City contracting here has long been both a source of civic pride and lingering suspicion. After his election in 1974, the city’s first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, sought to combat decades of economic injustice by increasing minority participation in city contracts to more than 35 percent from less than 1 percent.
But high-profile contracting scandals have also resulted in prison terms for several Atlanta politicians and business executives.
Three points are worth making. First, ethnic segregation can increase incentives for corruption, as the informal favor-swapping and resource allocations that inter-group politics demand are often at variance with the standards of the written laws. This was a classic feature of American urban politics from the early 1800s forward: The Irish, the Italians, and other groups got shares of city contracts and business as part of a kind of spoils system. Unfortunately, these deals also erode respect for the law among the politicians involved, and contribute to the conversion of political parties into criminal conspiracies to defraud the public—like the old Democratic Party in Detroit not many years ago.
Second, bad urban governance is not a victimless crime; those hurt by these backroom deals are disproportionately poor and minority. The Obama-era Justice Department deserves credit for pursuing this investigation.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the state of Alabama, like the city of Atlanta, is under the overwhelming control of a single party. The cause of anti-corruption can probably be aided more than anything by introducing more political competition into deep blue cities and deep red states alike.