After years of trying, the Charlotte City Council appeared this winter to have the votes — and the political will — to extend the length of their terms. That is, until a new pro-business political group reminded them how voters feel about it.
Forward Charlotte Inc., a 501(c)4 organization devoted to pro-growth policies, scored its biggest victory to date by successfully squashing the City Council’s attempts to double their terms from two years to four years.
Their work shows how effective political organizations can be when they apply pressure in just the right place. And it shows how conservative ideas can still have influence even in deep-blue cities.
‘Make Charlotte more business and family friendly’
Forward Charlotte is the brainchild of Mark Knoop, a GOP consultant with Victory Enterprises who’s worked on the campaigns of mayoral candidate Edwin Peacock and S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson. It sprung up in 2017 in an effort to reverse the decline in new business visits and event revenue over the past few years.
Their mission is to “make Charlotte more business and family friendly,” and they’ve filled in the gap as the Charlotte Chamber has waned in influence in political circles.
As a 501(c)4 organization, Forward Charlotte does not have to disclose its donors and cannot directly coordinate with candidates. They do, however, disclose money directly spent on campaign activity.
One of their first efforts was to support pro-business policies in the 2017 municipal elections. They spent about $21,000 on digital and radio ads opposing Democrat Vi Lyles in her mayoral campaign, according to state records. That doesn’t include a significant amount more spent on educating the public on issues important to the business community.
But Forward Charlotte really dug in on the 4-year term debate.
Both Charlotte City Council members and Mecklenburg County commissioners serve two-year terms — and periodically, both bodies have discussed extending the length to four years.
The argument elected officials make is that they’ll be able to devote more time to policy if they don’t have to campaign as often.
“You will tell staff ‘don’t bring anything controversial on the agenda,’ and then you will be campaigning,” city councilman James “Smuggie” Mitchell said at a council meeting, according to WFAE. He said city government essentially shuts down in March of an election year.
But it also would mean local leaders would be less responsive to the will of the people and more entrenched in their power. An adage of Charlotte politics is that the council can’t raise taxes in an election year.
The 4-year term debate resurfaced in September 2018, with a majority of council members saying they’d be open to making the change. And technically, the City Council could vote to extend their terms with a simple majority vote.
Led by Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield, the council appeared headed in that direction.
That’s when Forward Charlotte got to work.
The group set up a website called LetCharlotteVote.org devoted to pressuring the City Council to at least let voters weigh in on term length. They started a social media campaign and gave Charlotteans the tools to make their opinion heard by their representatives.
And crucially, Forward Charlotte commissioned a poll finding out how such a vote would go. The results were widely covered in the media.
The poll provided a crucial data point that weighed on the City Council as the discussion continued.
Ultimately, the City Council decided to not even bring the 4-year term issue to the voters. They scrapped the plan entirely, with council members repeatedly referencing the poll results.
“This consistently polls at 2-1 against,” councilman Larken Egleston said during a council meeting. “I certainly haven’t had anyone emailing me saying ‘God, I hope you do this.'”
Forward Charlotte had won.
“Publicizing and voicing the opinions of a vast majority of Charlotte residents was critical to ensure City Council considered the will of those who they serve,” Forward Charlotte executive director Mark Knoop said.
An eye on city government
Forward Charlotte will have plenty of work in the coming months. The City Council is still talking about massively increasing their salaries, for example.
It’s especially crucial for Charlotte as the chamber has essentially disintegrated. Republicans have also continued to lose ground electorally. Democrats swept the county commissioner races in 2018, taking a 9-0 advantage. No Republican has won citywide in Charlotte in a decade, and only two Republicans hold seats on the 11-member council.
Forward Charlotte is helping to backstop pro-business principles. Looking ahead, Knoop said the group will push for more transparency and accountability in local government, including stronger sunshine laws and shining a light on the budgeting process.
“Charlotte residents are tired of misplaced priorities, waste, and missed opportunities,” he said.