While Musgrove says that egregious inquiries were directed at minority officials by the Nixon, Johnson, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush justice departments, he believes such calculated practices ceased under Bill Clinton. Dymally also thinks that sniping of black officials stopped under Clinton. (As for whether they were again ratcheted up under George W. Bush, most experts agree that, while not specifically targeting blacks, extra-large investigative nets were cast over all Democrats, inevitably yielding increased scrutiny of black leaders from 2000 to 2008.) Dymally also told the Phoenix that, while he is not familiar enough with Turner’s predicament to comment specifically, he, in certain cases — particularly those of James and Kilpatrick — believes that the culprits are “so outrageously guilty that it’s embarrassing.”
The notion that feds no longer deliberately zero in on black pols, however, is contested by such observers as Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland professor who was chairman of the Howard University political-science department in the early 1970s — and who was in close contact with black elected officials of the time — as well as a founding advisory board member of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a prominent African-American think tank.
“You can’t prove that harassment no longer exists,” says Walters. “Black exceptionalism is always suspicious, so you can’t say that nothing is happening when questions are continuously raised. When it turns out that [William] Jefferson was the only person in American history who had his office raided by the justice department,” he adds, semi-hyperbolically, “that will be considered harassment. As for how the information that convicted Kwame [Kilpatrick] got out into the public sphere, I don’t know if it was harassment, but you can’t rule it out.”
Musgrove might not agree that Kilpatrick and Jefferson were singled out and set up, but he understands how modern black pols can ride the conspiracy wave to positive results. “Not only can politicians just place themselves in that narrative,” he says, “but there’s that ready reservoir of black distrust of these institutions, so while [conspiracy theories] are not necessarily provable, they are believable.”
Of race, and base
Though one would need considerable FBI clearance to know for sure if nefarious plots remain in place to sideswipe black politicians, there’s no doubt that black voters are reluctant to condemn their representatives on the word of federal agents. Take for example Barry, the Washington, DC, activist turned politician who, despite being caught smoking crack in an FBI sting and serving six months in prison for cocaine possession, has had continued success at the ballot box. During Barry’s 1990 narcotics trial, one black juror told the Washington Post that the government was out to get Barry — a suspicion reinforced by the mayor, who once commented: “It’s not just me. . . . The FBI and federal government have a history of harassing black public officials.”
Though his 20-year off-and-on mayoral tenure ended in 1999, Barry never lost his base; in 2004 he was elected with 95 percent of the vote to represent Ward 8 on the Council of the District of Columbia. With a Boston City Council campaign creeping up at the same time as his bribery trial, Chuck Turner — like his brethren in the same struggle — is counting on constituents to discount FBI allegations and sweep him to victory. And if past examples are any indication, he’ll enjoy a landslide — especially if he continues characterizing his plight in such convincing terms: