Ex-Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell resurfaces

Former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell over the past month has turned up at a jazz festival, Baptist church service, and town hall and press club gatherings.

Ten years after he left office, and 2 1/2 years following his prison release, Campbell, 57, is an Atlanta presence again, easing back into a metropolitan setting once charmed by his personality and magnetism.

No one is exactly sure what his next move will be — Will he try to re-enter politics? Write a book? Join the media? — but it’s clear Campbell is not afraid to show his face around a city he once guided. It’s apparent he feels no reason to shy away following his federal conviction for tax evasion and subsequent detention at a low-security prison camp and halfway house.

Tom Houck, a political and media gadfly and longtime Campbell friend, said the man deserves a second chance.

“He wasn’t smoking crack in a hotel room like Marion Berry,” Houck said. “He wasn’t like the governor of New York who got hookers and ended up with his own television show. I am convinced there are a lot of people in this town who like Bill Campbell.”

Campbell has offered few clues as to his long-term plans. He declined an interview request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has spoken to the media only once since his recent re-emergence, at Monday’s Atlanta Press Club event.

“Well, I never really left Atlanta; this is my home,” Campbell told a TV reporter. “I’m really just reconnecting with a lot of old friends I haven’t seen in a long time. So it’s great to be back in a more substantial way.”

Campbell’s friends and other observers insist he has never really left. Since his 2008 prison release, they say he has shuttled between Atlanta and West Palm Beach. Once out of office, Campbell sold his Inman Park home and moved to Florida in 2003 to practice law as his legal problems mounted. He currently has a Midtown high-rise address; it’s unclear whether it’s permanent or temporary.

In 2006, Campbell, following a corruption investigation, was acquitted of the more serious charges of racketeering and bribery, yet convicted of failing to pay taxes on $160,000 of income from 1997 to 1999 — in the middle of his two-term stint as Atlanta’s 57th mayor.

He was sentenced to 30 months in the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami, a low-security prison camp. He served part of it at a Salvation Army halfway house. He was released in the fall of 2008, 117 days early for good behavior, and he quietly settled in with his family in Palm Beach Gardens.

As mayor, he perhaps is best known for transforming Atlanta’s ridiculed public housing system into a model for mixed-income living. He received credit for turning East Lake Meadows, an urban battleground, into the Villages at East Lake, a sprawling apartment complex with manicured grounds, a golf course and a mix of lower- and middle-income residents.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave Atlanta’s public housing management a score of 39 out of 100; it was 100 when Campbell stepped down.

Campbell seems at least somewhat welcome in Atlanta again, even by the person who was the most ardent critic during Campbell’s 1994-2001 mayoral stint. Former Atlanta City Councilman Lee Morris said he has been satisfied with the fallen politician’s attempt at rehabilitation.

“My sense is that, while I had to fall into the role of being his chief critic, Bill is a really talented guy,” Morris said. “He is a smart guy and a tremendous speaker with a great sense of humor. I think it is great if he wants to come back and use those great skills and do some positive stuff. I believe in redemption and people paying their dues for mistakes.”

Others are wary, including Lou Arcangeli, a former Atlanta deputy police chief who was demoted after revealing the department was downgrading or failing to report thousands of crimes. He believes Campbell was behind the retribution.

“Atlanta is a forgiving city, but it takes two things: You have to take responsibility for what you’ve done, and you have to be genuinely and sincerely reformed,” Arcangeli said. “I hope he’s reformed, but he has a big hole to step out of.”

It was Houck who helped encourage Campbell’s Atlanta return. Post-prison, one of Campbell’s earliest appearances came in August 2009, when he attended a Houck birthday celebration, posing for photos and greeting old friends.

“I was with him and Sharon [Campbell’s wife] a few weeks ago at the Dogwood Festival and it was interesting to see how people respond to him,” said Houck. “People were rushing over to him.”

Campbell’s plans still remain under wraps, even to Atlantans who have maintained steady contact.

“People ask me that question all the time,” said Jeff Dickerson, a political and media consultant and former AJC columnist who has chatted with Campbell several times since 2008. “But having said that, I don’t know what he is doing, how he earns a living or where he lives.”

Andrew Young, another former Atlanta mayor, visited Campbell in Florida after the latter was released from prison. They talk occasionally now.

“I don’t know if there is a second act for elected politics, but Bill made a real contribution to the city and I think is one of the brightest guys I know,” the civil rights leader said. “I see him and we talk, but I have not sat down with him. I haven’t been still enough to talk to him about what he wants to do.”

Staff writer Bill Torpy contributed to this article.