As President of the City’s Housing Development Corporation, Russell Harding thoroughly enjoyed the perks of office—the fancy cars, free trips, and fine dining, all on someone else’s tab. But when it came to the people he was supposed to be helping, lower-income New Yorkers in need of better homes, Harding would just as soon have been in “an all-white state like Idaho.”
That was only one of the candid opinions offered by the former Giuliani administration aide in a series of chats on the Web with a man in the Midwest whom he had never met.
Harding, 38, son of Liberal Party boss Ray Harding, began his cyber-correspondence with Fred Sawyers, 33, an office clerk in Indianapolis, in 1998 after they met in an AOL movie-fan chat room. The men were from radically different backgrounds. Harding was raised in New York City and was student council president at prestigious Bronx High School of Science before dropping out of Clark University in Massachusetts in his junior year. Thanks to his father, Russell was around politics his entire life. He was familiar with many well-known public figures and had worked on Capitol Hill for Senator Alfonse D’Amato.
In contrast, Sawyers was raised in Virginia in a strict, conservative family of Southern Baptists. He moved to Indianapolis in 1991 to escape their influence. Sawyers’s heroes were movie celebrities like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, and he never failed to voice admiration whenever Harding dropped names like Giuliani’s in their conversations.
But it was Sawyers, the Southerner, who sounded notes of tolerance in their discussions, and Harding who enunciated an often virulent racism. Despite the political affiliations of his influential father, Russell Harding registered as a Republican as soon as he was old enough to vote, records show. One former co-worker described Russell’s own political views as “to the right of Attila the Hun” and recalled Harding’s excitement in the early 1990s upon his return from California, where he had enjoyed a visit to the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda.
Harding and Sawyers chatted online at least once a week, mainly about films, pets, and their personal lives. In September 2000, however, Harding’s admiration for overwhelmingly white Idaho emerged after the topic of politics came up when Sawyers complained that nothing was on the local TV stations but the firing of Indiana University’s then basketball coach Bobby Knight.
“That’s right, I forgot, you must be inundated with Bobby Knight talk,” typed Harding in response. “I think it’s funny that the kid who ratted him out is going to get beaten within an inch of his life when he comes back to school.”
“Sports of any kind is very big here,” answered Sawyers, citing other local teams.
“Look at you . . . you’re becoming a jock,” teased Harding in his three-dot writing style.
Sawyers acknowledged he followed sports somewhat: “I just hold true to the fact that you never talk about sports, religion or politics. That way you never start a fight.”
“I love to talk about all three,” said Harding.
“Cool. Then how do you feel about Hillary using NY as just a jumping board I think to get in the running later for bigger things[?]” asked Sawyers.
“I hate her,” snapped Harding, referring to the woman his father backed for senator on his Liberal Party line. “She’s a bitch and a cunt . . . she’s now leading the polls and may very well win . . . i think you know I’m a Republican . . . i think she may actually be the devil.”
Sawyers allowed that he didn’t like the Clintons either and mentioned that his mother had once taken him to a Republican women’s group luncheon “where I got to meet Elizabeth Taylor while she was married to [Virginia Republican U.S. Senator John] Warner.”
Harding continued about the Clinton family: “And her husband having his offices in harlem is a hoot . . . he and the blacks were made for each other . . . nothing but trash all of them . . . i think we need to move to a conservative all-white state like idaho.”
The subject of race came up again a few weeks later, as the cyber-pals chatted about what they had done over the weekend. Sawyers said he had gone shopping on Saturday. The mall was crowded with college kids attending an annual Indianapolis event, the Coca-Cola Circle City Classic, which brings thousands of black students to town for a football game and a college fair.
“This was the weekend for the circle center classic so it was real busy and I did not feel like being around a lot,” said Sawyers.
“What is it?” asked Harding.
“To be honest I do not know what it is for exactly. But whatever it is, it is all African Americans.”
“Oh,” responded Harding. “It’s like that thing they have in atlanta . . . all damn black frats or something who shouldn’t be allowed into school period just running around acting like [the] stupid monkeys they all are.”
“Yes, it is a lot of young African Americans I know, so I would say it is for frats or something,” said Sawyers.
“Yup black college monkeys acting there [sic] true selves then,” said Harding.
A couple of days after Christmas 2000, the friends talked about George W. Bush’s victory at the Supreme Court and his cabinet choices.
“Oh by the way, you have not said nor have I, but it took a lot but I am glad Bush won,” typed Sawyers.
“Me too and a pretty good cabinet so far . . . too many moderates for my taste but pretty good,” said Harding.
“Yes, I agree,” said Sawyers. “But I do think he made a good choice with Powell.”
“I don’t,” responded Harding. “I think it was a horrible choice that he will come to regret soon . . . he’s black and will just throw around that black ‘tude all of them have . . . and be a big black ass in the long run if you ask me.”
“I don’t, but I guess only time will tell.”
“Yup . . . and i’ll be right . . . he’s black and trash,” wrote Harding.
Two days later, on a Friday evening, both men were chatting about a major snowstorm that was threatening the Northeast. Harding, who lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side, explained to Sawyers why a big snowfall had a different effect on New York City than on a place like Indianapolis.
“We’re all bracing here for 12-16 inches of snow. . . that’s all that’s on the news here,” said Harding.
“I have been hearing that on the weather channel, and I was about to ask if you were all set in case you got snowed in,” typed Sawyers.
“It’s not the same as where you live . . . there are two 24-hour grocery stores within 1/2 block . . . so we never have to stock up on anything when they are predicting bad weather. in ’96 we had 26 inches and the streets were clean the next day.”
“That sounds good, I will have to keep that in mind with my looking at places when I move,” wrote Sawyers, who talked off and on about his desire to move to New York or California.
“We don’t fuck around in nyc,” said Harding, adding “lol”—cyber-speak for “laugh out loud.”
“Send the plows here,” wrote back Sawyers, who lives in a garden apartment complex on Indianapolis’s outskirts. “They have not cleaned a street around me in days now and the sidewalks are even worse.”
“I think you’ll be looking at warm weather places [to move to],” said Harding. “No, manhattan is always clear . . . the other boros take a little longer . . . but then all that lives in those areas are the low class white trash or blacks . . . so no need to make things easy on them.”
It was a common refrain for Harding. Even describing his job, where he headed an agency that floats millions of dollars in bonds to build affordable housing, Harding’s stock phrase was that he was building “low class apartments,” new homes “for the lower class.”
There was nothing low-class about Harding’s own lifestyle while he ran the housing corporation. The Voice has detailed his high-flying use of his corporate expense account at the housing agency, billing to the city stays at luxury resorts around the world and gifts to Sawyers and others. His conduct is currently being explored by the city’s Department of Investigation.
To represent him, Harding has retained Gerald Shargel, one of the nation’s top criminal defense attorneys, who has represented clients ranging from John Gotti to former Bronx Democratic leader Stanley Friedman.
“It is offensive that someone would reveal another person’s personal ruminations in an Internet chat room,” said Shargel. He declined further comment.
Related Stories by Tom Robbins:
“Harding’s Hustle: Bonuses, Bargains, and Strip Clubs at the Housing Development Corporation”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 14, 2002