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No more walking-around sleaze 

Atlanta needs a revolutionary, but a reformer will do

"Isn't that illegal? Isn't that buying votes?" "That it is ... . There's no other way to win a citywide election. And today you'd better have a half-million dollars set aside just for that, just for handing out cash to voters."
-- Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

From the standpoint of democracy, it's Original Sin. Vote buying is corruption euphemized in Atlanta as "get-out-the-vote money" or "walking-around money."

There are shades of the sin. Some are venal. Others are deadly to that quaint ideal that an informed citizenry weighs the merits of high-minded public servants and selects the candidate mostly likely to address the serious issues at hand. In Atlanta, the deadly variety dominates.

Money is doled out to "grassroots" groups (many of which seem to be mere Astroturf created just to extort cash from candidates). Still more dollars, usually untraceable hard cash, are passed around to small armies of workers -- the people waving signs on street corners or leafleting churches. Nothing illegal there. But what happens to the money once it is given to neighborhood groups' strongmen is another story. So is the dispersion of tens of thousands of dollars in small bills ostensibly paid to workers but which, more than likely, have other destinations.

With the practiced don't-know-nothingness of Mafia dons, the city's candidates for mayor have for generations insulated themselves from street-level politics, where bagmen parcel out cash in exchange for punched chads. But the pols know, yes they know.

Like Original Sin, walking-around money taints all that comes after. The process begins with corruption, which is then woven into the entire fabric of Atlanta's public life.

It's why contractors and vendors believe they have to pony up huge chunks of campaign cash, concealed under the names of bogus donors, in order to win city bids. It's why cronies are lavished with non-cancelable contracts that extend into the distant future. It's why mayors get fat "speaking" fees from groups that want favor. It's why no one should wonder at the end of the current administration, federal indictments are smashing down, like a barrage of missiles, closer and closer to Bill Campbell's bunkered office.

The description of this insatiable and unholy political system was researched by novelist Tom Wolfe during the months before the last city election. Atlanta's power elites, black and white, howled at Wolfe's savaging of politicians, developers, bankers, socialites and even the holiest of all holies, the Georgia Tech athletic program. Yet, considering the meltdown of the Campbell administration, Wolfe now seems timid in pointing out that the emperor wears no clothes and is naked, very naked indeed.

In the final days of this campaign, it's business as usual for the defilers of democracy. "There's no one different running the campaigns this time than in the past, so I don't see how it could have changed," says lawyer Kenny Tatum, manager for an impoverished reformer among the mayoral hopefuls.

The "consultants" and grassroots groups (legitimate and ersatz) will get their bags of cash from middlemen. The go-betweens protect candidates for mayor and City Council from direct participation in smarminess that borders on criminality. Finally, on Nov. 6, some voters, mostly in Atlanta's poor neighborhoods, will pocket a little money in exchange for casting ballots for people about whom they may know absolutely nothing.

Campaign aides for the two leading mayoral candidates (when measured by stuffed war chests) don't like to talk on the record about the time-honored corruption of Atlanta politics. One told me, "I heard it existed in the past." And now? I asked. The answer was a raised eyebrow and a shrug.

Another veteran of the hustings said the walking-around money was merely a way that candidates said thanks to civic-minded groups -- and that the vast amounts of cash hardly ever were used for nefarious purposes. Uh-huh.

One careful response came from a soldier in the other cash-fat camp: "I have no direct knowledge of vote buying." But then, after some reflection, the candidate handler made a candid admission. "Is walking-around money a reality? I can assure you of this, it's alive and well."

Oh, by the way, the candidates for mayor are former city Chief Administrative Officer Shirley Franklin and City Council President Robb Pitts (the two with plenty of folding green), Gloria Bromell-Tinubu (respected, but generally written off because she's cashless), plus two lesser-knowns (because they don't have even pocket change), G.B. Osborne and Trudy Jane Kitchin. They all tout "platforms," "issues" and "qualifications."

They're all very intelligent and very good folks, and I'm not being facetious.

But it really doesn't matter. This election is all about dollars. First, it's about the money you see in the campaign contribution reports -- to date, about $2.6 million for Franklin, $1.7 million for Pitts and a close-to-negligible $135,000 for Bromell-Tinubu. Then it's about how many of those dollars are parceled out on the street. Finally, it's about carving up the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars -- your money -- among the next administration's insiders.

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