Three days after the City Hall scandal broke, FBI wiretaps captured a phone call in which Mayor Street agreed with Ronald A. White’s advice that Street should use the “race thing” to galvanize his voters.
“We don’t have much choice but to go with it,” Street told White on Oct. 10, 2003, less than a month before the mayor was reelected.
At the time, White was a key fund-raiser for Street—and was the target of intense FBI scrutiny. On the phone, he told Street that the two men needed to discuss “how we’re going to do this from a black thing.”
The Street-White conversation was intercepted at a time when two forces were bearing down on the mayor and White, his longtime ally and fund-raiser: the wide-ranging corruption probe that had burst into view when an FBI bug was discovered in Street’s office ceiling three days earlier, and the looming Nov. 4 election. Before the bug was found, polls had shown Street pulling slightly ahead in a close race.
Though Street seemed to endorse White’s call for using the “race thing” during the recorded conversation, it is not clear whether the mayor decided to embark on such a strategy.
What is known is that while Street and his campaign aides generally avoided the subject in public, his political allies in the city and in Congress attacked the federal probe—some charging that it was a Republican plot against a big-city Democrat, others suggesting it was racially motivated.
The night before his conversation with White, Street had helped fuel the racial debate about the investigation.
“There are some people, particularly in the African American community, that believe this is too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence,” he said in answer to a question during a televised mayoral debate on Oct. 9, 2003.
Later, Street aides and allies more bluntly raised race—in comments that resonated in many quarters of the city.
On Oct. 14, the day the FBI raided the city’s Minority Business Enterprise Council, Street adviser A. Bruce Crawley said he found it “suspicious that they would only focus on African American businesses and African American clergy.”
“It’s like they’re being profiled,” Crawley said.
On Oct. 16, amid more FBI searches, top mayoral aide George Burrell again brought up race. “People don’t want to hear the fact that everyone who’s being complained about in the investigation, in the media crusade, are people of color,” he said. “I don’t talk about race very often; I just say it’s curious.”
Among all voters, Street surged sharply ahead.