Arguably the most famous story in Charlotte’s political history goes like this.
Anxious to build a bank that could rival its much bigger competitors to the north and west, Charlotte’s North Carolina National Bank saw the need to expand beyond its state. But there was one big obstacle in the way: The law at that time prevented banks from operating across state lines.
Led by Tom Storrs and shortly after Hugh McColl, NCNB finally found a way around the law and used a regulatory loophole to take over a Florida bank. Under pressure, Southeastern states started allowing other banks to do the same.
More than a decade later, Congress relented and made national banks legal. By then, Charlotte had a banking empire in the making.
Could this be more classic Charlotte? It’s a story of going it alone, of asking forgiveness rather than permission, of an identity derived from business interests, and of throwing weight around via dollars rather than influence.
None of this is inherently bad or wrong. But there’s a reason why Charlotte has for decades been derisively referred to as the Great State of Mecklenburg.
Through painstaking effort and a more than a little good marketing, Charlotte has built a reputation as a commercial powerhouse and a capital of the New South economy.
It hasn’t put nearly the same force behind cultivating its political culture.
Despite being the largest city in the state, Charlotte was shut out of the Executive Mansion from 19251 until former mayor Pat McCrory won the governorship in 20122. McCrory promptly became the first governor to fail to win re-election in North Carolina history.
Charlotte’s highways lag behind most of the rest of the state despite a booming population. The city had no four-year state university until 1965, nearly 200 years after the state’s first was established in Chapel Hill.
And lately, Charlotte’s City Council has continually butted heads with the General Assembly up in Raleigh.
With last week’s announcement that Charlotte will host the 2020 Republican National Convention, the eyes of the political world are returning to the city. Charlotte will have an opportunity to define itself once again.
Inevitably, Charlotte will stand at a political turning point. Can Charlotte become a political town?
Charlotte has plenty of money, just not for politicians.
Ask that around North Carolina today and you’ll just be laughed at.
Sure, Charlotte isn’t the capital of North Carolina. But the city has punched far below its weight in the political arena compared with other metro areas that aren’t the seat of state government — like New York City, Chicago, Houston, Miami, San Francisco, and even Cincinnati and San Jose.
One big place this shows up: Political donations.
Gov. Roy Cooper raised only $1.4 million in Charlotte during his successful 2016 campaign out of nearly $25 million in total receipts, according to a Longleaf Politics analysis of data from the State Board of Elections.
Pat McCrory raised just $1.5 million from the city in the same time period, despite serving as the city’s mayor for a decade and a half. That was out of just under $16 million in total receipts that election cycle. Expanding to Mecklenburg County as a whole brings that total up to only $1.7 million.
The same dynamic shows up in race after race, cycle after cycle. Charlotte has a few large political donors, but it is not the norm for rank and file business executives to be politically engaged.
Money doesn’t buy votes or support in politics, not directly (at least most of the time). But donations do buy a seat at the table3, and they are a sign that people want to cultivate a personal relationship.
Want support for your city’s priorities? Have relationships with politicians. Want a relationship in politics? Give money.
This lack of trust and influence continues to rear its head.
Charlotte has continued to run into issues at the state level over the past few years.
In 2013, it was over control of the Charlotte Douglas International airport. The state legislature wanted to create an independent commission to oversee it, as Raleigh-Durham International has.
That same year, Charlotte and the Carolina Panthers debated finding state support for renovations to Bank of America Stadium. One proposal would have the state legislature approve a sales tax increase in Mecklenburg County. It didn’t go very far.
In 2016, the conflict was over House Bill 2, a rash and disproportionate response to a nondiscrimination ordinance passed by Charlotte’s City Council.
Some of this, of course, is a red versus blue thing. Charlotte is overwhelmingly Democratic, while Republicans control the General Assembly.
But this fractured relationship existed before the GOP took power, and would likely continue should Democrats retake control.
Becoming a political town would not mean kowtowing to the opposition party. In all of the examples above, there’s a fundamental break in trust. Political leaders don’t have relationships with Charlotte folks. They don’t see the issues.
Charlotte wasn’t able to convince Raleigh that House Bill 2 was a bad idea. Charlotte wasn’t able to argue why it should keep control of its airport. Charlotte wasn’t able to tell the story of how the Panthers help the state.
Embracing politics would heal a historic civic wound.
Arguably the second most famous Charlotte political story goes like this.
Two years into his presidency, George Washington visited Charlotte on a tour of the new nation’s Southern states.
“Charlotte is a very trifling place,” Washington wrote in his diary after a picnic lunch at the intersection of Trade and Tryon.
Ever since then, Charlotte has kept a chip on its shoulder, eschewing politics and attempting to build a business climate so powerful that nobody could insult it again.
This mindset has helped the city boom into an economic power. It now threatens to hinder further growth.
Is Charlotte ready to heal this civic wound? Will the city use the 2020 Republican National Convention to do so?
Time will tell if that becomes part of the story.