Politics and Progress in the New South

The Root explores where Obama, race and politics meet with Charlotte's young black mayor, Anthony Foxx.

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Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx; former Mayor Harvey Gantt;
President Barack Obama

Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx's 15th-floor office looks out onto a busy New South city that will get even busier in September 2012. Once the Democratic National Convention moves in for a week -- bringing along President Barack Obama and 35,000 delegates, politicians, celebrities and members of the media -- Foxx might be sharing only a bit of the spotlight. But it will shine brighter than any he's known so far. 

The 40-year-old Foxx, who has a 2011 re-election race to win on the way to acting as a convention host, noted parallel "life stories" that he and Obama share. "Even though he grew up in a vastly different part of the country and the world," said Foxx of Obama, "he was essentially raised by a single mother just as I was and was heavily influenced by his grandparents, as I was.

"There was a 'Greatest Generation' element that greatly influenced both of us," Foxx said. He thinks that's important, "when the country and our city have been put through the wringer in a lot of ways" on issues from the economy to foreign policy. "There is a resilience built into me, having lived with people who had to struggle through the Great Depression and through the Second World War."

What Foxx didn't immediately mention is that both are African-American elected officials, a fact that's both obvious and beside the point. At 50, Obama is the more experienced generational leader to Foxx and his occasional conversational partners such as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., both 42 years old.

As Foxx and his city prepare to host the Democratic convention, they represent a confluence of race, place and politics in the New South.

Re-Elections: Hard Work Ahead

The launch of Foxx's fall re-election bid was not quite as grand as Obama's is sure to be, but the stagecraft was impressive. At the elementary school he attended, Foxx was introduced by his former principal. In the front row, the photogenic family portrait included his wife, son, daughter and 94-year-old grandmother, a former teacher herself.

In today's political climate, the president will need more than skillful staging to repeat his win. (Many of Obama's supporters are urging the president to recapture the narrative and his leadership voice in the face of opposition on his left and right, a struggling economy and sinking poll numbers.) In 2008 North Carolina decided (by a margin of just over 14,000 votes) to award its electoral votes to Obama, in what was a surprise to some but apparently not to candidate Obama, who visited often during his campaign.

The night before Election Day, he stood on an outdoor stage on the rain-soaked campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, paying tribute to Madelyn Payne Dunham, the grandmother who had helped raise him and who died before she could see him make history. Obama has said that Dunham taught him about "hard work." And he worked hard for every vote in a state that had last favored a Democrat for president in 1976, when the candidate was Georgia's Jimmy Carter. Others were watching.

"I remember when he ran for the United States Senate in Illinois," said Foxx. "My point of reference for a Senate race like that is the Harvey Gantt race in 1990, and for me, coming out of the South, it seemed like that would be a big stretch for someone to run and win."

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