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Politics, personalities and pro wrasslin': How Charlotte won the DNC

CHARLOTTE, N.C. It took more than an epic, never-fail attitude and the vision of a lone City Council member to land Charlotte the largest event in its history.

Politics, naturally, played a dominant role in the Democrats’ decision on where to hold their 2012 convention.

Mecklenburg County’s support in 2008 helped make Barack Obama the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry North Carolina in 32 years. The Democrats believed a convention in N.C. could firm up the Southern inroads it made that year.

But the road to Charlotte’s big party was paved decades ago, when a middling Southern city began its transformation to the metropolis it yearned to be: Charlotte, without the “N.C.”

Voters, on the second try, approved a terminal in 1978 that expanded Charlotte’s airport. It’s now one of the nation’s busiest.

A 1985 Supreme Court ruling opened the way for interstate banking, turning Charlotte into the nation’s second-largest banking center.

A new coliseum, precursor to the Time Warner Cable Arena convention site, opened in 1988. That led to the city’s first big-time sports franchise – the NBA’s Hornets – that didn’t involve pro wrestlers named Wahoo or “Nature Boy.”

More recent events and personalities sealed the DNC deal. Start with:

Susan Burgess

The City Council member returned from the Democrats’ 2008 convention in Denver convinced that Charlotte was the perfect city to host the next DNC.

Local officials weren’t so sure but Burgess, who died in 2010, was undeterred. A New South city, she believed, would be key to the Democrats in 2012.

“When she made her mind up, nothing could stop her,” said her son, Dr. Jason Burgess, who finished her council term. “She was very determined. She always had a vision for Charlotte, and it was not a small-town vision.”

Burgess pressed a letter and promotional material on former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, then-DNC chairman, during a Washington visit. That letter, now framed in a DNC conference room named in her honor, was the first piece of paper handed to convention CEO Steve Kerrigan when he came to town.

She’s expected to be memorialized during the convention.

“She would be extremely proud, but she wouldn’t be satisfied” in landing the convention, Jason Burgess said. “She would be looking for the next great thing for Charlotte.”

Political strategy

By choosing Charlotte, Kerrigan said, Democrats were sending a message that they weren’t ceding the ground gained in 2008. Party officials called the city’s selection a statement that the Obama campaign would play offense, not defense.

“To me, the real key was probably the result of the 2010 election – the fact that North Carolina didn’t lose much ground compared to other competitive states,” said Will Miller, who served as interim executive director of the DNC host committee. “What 2010 proved is that it probably was a swing state.”

But ultimately, Kerrigan said, party leaders’ “one instruction was to pick a city that could be impactful.

“Folks in North Carolina are doing across the state what the president’s doing across the country, which is reclaiming the security of the middle class, building an economy that’s built to last and creating more opportunity for everybody,” he said. “And that’s what was clear from the beginning. That’s why Charlotte was the right place then and still is now.”

Mayor Anthony Foxx

Democratic fundraiser Cam Harris has a short list of reasons for Charlotte’s selection.

“Not but one: His name is Anthony Foxx,” Harris said. “Susan Burgess teed the thing up, so I’d give her some credit, but if Anthony Foxx had not been mayor, the convention wouldn’t be here.”

The youthful Foxx steadily lobbied Obama for the convention, building both a personal relationship and support for Charlotte as a host city during their frequent encounters.

“One of the reasons President Obama wanted it here, I think, is that the city, Mayor Foxx included, really made an effort to put it in front of Obama, consistently making the case for Charlotte,” said UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig. “We had all the logistical things, the hotels, the facilities, all the nuts and bolts, but the fact you’re wanted and we show that we want it is always important.”

Can-do spirit

Local leaders who worked to land the convention pitched Charlotte as a metaphor for a country struggling to rebound from the deepest economic downturn of a lifetime.

“We thought about what kind of narrative we could create that would make this an attractive place for a political convention at this time in the history of our country,” said Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, co-chair of the DNC host committee. “The narrative that evolved was one that says in our state and in this city, we’ve had a history of reinvention.”

From tobacco and textiles to banking and energy, Rogers said, “this notion of reinvention is probably more important to us now than at any time in our history.”

The Democrats could expect to grow their volunteer corps by energizing a swing state, Heberlig said. But they probably didn’t bank on it winning the state again for Obama – Democrats carried their host states in only half of the 44 conventions before Denver.

“I think they looked at Charlotte, they looked at the message the Democrats want to send, and it was really in sync,” Heberlig said. “Your message is growth, transition, diversity – that’s the image the Obama Democratic party wanted to put forth.”

Charlotte mirrors the president’s agenda with its transit, education and energy initiatives, Foxx added.

“All those are part of the story of not only Charlotte but also the larger story that the president is weaving for the country, which is that, yeah, we took a big punch with the Great Recession but we’re throwing some punches now. And that’s where the people in this country like to be.”

Staff writer Michael Gordon contributed.

Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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