CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Perhaps it was the spirit of Liz Hair presiding over the mix of good will and determination Wednesday evening at the annual A Woman’s Place program that has honored the achievements of Charlotte women since 1955. Hair, a pioneer for women in politics and community activism, died at her home earlier that day at the age of 94, and her life – as well as her mantra “let’s make policy, not coffee” — was mentioned as inspiration by many in the bipartisan group of women.
Honored as 2013 Charlotte Woman of the Year was Patsy Kinsey, a Democratic city council member elected by her colleagues to complete the term of Anthony Foxx when he became U.S secretary of transportation. Delivering the keynote was Sharon Allred Decker – a 1998 Woman of the Year – the state’s secretary of commerce for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Hair was honored in 1975.
Problem solving, not party difference, was the evening’s theme — not that you can take politics completely out of the conversation. This is North Carolina, where incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, is working on a variety of economic, military and other issues, while shoring up a coalition that will need to include women of all parties if she is to win re-election.
Hagan is emphasizing her support of issues that are of special concern to women – equal pay, protecting women’s health and stopping domestic violence — while a slate of Republicans vying to face her in November are attacking one another before their May primary. In a news release on the opinion of one GOP opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, that President Barack Obama’s plan to increase the federal minimum wage is a “dangerous idea,” Hagan’s campaign highlighted in bold that women represent nearly two-thirds of minimum wage earners in the state.
In a crowd that was overwhelmingly female on Wednesday, there was no need for a truce. In her brief acceptance remarks, Kinsey shifted the focus away from herself and onto the support of family and colleagues. Yet in her brief time as mayor, from July 1 through Dec. 2 of 2013, she made some bold moves, reaching out to the city’s immigrant and multicultural communities and becoming the first Charlotte mayor to issue a “Charlotte Pride Weekend” proclamation, ride in the city’s LGBT Pride Parade and join the national “Mayor’s Freedom to Marry” movement.
The theme of Decker’s speech, “Light in Dark Places,” would be a welcome change from the tone of already heated campaign rhetoric in the state. She stayed positive as she talked about the challenges of her job. At a reception at the Levine Museum of the New South, Decker told She the People: “I think that women have a unique opportunity in many aspects of our world today. We see the world from a different perspective. We are comfortable walking across lines, ignoring lines.”
Her boss has come under criticism in his outreach to women, particularly when he hand carried chocolate-chip cookies to abortion bill protesters outside the Raleigh governor’s mansion last summer.
Decker, a registered independent, said she did not agree with all the decisions McCrory has made, “but I support our governor,” she said, “and what he’s trying to do for North Carolina,” especially in the areas of job creation and “getting North Carolina’s economy back on track.”
At the reception, Charlotte leader, philanthropist and 1988 Woman of the Year Sally Robinson expressed her concern about the direction of North Carolina, which was long known as a progressive Southern state before its recent conservative turn. “We should all be troubled,” she said. “But we can turn it around and I believe we will.” Robinson, with her husband, attorney Russell Robinson, made a video urging a “no” vote during a contentious campaign over an amendment to the state constitution declaring marriage between one man and one woman the only legal domestic union. (It passed overwhelmingly in May 2012.) Robinson echoed others there when she said she hoped more women would run for office.
Charlotte will hear more about bipartisanship in April, when Olympia Snowe, the former U.S. senator from Maine, is scheduled to speak at the Women + Girls Research Alliance 2014 Summit. Snowe decided not to run for a fourth term because, she said in a 2012 Washington Post opinion piece, of “the dysfunction and political polarization in the institution.”
It’s a message Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham thinks is needed. On Wednesday, she said she had received criticism “sometimes from my own party,” for working with Republicans. Cotham, a DNC member, described herself as an “industrial strength” Democrat, and said parties have to work together on issues such as mental health, schools and libraries. “Look at Washington; we don’t want to be like them.”
For one evening, at least, the mood was as far from Washington as you could get.