Anthony Foxx hoping for a smoother political ride at DOT

Video: President Obama nominated Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as the secretary for the Department of Transportation.

Just weeks ago, Anthony Foxx apparently decided to slow down.

The youngest mayor of the fast-growing Sun Belt city of Charlotte and the first Democrat to hold the job in a generation, Foxx catapulted to national attention last year when his city hosted the Democratic National Convention. But on April 5, citing, among other things, a desire to spend more time with his family, Foxx announced he would not seek a third term.

On Monday, he made a professional U-turn when President Obama named him to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation.

North Carolina political observers have long viewed Foxx as a potential gubernatorial and Senate candidate; if confirmed to lead the DOT, he will he have a Cabinet-level job in his portfolio. Whether he will have a smoother ride in Washington than in his home town — where he was unable to win over a fractious city council to some of his transportation goals — is another matter.

Among other things, the Transportation Department presides over the nation’s aviation system, highways, public transportation, and ports and waterways. And while the secretary is a distant 14th in line for succession to the presidency, the power of the job is partly to shower federal largess on districts for major infrastructure projects.

It will be a tall order for Foxx, who turned 42 on Tuesday, to reverse the frustrations of the DOT bureaucracy. But the former corporate lawyer can, in his most eloquent moments, describe in palpably human terms what is at stake on transit issues.

“It’s income, history and perception,” he said in February, referring to his support for expansion of a streetcar line to a primarily poor and minority neighborhood in Charlotte. “There are people who live in Central Avenue and Beatties Ford Road who have as much ambition as someone in south Charlotte.”

Virtually the whole city shimmers with ambition. It’s home to major financial institutions such as Bank of America. Its airport — one of the busiest in the country by virtue of passengers and takeoffs — places it squarely on the national and even international radar.

Foxx, who declined to comment awaiting confirmation, reflects the city’s pro-business spirit.

Richard Thurmond, the publisher of Charlotte Magazine who has known Foxx for more than 20 years, said he recalled the casual lunch where his friend talked about running for office one day and that “one of the first things he talked about was transit.”

“He got right away that transit is not just about moving people but about what it can do for cities and regions,” he said. “And this was just two guys over lunch — not like he had formed policies or positions — but thinking about things that can have an impact. That’s what defined Anthony: thinking about what can have the most impact.”

Mary Newsom, associate director of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Urban Institute, said, “As mayor, he sees the big picture and articulates the big picture in a way that mayors have sometimes not being able to.”

“His weakness is in schmoozy politicking, the Lyndon Johnson skill of working your allies and working your opponents and getting what you want in the end,” Newsom said. “He’s pretty young and doesn’t have enough scar tissue. He seems to learn from his scar tissue, but he’s too young to have accumulated enough.”

Laura Foxx was 19 and attending Spelman College in Atlanta when she became pregnant. She moved back to her home in Charlotte, where Anthony Renard Foxx was born.

The biological father played little role in the child’s upbringing. Laura Foxx completed her education while her parents raised Anthony.

“Some people feel entitled, some feel disenfranchised,” Anthony Foxx told the Charlotte Observer in 2009. “At various points in my life, I have been on the outside looking in. I can deal with both personality types. I can deal with both extremes.”

In addition to serving as a school principal, Anthony’s grandfather James Foxx Sr. also was a Democratic power broker in the city and an intimate of political leaders such as Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and Harvey Gantt, who became Charlotte’s first black mayor.

After high school, Anthony Foxx went to Davidson College, a small liberal arts school north of Charlotte. He became the first black student body president before graduating with a history degree in 1993.

He earned a law degree at New York University in 1996 and worked in Washington as a lawyer for the Justice Department’s civil rights division and as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee before returning home in 2001. That same year he married the former Sarama Ryder, a lawyer he met when both worked on Capitol Hill, and with whom he now has two children.

He then joined the Charlotte office of Hunton & Williams, the venerable corporate law firm. His clients included the city’s powerful banking interests and Duke University Health System, which he represented in medical malpractice lawsuits. He once told the Observer that, more than a courtroom firebrand or arm-twister, he viewed himself as a “mediator” who brought parties together to find solutions.

Within a few years, he joined the 11-member city council. At his first meeting, he reportedly surprised several members with his declaration that the council displayed a “loss of focus” in its attentiveness toward the city’s poorer wards.

He later explained to the Observer: “I had been very familiar with how public bodies operate. I had always tried to study the issues, and I had spent countless hours reading through material. I didn’t have to have a lot of ramp-up time.”

He won a second term to the council and then, in 2009, was elected mayor when the seat long held by Pat McCrory, now the state’s Republican governor, became vacant after 14 years. Foxx campaigned on economic development issues at a time when the citywas slammed by the national economic recession.

Foxx drew the endorsement of the city’s main newspaper, which called him a practitioner of “moderate, mainstream politics” who was “adept at connecting with residents and uniting a diverse community.” He won the mayoralty by fewer than 3,000 votes against his Republican challenger.

The mayor’s job in Charlotte is part-time (it now pays $37,459), while the city manager and staff handle most of the day-to-day operations. Foxx, who then as now is employed as deputy general counsel of the DesignLine hybrid and electric bus manufacturer, championed a series of public transit initiatives, including the failed-for-now streetcar expansion.

One bright spot on the transportation front came in March when the mayor signed a lease with Norfolk Southern Corp. to create a freight hub at the Charlotte airport that in part would provide a major rail link at the airport with seaports such as Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla.

“The city of Charlotte is, even more, in the manufacturing, distribution, transportation and economic growth business,” Foxx said in March. “This is a big deal.”

The biggest deal for the city and for Foxx’s career was the Democratic convention in September. The mayor long saw the event as a way to revive Charlotte’s spirits after the recession; he helped the city outbid Minneapolis, St. Louis and Cleveland.

The convention injected a “huge psychological boost beyond the usual economic impact of pumping dollars into the community,” said Jeff Michael, director of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute. “This was a city that lost its mojo and swagger. And it had a lot of swagger prior to the economic collapse.”

Foxx was Charlotte’s point man with the DNC and the administration. He had grown close to Obama, whose popularity in North Carolina since his first election in 2008 had taken a precipitous drop. Foxx campaigned vigorously for the president, even in the city’s conservative strongholds.

The flamboyance of NASCAR and disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker notwithstanding, Charlotte has long been a buttoned-down community. When his moment came at the convention to speak and introduce himself via television to a national audience, Foxx reflected that no-drama style.

He chose a dark conservative suit, and he strode confidently to the lectern to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” He briefly mentioned being raised by a single, working mother but did not dwell on it. Instead he spoke of Charlotte as “a hub of energy and commerce, a place where business and government work together and make great things happen.”

Just a few months later, Foxx’s tone was decidedly sharper when, during the state of the city address, he accused the council of standing in the way of “a galvanizing vision of our community” in part for the council’s opposition to raising property taxes to fund the streetcar project. Foxx was also recently faced with a proposed bill in the state legislature to remove city control over Charlotte’s airport and place an independent airport authority in charge.

Gantt, the former mayor and a mentor to Foxx, downplayed the recent transportation quarrels.

“I was impressed because he had lost the first budget battle, but he’d not given up and remained consistently involved,” Gantt said. “He has the ability to negotiate. He’s reasonable, smart and has the capacity to understand all different sides.”

While he has expressed reservations about the impact of public life on time with his family, Foxx ultimately could not turn down the president, friends said.

Foxx is a jazz enthusiast and is close to the Marsalis music dynasty, in particular the trumpeter player Wynton, who has contributed funds to his campaigns. Foxx once likened his political life to jazz.

“It always starts with a common theme,” he told the Observer in 2007. “From there, every instrument gets a chance to interpret it, and then you come back and interpret it together.”

 
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