Politics and Progress in the New South

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."

Ties That Bind: Obama, Gantt, Foxx

Harvey Gantt is, of course, the man whose successes and setbacks mark the journey of the African-American politician in the South. The personal and the political cannot be separated in Gantt's connection to both Foxx and Obama.


After the state of South Carolina exhausted every legal effort to keep Gantt — a Charleston native — out of Clemson University, he became the first African American to enter the school, from which he graduated with honors with a degree in architecture in 1965. Later he earned a master's in city planning at MIT. In Charlotte he established Gantt Huberman Architects, the first integrated architecture firm in the Carolinas, where — 40 years later — he still works.

In the career he is most known for outside the region, Gantt served two terms, 1983 to 1987, as mayor of Charlotte — he was the first African American elected to the position. And in the 1990s, he fought two hard, close U.S. Senate races against Jesse Helms (who died in 2008), the firebrand who took negative campaigning to a racially divisive low with the "white hands" ad that accused Gantt of favoring quotas denying "qualified" whites work.


In a conference room at Gantt Huberman, Gantt, 68, reflected on the arc of his political career, one he didn't seek out, and one that had young Anthony Foxx licking envelopes and smiling Harvard law student Barack Obama wearing a "Harvey Gantt for U.S. Senate" T-shirt.

"Young African Americans today actually consider careers in politics," Gantt said. "Obama was thinking about politics a long time ago in Chicago as a community organizer, and all the possibilities. But Anthony Foxx was, too. He watched my campaigns, [Rep. Mel Watt's] campaigns, [and] worked in those campaigns. And probably if we asked him what his deepest aspirations are, he probably wants to stay in politics."


That's "hugely different" from black elected officials of his generation, Gantt said. "We got into politics at the end of the civil rights heyday to take advantage of what had been granted to us — by law, in many cases — out of necessity for our communities," he said.

"But not a single one of us ever planned —I know I didn't — to be mayor of Charlotte or governor or senator," Gantt continued. "My mother would have shot me dead if I had said at the end of my college career, 'I think I want to be mayor of Charlotte one day': 'After all the sacrifices we made to get you a degree in architecture, you want to be up there with those terrible politicians?'


"I think, and I've said this to Anthony, the biggest difference is that you guys can plan political careers," Gantt said. "We fell into it and by happenstance kept moving up the ladder."

A Different Take on Progress

That judgment doesn't come as a surprise to former Newsweek columnist and contributing editor Ellis Cose, whose book The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage explores different generations' attitudes about racial progress. Using surveys of Harvard MBAs and graduates of A Better Chance, which since 1963 has provided educational opportunities by sending children to elite schools, Cose found an unexpected "huge generational change" since working on Rage of a Privileged Class. In that 1993 book, middle-class blacks fumed over what they perceived as equal opportunity persistently denied at the highest levels.


As Cose told The Root, the studies showed that younger people "overwhelmingly and across the board" said that while discrimination still exists, their attitude is "I don't expect it to affect me. I'm smart enough and prepared enough that I can figure out a way to get around it."

In the chapter "The End of Black Politics, Reconsidered," Cose examines the experiences of Obama and other younger African-American politicians who never believed anything was off-limits to them. The veteran campaigners and elected officials who came before — Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Gantt — handed them "a gift," Cose said. "They didn't have to carry the civil rights banner, and as a consequence, it made them much more acceptable to whites."


Cose also sees progress in seemingly unlikely places, such as the successful candidacies of "right-wing black Republicans" like Tim Scott, who won a U.S. congressional seat in South Carolina and beat Strom Thurmond's son in the primary along the way. "What I essentially see is even conservative white folks have gotten the message that they're not supposed to be racist anymore."

In the South, the importance of the Voting Rights Act and changing demographics (in North Carolina, that includes a surge in the Latino population) should not be underestimated. But it's also true that Gantt's campaigns were blueprints for how to appeal to a broad constituency. "I've watched others who've followed me when I ran for Senate talk about the environment, education, better health care, and not poverty programs," he said.


Gantt lost those Senate races, but other candidates are winning. "If one measured politics as a barometer for progress," he said, the argument could be made that "probably that has been our fastest road to achieving power in a community" — and beyond.

Foxx is one of 24 public officials recently chosen to participate in the Aspen Institute's Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership program, which is focused on transcending political partisanship as it looks at issues of leadership and governance.


"Here's the thing," Foxx said. "We've been through battling each other over race as a country and getting into these skirmishes about welfare queens and all this other stuff." His generation is impatient with that kind of conversation: "You know, the one that's filled with vitriol and finger-pointing. We're much more interested in what's going to work … And if somebody's got a good idea, we're going to encourage them to stop using the index finger and start using the pen to write it down."

The Art of Talking "Across Communities"

"It takes a deft touch to be able to talk across communities," Foxx said. "It's a challenge, and it's not going to get any easier." His challenger, Republican businessman Scott Stone, is attacking Foxx on the pace of job creation, an approach that fits into the national GOP narrative. (The Republican National Committee has released a radio ad in North Carolina and seven other states that Obama won in 2008 attacking his economic policies and leadership.)


"Whether I'm capable is really more an issue for me and for things that may or may not happen for me in the future," rather than a reflection on the president, Foxx said. He recalled that the first conversation he and Obama shared was not about politics but about family. "He was probably the first politician to tell me that the first thing I needed to do was to carve out time to spend with my kids and my wife."

Foxx pointed out that the main difference between him and Obama was educational background. Foxx, the first African-American student body president at Davidson College, said, "The Ivy League world is a different world than the Davidson-NYU [law school] world — not better, just different."


Now, separately and together, their conversations are likely to be about the economy. Charlotte seeks to diversify its own economy after setbacks involving its foundation of big banks (Foxx sits on the advisory board of the executive committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors), and the state is looking for growth in innovative arenas.

Late last year, Obama spoke to students at a Winston-Salem community college with the state's largest biotechnology training program and found many seeking a new direction after the departure of textile and furniture industries. The president visited the state most recently on Sept. 14, when he toured a small business, touted his American Jobs Act and spoke to a packed house at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He will certainly be back before next September.


Looking at Race and Beyond

In preparation for the 2012 event, Gantt, who chairs the steering committee of the Committee for Charlotte in 2012, talked to past host-city organizers. He said that he is content to leave high-profile duties to others such as Foxx (although, with his community involvement and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture occupying prime Center City real estate, Gantt will never be low profile.) Foxx's election, said Gantt, "was a clear generational change, and what was satisfying about that is, he'll see the world differently — he'll see Charlotte differently than [I did]."


Foxx and Gantt shared the stage the day after Labor Day, when Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz came to Charlotte for the convention-kickoff event. Foxx offered proposals for the city to lead on energy issues and to engage young people and small businesses in the convention. Gantt called the convention "just the next step on leading Charlotte to an even more prosperous future."

Gantt thought about the past and future when he spoke with The Root in his office conference room: "I remember saying when I lost the race to Jesse Helms, the really emotional race … I have this strange feeling that he's a dying breed, and even in North Carolina we're going to see different kinds of politicians win statewide who are going to have views that are going to be more reflective of where I am than where Jesse Helms is."


It's not that North Carolina or the country has entered a postracial nirvana in politics or any other area, according to Foxx, who is juggling the day-to-day duties of mayor while getting Charlotte ready for its close-up.

"We're all ready to move beyond race," he said. "I just don't think we know quite how to do it. We get shown how to do it in spots. The president's example is taking us some part along the way there. And I think, maybe in my little corner of the world, maybe I help that some, too."


Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Nieman Watchdog and Creative Loafing, where she writes a weekly column on DNC 2012. She was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.

Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.

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