. Vans, full of supporters, are driven from tower exit to polling place door.

Over the last 30 years, the routine hasn't changed. "I'd go along with a candidate if he or she wants to work it another way, but I still do it the same," Harris says with a chuckle.

On Sunday, not far from Rabbit, Aaron Turpeau and baseball legend Hank Aaron are throwing a fundraiser for Franklin at Turpeau's house in the Cascade neighborhood. About 40 people show up.

Turpeau's careful diction and stylish dress separate him from Harris obviously and immediately. Yet the two men share history. They've been political operatives in Atlanta for 30 years, and at times, part of what some say is the city's political "machine."

In the November mayoral election, they will again, in a way, resume their roles as different limbs on the same body.

Fact vs. myth
In the past 30 years, or so the thinking goes, a political organization -- a machine, if you will -- has ensured a steady lineage of Atlanta's mayors. It started with Maynard Jackson in 1973, who then endorsed and campaigned for his successor, Andrew Young. Then Jackson's torch passed to Mayor Bill Campbell. Now with Campbell in his last year and clouded in controversy, the heir apparent is Shirley Franklin, who, if the thinking is right, will use the machine to try to grind up her opponents in November's mayoral election.

But this thinking requires a very broad brush, so broad it minimizes individual personalities and paints a sort of monolith into Atlanta politics.

The fact is there is no machine, hasn't been anything resembling one for 15 years -- certainly not in the tradition of the beast created by former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley or Tammany Hall in New York. At best, Atlanta has a revolving list of top political organizations that avail themselves of a network of neighborhood operatives.

The picture of Atlanta's political future isn't one of an inevitable victor nesting in Jackson's legacy. The years, a divisive congressional election in 1986, and Campbell himself have seen to the rusting of the gears.

What is true, though, is that many of the same people who, as far back as the 1970s, backed Jackson and Young, who formed a successful, cohesive political organization with Jackson at its center, are coalescing around Franklin. The question is: Will it matter? Changes in city demographics, the political maturity of Atlanta's electorate and the age of the people in the Jackson organization fuel the uncertainty.

The roots of the Jackson-Young organization stretch back before the days of integration, when Atlanta's blacks still rode in the back of the political bus.

In 1949, Jackson's grandfather, John Wesley Dobbs, and A.T. Walden co-founded the forerunner to the organization that crystallized around Atlanta's first black mayor. That organization, the Atlanta Negro Voters League (ANVL) held political sway among Atlanta's blacks for almost two decades, Emory University's Gary Pomerantz writes in Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn.

White politicians had their own political organization, which centered around the heads of Atlanta's major companies -- Rich's, Georgia-Pacific, Southern Bell and the publisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Blacks, who represented a quarter of the population and voted in the city primary for the first time in 1949, were a swing vote. "In the black community, people came together as a reaction to their exclusion ... out of necessity," says Clark Atlanta University political scientist William Boone.


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