CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With the Democratic National Convention set to start in Charlotte next week, a lot is riding on the shoulders of Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx. Sure, he sounded casual when he said he’s just “playing the role of the host of a large dinner party. I’m going to spend my time greeting as many of the 35,000 guests as I can.” But as a convention speaker, Foxx, a Democrat in his second term, will be more than that. The 41-year-old mayor is representing what has been called the New South, managing expectations about his own future and making the case for a president and friend he supports.
Amid preparations for North Carolina’s first national political convention, Foxx can’t forget his day job, which lasted into the evening at a recent community forum at Charlotte’s historically black Johnson C. Smith University. Residents, some from parts of the city convention visitors may not see, asked about challenges they face – in education, employment and housing – that will remain after the party is over.
It’s a juggling act for Foxx. While he is quick to acknowledge that “continuing the work that I do for the 750,000 residents of our city as best as I can during those four days” is his primary concern, Charlotte’s second African American mayor, named one of Politico’s “ones to watch” during convention week, is probably working hard on that speech. “This is actually going to be a fun event,” he said during the last-minute preview he gave me. “I want people to, as much as they can, relax and enjoy it.”
Q: It’s been a little more than 18 months since Charlotte was named as the convention host city. Any surprises since then?
A: Wherever I’m going in Charlotte these days, people are pulling for us to do this convention well. Regardless of their politics, people in this community know this is a seminal moment for Charlotte and they want to see the city do well. That has been a big, big surprise and also a big source of pride for me.
Q: What are their concerns and your concerns?
A: This is an event unlike any event we have ever hosted in our city and people get that. … Now that the transportation plans have been rolled out, there is a lot of curiosity out in the city about how this is actually going to work. Once people see it there, and they know how to navigate around it, they’re going to be fine.
Q: What is the impression you want visitors to have of Charlotte?
A: If it’s just a matter of wow, Charlotte has a few taller buildings than I thought, and yes, it’s an inexpensive place to live and you have a good quality of life, yes, those are good things for people to say. But what I really want them to say is that this is a city that has enough of a spirit, enough of a heart and a soul to know how to meet its challenges and to build a better future. And I want them to know that from a standpoint of what this city accomplished in the 1970s when so many cities were broken apart by school desegregation, people in Charlotte pulled together and made integration work. I want them to know stories like that that tell us about the fiber of this community and the character of the people who live here, because I think that is really the secret ingredient to our city’s success.
Q: There have been more recent challenges, an achievement gap in the schools, a crisis in the banking industry that hit Charlotte financial institutions, an unemployment rate higher than the national average.
A: Charlotte is still working to make the best of the possibilities. Project L.I.F.T. is a direct response to what we’re seeing with the achievement gap in our community, a $55 million privately funded effort … in our lowest performing schools that to me is another example of how this city pulls together. With regards to the economy, we’ve actually worked hard to grow jobs in this city since the recession. … We’ve done it by diversifying our economy [to become a] world energy capital, and I think going forward that’s going to increasingly become the story of our city. Some of the best medical practices in the world are practiced right here in Charlotte. We’re working hard to build a stronger ecosystem for our small businesses and entrepreneurs. … All of those things are part of the story of how, yes, we took a punch in 2007, 2008 but we stiffened our jaw and we’re coming back; that’s a piece of the story that we’re still writing.
Q: What about your story?
A: I think people are going to be much more interested in the president and the vice president and what they have to say about the future of this country than in me. … What I can tell you is that this convention is an enormous source of pride for any of us who spend time in this city. …I can trace my family back five generations. The piece of this convention that I’m also looking forward to is seeing my 95-year-old grandmother watching the president’s renomination speech knowing all of the things she had to put up with in her life in order to make it possible for me to become mayor of this city. All I need out of this is to see her in that moment.
Q: Is the city prepared for the protests planned during convention week?
A: No one respects the First Amendment more than I do. People have a right to express their concerns and their hopes and dreams to their government. Our job is to do the best we can to preserve and protect their right and balance it with the need to make sure not only that the demonstrators are safe but the entire community is. … We’re going to do the best we can to strike the right balance; everyone won’t always agree on what that is.
Q: President Obama won North Carolina by just 14,000 votes in 2008. Polls show the president and Mitt Romney in a tight race in the state. Will having the convention in North Carolina boost the president’s chances in November?
A: If I were Mitt Romney I would be a little worried because for the amount of money he’s spending on television and the amount of time he’s spending in North Carolina, the president’s got a lot of staying power. I think as we get closer into the fall and when people start hearing the difference between these two campaigns — a president who wants to build the economy from the middle class out and Romney, who wants to take the top-down approach, the same approach that led us into the ditch in the first place — the country’s going to get wise to it, North Carolina is going to get wise to it and hopefully North Carolina is going to do just what we did in 2008. …
I think a campaign and a convention allow people to focus on the contrasting narratives between the two. … We’ve been trying to get high-speed rail in North Carolina for decades and this president was able to make it possible at the stroke of a pen. … We have challenges in education … and this president is rewarding innovation in education through Race to the Top. … When people really hear the story of what he walked into, what he’s done with the time he’s had and what he hopes to do in the future, I’m confident that this state is going to go with the president again because the contrast can’t be more stark.
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