The city of Atlanta, Georgia has not been governed by a Republican mayor since 1879. Most significant is the fact that the city has been led exclusively by Democrats since the 1960s and early ’70s, the period when the Democratic Party emphatically broke away from centrist liberals and fell predominantly under the sway of its far left wing, a course that the party continues to follow to this day.
One of Atlanta’s more important political figures in recent decades was its first African American mayor, Maynard Jackson, who held that office for three (non-consecutive) four-year terms: 1974-78, 1978–82, and 1990–94.
In May 1974, the newly elected Jackson stoked racial tensions in Atlanta when he attempted, over the strong objections of the city’s white police officers, to fire the incumbent (white) police chief, John Inman. But a Fulton County court judge upheld Inman’s right to retain his job, on grounds that his eight-year contract for the position (signed during the administration of former mayor Sam Massell) was not slated to expire until 1980. Then, in August 1974 the Georgia Supreme Court upheld a new city charter authorizing Mayor Jackson and Atlanta’s city council to reorganize their city’s police department in any way they wished. This enabled Jackson to effectively undermine Inman’s authority and turn him into little more than a figure head. Specifically, the mayor changed Inman’s title from “police chief” to “director of police services,” and he made the position subservient to that of the newly created “public safety commissioner,” who would be authorized to oversee the police, fire, and civil defense departments.
To fill the role of public safety commissioner, Jackson appointed his former college classmate-turned-black-activist Reginald Eaves, who had no police experience whatsoever. Corrupt to his core and possessing an unparallelled sense of shameless entitlement, Eaves openly and defiantly used public money to purchase extra options on his fully loaded city vehicle, stating: “If I can’t ride in a little bit of comfort, to hell with it.”
Eaves sparked further controversy when he appointed an ex-convict as his personal secretary and instituted a quota system that gave preference to African Americans for hirings and promotions within the police department. Eventually, in 1978, Mayor Jackson was forced to fire Eaves for the role the latter had played in a scandal where he had helped police officers cheat on promotions exams. It should be noted that Eaves’ unethical conduct continued long after his time in the Jackson administration. He went on to become a member of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, where he illegally took money from local businessman Charles Wood in exchange for helping to ensure that Wood’s projects would receive the necessary county clearances. In 1988 a federal jury convicted Eaves of extortion after he was caught selling his votes on two re-zoning matters.
In public works projects and municipal contracts, the race-conscious Mayor Jackson pressed for vigorous affirmative action programs and set-asides favoring blacks, a policy that resulted in some 30% of the city’s contracts going to black-owned enterprises. Numerous local businessmen were distressed by what they perceived to be Jackson’s preferential treatment of blacks.
As the ’70s progressed, the Atlanta business community became increasingly concerned about the city’s rapidly rising crime rate. Between 1978 and 1979 alone, Atlanta experienced a 69% increase in homicides. It now had the highest murder rate—and the highest overall crime rate—of any city in the United States. The police force, meanwhile, dwindled in size by 25% between 1975 and 1979, causing the officers to be generally overextended and demoralized.
In January 1994, as Jackson’s third and final term as mayor was winding down, one of the most politically explosive trials in Atlanta history centered on an affirmative action program by which Jackson’s administration had tried to increase the presence of black-owned shops and businesses at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. A Federal court jury convicted a former airport commissioner and councilman on 83 counts of mail fraud, 4 counts of tax evasion, and 43 counts of accepting bribes from an airport concessionaire in return for favorable treatment, like reduced rent at the airport. In addition, another man who operated gift shops at Hartsfield was likewise convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy.
These convictions did considerable damage to the legacy of Maynard Jackson, giving the impression that the mayor’s affirmative action program had been, as The New York Times described it, little more than “a scheme to benefit white businessmen, politically connected blacks and black political leaders.” Bob Holmes, a Democratic State Representative from Atlanta and director of Atlanta University’s Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy, put it this way: “People are going to ask if other minority participation arrangements were really fronts and whether Atlanta’s business is conducted on the basis of political payoff rather than competency and efficiency. It casts the image of impropriety and suggests a 20-year relationship where folks were rewarded merely for supporting Maynard.”
Holmes’s words eventually proved prophetic in 2002, when an investigation by The Atlanta Journal Constitution found that friends of Jackson and another former Atlanta mayor, Bill Campbell (1994-2002), for years had received “the vast majority” of contracts awarded by the Atlanta airport which were supposed to go to the black community generally. In at least 80 of the 100 contracts reviewed during the probe, one or more of the business partners involved had cultivated a relationship with either Jackson, Campbell, or both. Further, most of those partners had contributed money to the Jackson and/or Campbell mayoral campaigns.
As for Mayor Campbell, by no means was this his only brush with political scandal. Indeed a seven-year federal corruption probe resulted, in 2006, in the convictions of no fewer than 10 city officials tied to his administration. Also in 2006, prosecutors attempted to prove that Campbell personally had accepted more than $160,000 worth of illegal campaign contributions, cash payments, junkets, and home improvements from city contractors during his years as mayor. Ultimately, he was convicted only of three counts of federal tax evasion.
Where political corruption runs rampant, it is often closely accompanied by gross financial mismanagement—Atlanta being a case in point. For many years the city’s political leaders—in exchange for the slavish political support of unionized public-sector workers—promised an unending array of unsustainably exorbitant healthcare and pension benefits to those employees. Consequently, by 2011 Atlanta’s city government owed no less than $1.5 billion in unfunded liabilities on the pensions of its public-sector workers. That ominous figure was expected to triple within ten years if left unchecked. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the Atlanta City Council in 2011 approved a long-overdue restructuring of the city’s pension system. The new plan required all police officers, firefighters and city employees to contribute an additional 5% of their wages to the pension system, and reduced the cost-of-living adjustment for future hires to 1%.
The mismanagement of Atlanta’s finances is reflected also in the economic condition of city residents as a whole. Today, more than 26% of those residents live in poverty. Among the nation’s 40 largest urban areas, Atlanta has the fifth-highest black poverty rate. And according to a study released by the Brookings Institution in February 2014, Atlanta has a greater disparity between rich and poor than any other urban area in America. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts it: “The ratio between the income of the wealthiest 5 percent of Atlanta households—those making $280,000 or more a year—and the bottom 20 percent—those making $14,850 or less—is significantly higher here than in any other American city.”
As in so many Democrat-run U.S. cities, Atlanta’s public-school system has grown, over time, into a bureaucratic monstrosity of waste and ineptitude—exhibiting efficiency only in its ability to separate taxpayers from their hard-earned money. Every year the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) system gobbles up some 15,000 taxpayer dollars—about 50% more than the national average—for the education-related expenses of each K-12 pupil in its jurisdiction. Notwithstanding these massive investments, APS students perform abysmally on achievement tests designed to measure their academic competence. In 2013, for example, proficiency rates for APS eighth-graders were a meager 22% in reading and 17% in math.
For about a decade, a cabal of Atlanta educators and school administrators carefully orchestrated a secret campaign of deceit intended to conceal this woeful educational track record—and to enrich themselves in the process. The roots of that campaign can be traced back to 1999, when Beverly L. Hall, who had just finished serving four years as superintendent of the Newark Public Schools, was hired as APS superintendent and hailed as a highly innovative reformer—even as she remained the target of a New Jersey State Senate probe examining a $58 million deficit that had accrued under her watch in Newark. Hall, who donated money to both the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, aligns herself with Democratic Party causes.
Under Hall’s leadership in Atlanta, the standardized test scores of APS students began to rise noticeably and inexplicably in 2001 and continued to do so for several years thereafter. In 2008, according to standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind law, every elementary school in Atlanta demonstrated “adequate yearly progress” as measured by student scores. In many cases, Atlanta pupils from indigent and minority backgrounds were outperforming their white peers from wealthier suburban districts on the exams. In recognition of this rather startling trend, the American Association of School Administrators in 2009 rewarded Hall by giving her its coveted National Superintendent of the Year award, and crediting her “leadership” with having “turned Atlanta into a model of urban school reform.” That same year, President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited Hall to the White House.
But then, also in 2009, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a series of articles examining the large gains that APS students had been making in their Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) scores, and reported that some of those scores were statistically improbable. A subsequent probe by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI)—the results of which were made public in July 2011—found that a significant number of teachers and principals at 58 Atlanta schools had secretly corrected and/or fabricated many of the answers on the CRCT tests, so as to give the false impression that student performance was improving. All told, the investigation implicated 38 principals and 140 teachers, making it the most extensive cheating scandal in the history of American education.
Prior to these revelations, many of the educators involved in the scandal had been handsomely rewarded for their malfeasance. Indeed, Atlanta’s Channel 2 Action News reported that teachers at 13 schools in particular had received a combined $500,000 in merit-pay bonuses in 2009 alone. And Beverly Hall, for her part, had raked in approximately $580,000 in “performance” bonuses during the course of her tenure with APS. These examples of self-enrichment took place as the APS was racking up a budget deficit that, by 2014, amounted to no less than $45 million.
Following the Georgia state investigation into the APS cheating scandal, Superintendent Hall was allowed to resign without penalty. But the children attending Atlanta’s abominable public schools paid a very dear price indeed. According to Binghamton University Professor Lawrence C. Stedman, APS students lagged 1-2 years behind national averages on the NAEP, and “vast percentages” of Atlanta schoolchildren were incapable of reaching even a basic level of competence. “At current rates,” wrote Stedman, “it will take from 50 to 110 years to bring all students to proficiency.” It is no wonder that high-school graduation rates of APS students in recent years have ranged between 51% and 59%, far below the national average of 78%.
No profile of Atlanta would be complete without a mention of the crime rates that have long plagued the city. To name just a few, Atlanta’s rates of murder, robbery, and auto theft exceed the corresponding national averages by 300%, 360%, and 410%, respectively. In 2012, Atlanta ranked, statistically, as the sixth most dangerous U.S. city with a population of 200,000 or more. The following year, it ranked ninth on the list. From a global perspective, the incidence of gun murders in Atlanta is about the same as in South Africa, a nation infamous for its exceedingly high homicide rate.
This piece was posted in May 2014.