CHARLOTTE — The occasion was an open-to-the-public reception to introduce Charlotte’s new city manager. But everyone in the lobby of the government center was talking about the decision by Mayor Anthony Foxx not to run for the third term he certainly would have won handily, and the reports – not confirmed – that he may take a spot as U.S. Secretary of Transportation as Ray LaHood steps down.
Only that would satisfy Sandra Clory, a retired school system dance instructor who has worked with the Mayor’s Mentoring Alliance. “It’s the only way I won’t be angry with him” for leaving the mayor’s office, she said at the Tuesday event, crowded with the neighborhood, nonprofit and business leaders who make Charlotte run. Just then, Foxx walked by; Clory took his arm and asked him if he was going to Washington to work with President Obama. “I don’t know nothing,” he jokingly replied.
It mirrored what Foxx, 41, said in a more serious conversation this week. “I don’t have any comment on that,” Foxx told me. “As I’ve said before, I’ve got plenty of things to focus on in the short and medium term, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
That’s certainly true. There is a long list of unfinished business with the city council and state government in Raleigh, and there’s Ron Carlee, that brand new city manager, a key position in Charlotte’s council-manager government structure.
“I don’t think of public service as a way station,” Foxx said. “It’s a responsibility, a very hefty one in terms of time, energy, commitment, and I feel 100 percent invested in what I’m doing. But as we look into another two years there is an awful lot going on in my life.” He said his two young children are getting older, “and there’s a window of time they still like hanging out with me.”
Somehow, though, it’s hard to imagine Foxx spending all his time with the wife and kids. Foxx, who grew up in West Charlotte and was raised by his grandparents and a single mother, was the first African-American student body president at Davidson College. He was mentored by a grandfather active in politics, neighbors such as Mel Watt, now a U.S. congressman from North Carolina and also rumored to be under consideration for an administration post, and Harvey Gantt, who became the city’s first African-American mayor. Foxx became the second in 2009.
His national profile rose when Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention in September, which re-nominated the country’s first African-American president. “We’ve had what I call a complex about our city for a long time,” Foxx said, describing it as a bit of the “Rodney Dangerfield, we don’t get the respect we deserve.” But with the convention, he said, “I think the city now has all of the credibility and respect it’s ever wanted; the question is what do we do with it.” He’s thinking, perhaps, a Republican National Convention. “That should be easy for us to do.”
The Democratic president that Foxx, a Democrat, hosted has been urged by the Congressional Black Caucus and others to increase diversity in his cabinet. While Foxx does not have an extensive background in transportation, he said, “a significant part of my tenure so far” has been lobbying for projects such as an extension of the city’s light rail system and other components of the transportation system. “We’ve made the largest transportation investments in the city’s history. Even during the great recession, voters approved bonds in 2010 to help this city move forward.”
The Department of Transportation under LaHood – who has made appearances with Foxx in Charlotte — has awarded the city grants toward a light-rail extension and a streetcar project, and given the state millions to upgrade service from Charlotte to Raleigh as part of President Obama’s vision for high-speed rail service.
A proposed streetcar expansion Foxx supports has been a point of disagreement with some city council members that stalled approval of a capital plan, still on the city agenda.
Other unfinished business often puts the city in conflict with Raleigh, where Foxx’s predecessor in the mayor’s office, Republican Pat McCrory, presides as governor, and the GOP has an overwhelming majority in the legislature. Charlotte has been in discussion with the Carolina Panthers and the legislature over getting state aid for improvements in the Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL team, and a governance study is mulling over a proposal to shift control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport – one of the busiest in the country – from the city to a regional authority.
“I’m not going to be relaxing over the next several months,” Foxx said. “My advice to the city council has been and continues to be things will only become more difficult with the passage of time, and so I’m delighted that we staked our concerns … what a governance change can and cannot do to promote growth in the airport.
“I hope that that brings us all to our senses, maybe refocuses the conversation on what’s best for the airport long term.”
The Charlotte Chamber is sponsoring a transportation summit, open to the business community, scheduled for Friday, April 12, with a speakers’ list that includes Jerry Orr, the aviation director of the airport, representatives of the state and city transportation departments, and elected officials. It promises to discuss questions about the future and funding of the region’s transportation needs.
“In terms of Raleigh,” Foxx said, “I just think there are some philosophical differences not only between municipalities and the general assembly, but even between this general assembly and any general assembly we’ve seen it the modern era. . .There is shifting ground over there.”
Though on his way out, Foxx can’t resist tweaking his predecessor – “there are a lot of people who have come and done their time and moved on and done something else; I don’t think you have to be in this office for 14 years” (yes, that’s how long McCrory was mayor) – he sounds satisfied about the things he was able to accomplish.
After taking office during a recession, job growth and home values are higher; the crime rate is lower. The city stepped in with funding for teachers and to maintain library branches.
Foxx said he’s tried to put Charlotte in a position to be “a first-rate 21st century city. … That’s where our best future lies.” And his own future? For now, he’s not saying.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3