Charlotte bucks trends with low-key mayoral race

AP News
Posted: Nov 02, 2013 3:59 PM
Charlotte bucks trends with low-key mayoral race

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — In North Carolina's largest city, the mayoral race has seen no mudslinging. No blistering attack ads like those in state and national races in which divisive partisanship has become normal.

Instead, Democrat Patrick Cannon and Republican Edwin Peacock have tried to stay focused on the critical issues facing Charlotte, the election remaining a low-key affair in a city that has become one of the nation's leading banking and energy centers.

Over the past two decades, Charlotte has become a symbol of the new South - its gleaming skyscrapers and vibrant downtown with two professional sports teams. The city, which promotes its hospitality, hosted the Democratic National Convention last year, and the last two mayors have moved on to higher offices.

Still, the candidates say the city of 760,000 is at a crossroads — with challenges ahead, including job creation. And the two would rather talk about that future than engage in attacks.

The owner of a financial investment company, Peacock, 43, made an unsuccessful bid last year for the Republican nomination in the 9th Congressional District. But the former city councilman impressed voters by campaigning as a moderate; he opposed a statewide amendment last year that banned same-sex marriage.

"If the issue is the economy, then why aren't we focusing on the economy?" Peacock told The Associated Press.

He knows he's at a disadvantage — 50 percent of Charlotte's 550,000 registered voters are Democrats. About 23 percent are Republicans, the rest unaffiliated.

J. Michael Bitzer, a political science and history professor at Catawba College, agrees that Peacock faces an uphill challenge.

"To have that big of a Democratic advantage means a Republican has got to have his party base show up, win a substantial portion of the unaffiliated voters and then hope for some crossover Democratic support. That's a huge mountain to overcome," Bitzer said.

But if he wins, Peacock said it will prove that a "business-minded, pragmatic, centrist Republican can win" in a Democratic city because he's reaching out to Democrats, Latinos, African-Americans.

And he noted that Republicans have won in Charlotte before: Pat McCrory, a Republican, spent 14 years as mayor before being elected governor in 2012.

A fiscal conservative, Cannon, 47, the mayor pro tem, is the owner of a parking management company. First elected to the City Council in 1993, Cannon is a longtime radio show host who discusses local and national political issues.

"I think the reason you don't see politics being played in Charlotte the way you see it played in other cities is that it's simply not the Charlotte way. And it's certainly not my way," Cannon said in an interview.

Negative ads have become a staple in political campaigns, from the local level to highest office. For example, in this year's New York City mayoral race, Joe Lhota has unleashed attack ads against Democrat Bill de Blasio, saying he's soft on crime.

Peacock said some people suggested he should wage a campaign in which he'd "spend months trying to tear the other guy down."

"I wasn't going to do that," he said, pointing to one of his campaign commercials that promotes unity. "If a good idea comes from Democrats or Republicans, who cares? I'm running for mayor to provide the leadership, to get us moving . forward," Peacock says in the ad.

It doesn't mean the candidates haven't sparred in debates.

Cannon called Peacock anti-Charlotte for opposing a capital budget plan. Peacock said it was too expensive.

Peacock criticized Cannon for a city deal to provide $87.5 million for upgrades to the Carolina Panthers' stadium in exchange for a commitment to stay in Charlotte at least another six years. Peacock said public trust was violated because the package was negotiated behind closed doors. But Cannon said he didn't take part in negotiations because he asked to be recused; his parking company has a contract with the Panthers.

For the most part, however, they've been touting ways to improve the local economy, which voters call the most pressing issue.

"It's been tough around here the last few years," said Walter Mitchell, 51, a financial adviser. The father of two was laid off in 2009 for a few months before landing a new job. He said he'll vote for Cannon.

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Debbie Lake, 31, is a teacher and says she's tired of politicians "fighting all the time" and will vote for Peacock. "You want politicians working together to solve problems, to get things done," she said.

Cannon or Peacock will replace Anthony Foxx, who was appointed by President Barack Obama as U.S. Transportation Secretary.

While the city manager runs daily operations, the mayor helps set policy, and whoever wins Tuesday's election will face tough decisions.

GOP lawmakers have tried to wrest control of the city-run airport — the nation's sixth busiest — from Charlotte officials and replace it with a 13-member authority. The city has filed a lawsuit to prevent the takeover, and both candidates support keeping Charlotte Douglas Airport in city hands.

The city also faces serious economic challenges.

Big banks drove Charlotte's explosive growth. Charlotte-based Bank of America Corp. and Wachovia turned the city into the nation's second-largest banking center. Together the two banking giants employed tens of thousands in Charlotte alone. In the nation's banking meltdown, Charlotte lost thousands of good-paying financial-services jobs. Wachovia nearly collapsed at the height of the financial crisis in 2008 before it was purchased by Wells Fargo.

Republicans took control of the state Legislature in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction and cemented full control of state government with the election of McCrory in November. In just nine months, lawmakers implemented a conservative platform. The General Assembly refused to expand Medicaid, cut unemployment benefits and abolished the earned-income tax credit, which serves low- to middle-income people.

Both candidates talk about improving the city by diversifying its economy — Charlotte is home to Duke Energy, the nation's largest utility by number of customers, and US Airways has a hub at the airport — and do so without ripping into the other guy.

Cannon called job creation his "No. 1 focus."

For Peacock: "I have said time and time again, I think we're living off past glory."