The Politic: The first question I have is what impact can mayors have that no other elected officials have?
The answer’s different here in North Carolina than what it might be elsewhere. Mayors here in North Carolina are not the chief executive officers of the city, and that is something that I think you’ll find different in the rest of the country. The chief executive officers are the city managers, so, that means that the mayor’s role in North Carolina cities is different, for example, than the mayor’s role in New York or Chicago, where the mayor is the CEO. Here, it means that the job of the mayor is to really be the “idea” leader. It is to mobilize the other elected officials and the community at large to identify the community level priorities and to set the agenda for the city as a whole. I don’t have to worry about running the police department or the fire department—I get to spend most of my day thinking at the 30,000 foot level.
The Politic: My second question is—if I’m visiting Charlotte for the first time and have just two hours free, what should I do? So, what’s the quintessential Charlotte experience?
That’s really interesting. To give you a sense of the city, I think I would make sure I took a look at several places. I’d make a stop in what we call NoDa, which is short for North Davidson St. area. [It’s] an old textile mill town, which has been converted into an arts district, not because of any public projects, but through the hard work of individuals who have converted their millhouses and shopfronts into an arts district on their own without any formal city plans. That would give you a real sense of the energy of the people and what they can do without the assistance of big government.
Then, I would want to make sure that you have at least a chance to see the corridor from Westinghouse Blvd. to the airport. That would give you a sense of the industrial muscle that Charlotte has. A lot of people think that Charlotte is a financial and banking capital, which it is, but they don’t appreciate the fact that it is one of the powerhouse manufacturing centers in the US these days, especially in high-tech and energy related large capital projects. I’d make sure you saw that area surrounding the airport down that corridor.
You’ve got to spend at least little bit of time in the main square of the city, in the center of the city, to get a sense of the downtown area. From that, you can pick up on the history of the city. You would get a sense of how new the city is, but also that the city is so old. You’d get that sense if you were standing at the heart of the city.
Next, I’d make a stop at the University of North Carolina campus out of the edge of the city and get a sense of the growth patterns on the frontiers of the city. That’s a good two hours.
The Politic: That’s a lot of area to cover in two hours!
Yes, but it’s manageable! You can make it.
The Politic: I’m actually from Charlotte and went through school here. I’ve lived here for the past ten years! But it’s definitely interesting to hear what the mayor thinks are some of the selling points of Charlotte. For example, I absolutely love NoDa, but I didn’t know so much about Charlotte’s industrial role.
And that’s something that people don’t really think about—they think about the bank towers in the heart of the city, but not necessary the industrial and manufacturing aspects of Charlotte.
The Politic: That is true. So do you have any favorite restaurants in Charlotte? Where would you recommend?
I like Lulu on Central Ave! It’s in a little converted house right across from Veteran’s Park, run by a few guys from Brooklyn who came down and wanted to set up a French bistro. It’s a really cool place. I love it!
The Politic: When you said NoDa, the first place I thought of was Amelie’s! [Amelie’s is a quirky little Parisian pastry cafe right in the heart of NoDa district]
Oh, I’m a huge fan of Amelie’s. Back when I was a City Council member, I represented that part of the city. I remember the transformation that it has gone through from what it was 25 years ago to what it is today. That’s why I get really excited about it—I think about it not just as the place it is today, but in terms of where it has come from over a span of time. That gets me really excited.
The Politic: Actually, off of that point, I did a little bit of reading up on your history in public service, and I have a few questions about that, if that’s okay.
The Politic: I know you served on the City Council beginning in 1987, and you moved onto work in the NC Senate. So what first piqued your interest in public service?
It’s just always been there. It just seemed to be what was interesting, and what was happening. Being a child in North Carolina in the late fifties and early sixties, during that time, there were Terry Sanford and Luther Hodges [past governors of North Carolina]. There was just a huge amount of energy in the state to transform its legacy, three or four generations after the civil war, and just as World War II had finished. There was a huge opportunity to make something of North Carolina to make it different from what its history and past had been. There were leaders at the state level like Sanford and Hodges and others who said that could do this, we could make the challenge of the modern world. We could throw off the baggage that we’d been carrying, from the Jim Crow days and our past, and look forward to the future. That was such a different attitude than was true in the other states of the South, so I got excited by that. My home is going to redeem itself and try to embrace the new world.
The Politic: And as a follow up question, you said that the politicians you looked up to as a child had this forward thinking mindset, so what is your vision for Charlotte in the next few years—in 2020? I had read somewhere that you were still undecided as to whether you would run for mayor in 2015?
I haven’t decided yet. It’s still an open question. I take things one step at a time, and I don’t have this secret career outline of what I’m going to do next! I want to do a good job of what I’m doing right now, and if it feels good and people like it, then I might do it again. It’s not about making your career, just doing work you love!
Onto the question, one of the things that I really like about this place is how open it is to people coming here from anywhere and everywhere and bringing with them their best ideas and their best hopes. Charlotte, I think really stands out in that regard. I want to make that rev up even more, so that 10 years from now we will be one of the hot places in the country for young people to come. I want to be in the same league and compete with Austin and Boston and other west coast cities. People should want to say I want to experiment and try something out, and a great place to set up and try my idea would be in Charlotte.
The Politic: I know a lot of people who have moved here from larger cities, who came to Charlotte to work for its growing industries in banking and finance, actually. It’s interesting you say that, because the people who have moved here have found Charlotte their new home—they want to raise their kids here and live here.
I think what’s really neat is that I lived in a small town in North Carolina, but my kids were born here. They’re now deciding where they want to make their future, and without any prodding from me, they’ve said that Charlotte is a pretty cool place! They’ve lived in a lot of different places throughout their lives, and my youngest says that this is probably the coolest place she’s every lived.
The Politic: That’s great! I really just have one main question. So, you started your tenure in office only three months ago, and there’s been a pretty rapid turnover of mayors in Charlotte. Do you think that affects Charlotte, and if it does, in what way?
It was a wake up call for people to say, stop, we can’t take things for granted. We can’t assume that the strong leadership that we’ve had will automatically continue without us tending to it and paying attention to it. And if we take things for granted, we might wake up one day with an unpleasant surprise, which is what happened.
Over the past 90 days, I’ve observed something positive. I have observed that people all across the community are saying, hey, this is our town, and we’re proud of it. We’re not going to let this define who we are, we’re going to reenergize and recommit and reengage. It strengthened a lot of civic resolve to not take the city for granted. That’s the silver lining in what was a very dark cloud.