ATLANTA -- Before Bill Campbell came along, Atlanta's City Hall enjoyed a good reputation. It was not mentioned in the same manner as Chicago or New Orleans or Newark, N.J. Atlanta did not indulge corrupt politics.
The city was synonymous with civil rights, Coca-Cola and a sophisticated black middle class; it was not associated with petty political thuggery.
But that was before Bill Campbell.
During a two-month trial that started in January, federal prosecutors charged Mr. Campbell, who was Atlanta's mayor from 1994 to 2002, with running City Hall as a criminal enterprise; the jury convicted him on charges of tax evasion. Last week, U.S. District Judge Richard Story, who believed Mr. Campbell was also guilty of taking bribes, sentenced him to 30 months in prison.
Mr. Campbell took cash from contractors who wanted to do business with the city and used it to support his appetites for gambling and women. And he wasn't the only criminal in his administration. The federal probe that eventually ensnared him also resulted in the convictions or guilty pleas of a dozen other people, mostly other top city officials. Mr. Campbell presided over the most corrupt City Hall in Atlanta's modern history.
Mr. Campbell's successor, Shirley Franklin, has done a stellar job of cleaning up his mess. Still, it will take years for the city, which revels in its reputation as a mecca for black accomplishment, to live down his ugly record.
Let's be frank: A black administration operates with a shallower reservoir of public trust than a white one. For many whites, Mr. Campbell's conviction was just confirmation of the tendency of black officials toward malfeasance.
It's not that all white pols are above reproach. The GOP-controlled Congress is struggling under the weight of a widening federal probe that grew out of the activities of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a former Republican congressman from California, was recently sentenced to eight years in prison for taking millions in bribes from a defense contractor.
Two years ago, Mitch Skandalakis, former chairman of the Fulton County, Ga., Commission, was sentenced to six months in prison for lying to a federal agent in connection with a corruption investigation. He is white; so is his former aide, Josh Kenyon, who served six months on bribery charges.
But Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Skandalakis and Mr. Kenyon are judged as dishonest men, not dishonest white men. Their crimes do not taint other white elected officials. Because race still matters in America, the sins of a few black politicians are unfairly associated - subtly or not so subtly - with all black politicians.
No one understood the burdens of black elected officials better than Maynard H. Jackson Jr., elected Atlanta's first black mayor in 1973. Erudite and conscientious, he was determined to show the nation an appealing example of black leadership - honest, hardworking, farsighted.
Perhaps we'll never really understand what led Mr. Campbell to stray into the thickets of greed and graft. Well-educated, armed with good looks and charm, he should have built on the record of his predecessors, who ushered the city into a modern age of shared political power built on biracial coalitions. But Mr. Campbell was lazy and self-indulgent.
Instead of working hard to avoid even the appearance of corruption, he used race to denounce his detractors, accusing white critics of racism and ridiculing black critics as Uncle Toms. But a mixed-race jury didn't buy his excuses. In the end, his record of corruption was too much to ignore.
Mr. Campbell's prison sentence is just what he deserves.
He worked hard to violate every standard of ethics and every principle of common propriety. Atlanta's City Hall, so long associated with men and women who valued racial moderation and civic responsibility, didn't deserve him.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.