News and Observer: Charlotte mayor's dilemma: All politics are basketball
BYLINE: Irwin Speizer, STAFF WRITER
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. B1; TAR HEEL OF THE WEEK
CHARLOTTE -- From a corner office on the 15th floor of this
city's modern, wedge-shaped municipal building, Mayor Pat McCrory
can look out on the glimmering city skyline toward the spot where
a new $ 215 million arena could rise.
McCrory sees it as a project the city must build to protect
its status as a major city and to keep from losing the rent that
the Charlotte Hornets professional basketball team pays to play
there. But he also knows that the outcome of a fight over the
project could affect his image and political future.
The arena is part of $ 352 million worth of sports and cultural
projects the city is asking voters to approve in a nonbinding
referendum June 5. If the measure fails and the Hornets leave for
another city, McCrory could go down as the mayor who let the
city's professional basketball franchise slip away. If the arena
passes, McCrory could face payback from voters who view the
project as a government giveaway to overpaid athletes and team
As the popular McCrory is quick to point out, he faces
political risks either way.
"Politically, this is not a model for either my short term or
long term," McCrory said. "I haven't met a mayor nationwide who
wants to get into this debate, because there's no middle ground.
But you've got to pick a side."
The problem for McCrory is that he has higher political
ambitions. He is running for a fourth two-year term in November
and has his eye on running next for U.S. Senate, governor or
McCrory's political allies sympathize. The arena issue
shouldn't be the defining moment of a successful political career
in local government, yet it could haunt McCrory.
"You don't want to be known as the mayor who lost the
Hornets," said friend and political confidante John Lassiter,
vice chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.
It is not surprising, then, that McCrory has kept a lower
profile on the arena issue, taking a tough stance publicly in
lease negotiations with the Hornets and assuming a somewhat
reluctant role in promoting the measure.
"Philosophically, I'd prefer not to be in it," McCrory said.
"In fact, I don't even have a passion for it. But from a business
standpoint, I understand the numbers."
City Council member Lynn Wheeler, who led a committee that put
together the arena proposal, has emerged as the city government's
leading champion of the measure.
"He hasn't been as out front as I have," Wheeler said. "But
maybe I'm an idiot. Time will tell."
For McCrory, the arena issue could make it harder for him to
break the so-called jinx against Charlotte mayors being elected
to higher office. Sure, Sue Myrick was elected to Congress, but
Harvey Gantt lost two bids for the U.S. Senate and Richard
Vinroot has failed in two campaigns for governor.
McCrory, a Republican, is convinced there is no jinx, that it
all comes down to campaign tactics, timing and political savvy.
Charlotte's wealth and power prompts resentment in other parts of
the state, McCrory admits, but that just means a candidate from
Charlotte needs to work harder at winning votes.
McCrory, 44, has always had a knack for retail politicking.
He has the look of a mischievous overgrown boy, with straight
dark brown hair that never quite cooperates, partly because
nervous energy prompts him to run his hands through it.
"He has a remarkable ability to communicate well with folks
from all walks of life," Lassiter said. "He is arguably the most
popular mayor Charlotte has had in the last 10 years or more."
But Mayor Pro-tem Susan Burgess, a Democrat and recent
addition to the City Council, said she has seen another side of
McCrory in private meetings over contentious issues, where he can
display an Irish temper.
"I expected him to be good-natured and even-tempered, but I
have found that is not always the case," she said.
McCrory has had plenty to get upset about recently.
In McCrory's last election, opponent Ella Scarborough attacked
him as being too cozy with big business and ignoring the needs of
poorer residents. McCrory countered that his goal is to help
sustain the city's thriving economy, which is the best antidote
Recently, he ran afoul of a half-dozen other mayors in the
county who want a cut of a countywide restaurant tax that the
city uses to fund its convention center. McCrory angered liberals
when he vetoed a council resolution in support of a national
moratorium on the death penalty. He then upset religious
conservatives when he wrote a welcoming letter for a visiting gay
and lesbian group.
"I'm in more battles now than I've ever been," McCrory said.
The current hassles are a departure for McCrory, who managed
to cruise through most of his first two terms with ease.
McCrory credits his father and a stint as a basketball referee
for his political skills. Born in Worthington, Ohio, to an
engineer father and nurse mother, he grew up watching his father
serve as a member of the local city council. McCrory's family
later moved to Greensboro, where he graduated from high school.
He earned a bachelor's degree at Catawba College in Salisbury.
He landed a job in the management training program of Duke
Power Co. in Charlotte in 1978 and moved into a spot as a
training and recruitment manager. In his spare time he refereed
high school and college basketball games, a sideline he had taken
up in college to earn extra money.
Being a referee taught him how to make quick decisions and
then defend them, skills that have served him well in politics,
"I apply that to being mayor," he said. "It's 20 percent
making decisions and 80 percent selling the decisions." McCrory
keeps a framed photo on his office desk of himself in a striped
referee shirt posing on a basketball court alongside Michael
After surviving a round of layoffs at Duke in the early 1980s,
McCrory reassessed his goals and decided to follow his father's
example and serve in local government.
With the backing of William S. Lee, who was then the chief
executive of Duke Power, McCrory ran for the Charlotte City
Council in 1989. He was one of 14 candidates vying for four seats
in a race with three incumbents. McCrory started as an unknown
but ran an effective campaign stressing law-and-order issues. The
three incumbents won, and McCrory snagged the fourth seat.
McCrory spent much of his first term doing monthly ride-alongs
with patrol officers and sponsoring measures such as a teen
curfew, still in effect. When Vinroot decided not to seek
re-election in 1995 to run for governor, McCrory made his move
and was elected mayor, a post he has held since.
He soon gained a reputation as a progressive mayor who
supported broad growth and planning initiatives, mass transit and
"Frankly, I wasn't real engaged in land-use issues until my
first week of being mayor," McCrory said. But after studying a
pile of reports, he decided to act.
"That's where we got the transit plan, where I helped push the
half-cent sales tax, which is not a real popular thing to do for
a Republican mayor."
The tax will raise a billion dollars that Charlotte will use
to build a new light rail system.
These days, McCrory spends a lot of time on the road. Since
January, he has made 15 trips to Raleigh to lobby legislators and
an additional 10 trips to Washington on city business or as part
of his duties as chairman of the environmental committee of the
U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Being mayor is still considered a part-time job in Charlotte,
with a salary of $ 17,537 and an additional $ 13,000 in expense
allowances. An arrangement with his company - now Duke Energy -
allows him to spend most of his time as mayor, with limited
duties back at his corporate office.
When in Charlotte, McCrory finds it hard to escape the arena
"If it does pass, we've got a lot of work on our plate to make
it work," McCrory said. "If it doesn't pass, we've got to figure
out a recovery plan. That's going to be quite a challenge."
Born: Oct. 17, 1956, in Worthington, Ohio
Family: Wife, Ann Gordon McCrory
Education: Ragsdale High School, Greensboro (student body
president); bachelor of political
science, Catawba College in Salisbury, 1978
Employment: Duke Energy Corp., 1978 to present, manager of
Political career: Charlotte City Council at-large seat, 1989
to 1995; Charlotte mayor, 1995 to present.
Affiliations: Chairman, environmental committee of the U.S.
Conference of Mayors; chairman, international task force of the
U.S. League of Cities; board of directors, Partners for Livable
Communities; chairman, N.C. Coalition for Public Transportation;
board of directors, N.C. League of Municipalities.
Political mentors: His father, Rollin John McCrory, an
engineer and former member of the city council in Worthington,
Ohio; William S. Lee, former chief executive of Duke Power Co.
Source of his decision-making style: Working part-time as a
college and high school basketball referee in the 1970s and
1980s, where he learned to make snap decisions and defend them.
"I apply that to being mayor. It's 20 percent making decisions
and 80 percent selling the decisions."
Favorite book: "1984" by George Orwell.