In a pivotal moment in his career, Foxx will welcome DNC to the city

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  • Mayor Anthony Foxx talks about DNC
  • The Foxx file

    Fighting weight: Foxx has lost 25 pounds leading up to the convention. He credits the first lady’s health initiative. His regimen: running and swimming, better diet ... and stress.

    Friends with Wynton Marsalis: The two met after Foxx graduated from NYU law school and decided to learn the trumpet. He says he regularly seeks the opinion of the musician because an artistic mind often comes up with unconventional takes on conventional situations.

    Entourage: On most appearances these days, Foxx is often joined by at least one and sometimes two police escorts, a driver and a media assistant.

    When did Foxx decide to seek elected office? While watching the smoke rise from the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, he says. Four years later, he bounced the idea off a group of his West Charlotte High classmates at an annual reunion known as “Straddle Weekends.” Recalls the Rev. David Lindsay of Charlotte: “We were pushing harder than he was.”

    Are there any political payoffs in store for the Foxx family? Daughter Hillary, 10, hopes so. Foxx says she expects to be babysat by the Obama girls at some point during the convention. (Anthony and Samara Foxx also have a son, Zachary, 8.)

    Does he consider the president a friend? “Yes, I do,” Foxx says.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx can’t tell the story of his city without including his own.

On Tuesday night, when the 41-year-old Charlotte native officially welcomes the Democratic Convention, he’ll describe what makes his hometown “different than any other place in the country.”

Then he’ll have to back it up.

In a matter of hours, Foxx and the city will make their world premiere as tens of thousands of visitors take over uptown for the renomination of President Barack Obama.

Charlotte, which still desperately cares what others think, has its reputation on the line. So does the mayor. Any flaw, any bungle, anything from bad weather to traffic jams could become part of a worldwide referendum on the city’s ability to handle a big event, with Foxx having to answer for every misstep along the way.

The mayor says he and the city are ready. The convention is a historic moment, perhaps the most important ever for Charlotte. But Foxx says it is not its first.

By successfully desegregating its schools in the 1970s, Charlotte has already shown the capacity “to tackle things other communities couldn’t or wouldn’t do.” In that case and others, a desire to see the city succeed trumped differences of politics, class and race.

“That’s a remarkable story,” Foxx says, “and it’s that story the world needs to see us tell.”

Foxx has been doing just that. For more than a year and half, he’s been on a coast-to-coast tour, boosting the city and helping raise money toward Charlotte’s $37 million share of the “People’s Convention.”

And it’s there, during speeches in New York or Los Angeles, or in a town hall meeting not far from where he grew up, that the city’s almost mythic rise becomes indistinguishable from Foxx’s own.

At these moments, Foxx, a Davidson College graduate, becomes the great-great-grandson of a slave, the only child of a West Charlotte single mom. He presents himself as living proof of the city’s enduring commitment to doing the right things, how his life was made possible by a nurturing place “that gave me a school system and a community and institutions that supported the ambitions I had for myself.”

Where Foxx’s ambitions now lead have already become the subject of widening conjecture. His profile continues to grow. This week, convention chairman and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa went so far as to call him “the face of the New South.”

Foxx says he’s only interested in his current job. But last spring, he considered the governor’s race. And given his budding relationship with the White House and Democratic Party, a successful week and Obama’s re-election could be a trampoline to almost anywhere.

“It’s huge,” Harvey Gantt, the city’s first black mayor, says of the convention. “It’s huge for Charlotte. It’s huge for Anthony.”

John Hickenlooper, mayor of Denver for the 2008 Democratic Convention, says a successful week there helped springboard him to the governor’s office. “The convention was good for the city,” he says, “and it was good for me.”

Foxx as Charlotte mayor

Foxx became mayor of this city of 750,000 in 2009, after two terms on the City Council. Since then he has helped steer Charlotte through the ravages of the recession and attract new jobs. Crime is down. Foxx has launched a countywide push for affordable housing and continues to mine his new relationships in Washington for support of mass transit and other improvements.

Two years ago, he drummed up city support for the tottering county library system and worked behind the scenes to address westside anger at the closing of about a dozen mostly African-American schools. Now he wants to start a conversation about merging city and county governments.

In perhaps his biggest show of political muscle, Foxx forced the city’s convention and tourist group, a key cog in DNC preparations, to purge its top leader because Foxx believes he was not doing his job.

“He gets both the hard stuff and the soft stuff,” says Mike Riser, a Wells Fargo executive who has worked closely with Foxx on housing.

To members of some of the city’s most influential circles, Foxx epitomizes the best of what Charlotte thinks of itself: a classless, raceless, nonpartisan meritocracy where anything and anyone is possible.

“That’s why he’s mayor,” says the Rev. Clifford Jones, Foxx’s pastor for the past 30 years and among the city’s most prominent African-American ministers.

At the same time, Foxx still faces questions about his political effectiveness, particularly given the City Council’s recent problems passing a budget. Even the “shining city on the hill” of the mayor’s personal narrative has shown increasing trouble living up to its billing.

The recession cost Charlotte tens of thousands of jobs, flattened its housing market and deeply wounded its signature financial sector. For all the talk of a meritocracy, race and class still play a major role in daily life. And after a judge threw out much of the busing plan that brought the city national acclaim, the schools started resegregating. West Charlotte High, Foxx’s alma mater, plummeted from cherished community icon to one of the state’s most struggling schools.

On many social issues, Jones said, the city has paid only lip service.

“We’ve done just enough to protect our image,” says Jones, the pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. “We bought it off. We want this ‘world class’ image … but we don’t want anybody to poke it.”

If Foxx is feeling any fear at presenting his city, he’s hiding it. He believes the city’s planning will keep it operating and everybody safe.

And he says his life has prepared him for the chaos of the coming days.

“You have to understand that I was born in a crisis,” he says. “I feel pretty much at home there.”

But he also knows what’s at stake if something big goes wrong.

Foxx says he has been driven by the anxiety of believing “that I had a margin of error that was extremely thin. And if I didn’t get it right, there was no guarantee in my mind that there would be another chance.”

‘Knock his lights out’

Other than failing his first attempt at the bar exam, Foxx hasn’t needed many second chances.

Laura Foxx remembers an early sign of her son’s political charisma. When Anthony was 7 or 8, she dropped him off at Camp Thunderbird in Lake Wylie, S.C., one morning and started to drive off. Suddenly, a scene appeared in her rear-view mirror: “All these boys,” she says, swarming around her son to greet him.

Laura Foxx became pregnant while she was a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, the most prestigious school for black women in the South. When she moved back home, then went off to finish her schooling and start a career, her parents, James and Mary Foxx, reared their grandson until he was 9.

Both were educators, and Jim Foxx was one of the city’s most significant black political operatives, an adviser to politicians of both parties and races, from Harvey Gantt to Richard Vinroot.

Anthony recalls sliding under his grandparents’ kitchen table and listening to political conversations before he was old enough to know what they were. He remembers watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” with his grandfather, then going to bed while James worked the phone and talked politics far into the night.

Circles were beginning to form. Foxx was part of a group of teens who got their political awakenings before they could drive. They all hung out in Fourth Ward, at the homes of next-door neighbors Gantt and Mel Watt. Watt was Gantt’s campaign manager on his two unsuccessful tries to unseat U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, and now he is a congressman. In 2004, Foxx ran Watt’s successful re-election campaign.

At West Charlotte High, Foxx made history himself – this time as part of the city’s integrated dream, smart kids from all sides of town learning as much from each other as they did from their teachers.

Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor and gubernatorial candidate, says he first heard about Foxx from his son, Rich, also a student at West Charlotte. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s got to be Jim Foxx’s grandson,’ ” says Vinroot, another of Foxx’s mentors. “He’s turned out to be a pretty good image of his grandfather.”

One of Foxx’s close friends was Elizabeth Martin, the daughter of the late Joe Martin, a prominent banker. The elder Martin would later become Laura Foxx’s boss and write one of Anthony’s reference letters to Davidson. There, Foxx became, like Joe Martin, a varsity cheerleader, then the school’s first African-American student body president. Now, he’s one of the college’s trustees.

His childhood, though privileged in some ways, still left scars.

He remembers as a boy watching from a window on the days his mother was supposed to visit, then grieving when she left. He recalls how in sixth grade he couldn’t complete a required school form because he didn’t know his father’s name, and his teacher, thinking he was joking, grilled him in front of his classmates.

His grandparents made him a home, though. One year they came up with the money so their grandson could study in France. Foxx mentions them regularly in his speeches, and he credits them for teaching him that achievement was a good thing, and that he should never back down.

When he was 10, Foxx saw the movie “Gandhi” and left the theater convinced that nonviolence from that point on would help define his life. He was a big kid, rarely challenged to a fight. But this time, his new resolve was almost immediately tested by another boy. Foxx took one punch, then a second. After the third, he says, he punched back, and the fight was over.

Later, he told his grandmother what had happened.

“She told me that if anyone ever tried anything like that with me again, I was to knock his lights out,” Foxx says, then laughs. “That was my grandmother.”

It still is. Mary Foxx is now 95.

A political defeat

While the events of his past often move his audiences, Foxx the politician has his critics – including himself.

During Foxx’s first race for mayor, fellow Democratic council member James Mitchell told Charlotte magazine that the mayor’s demeanor was “meek.”

Now in his second term, Foxx acknowledges difficulty in pulling others along, of initiating “the political conversations” necessary to persuade City Council members to join him in bolder moves.

A self-described consensus-builder, he’s coming off his worst political defeat – a surprise council vote that killed a tax increase needed for almost $1 billion in improvements. It caught Foxx completely off guard.

In keeping with his vision for the city, the plan would have targeted struggling neighborhoods. But only after its defeat did Foxx appear to publicly embrace it.

The mayor says he’d actually been pushing the plan for months to the council, and that he plans to bring it back for a vote in 2013. Yet, critics say that with council elections looming next year, an important opportunity has been lost.

Republican John Lassiter, who lost that bitter election to Foxx three years ago, contends that when Foxx and he served on the council, Foxx rarely showed a willingness to politick. “I don’t ever remember getting a call from him asking for my vote,” he says.

He also adds more pointed criticism: that Foxx overplays the struggles of his early life. The “I put cardboard in my shoes so I could walk to school” saga, as Lassiter derisively calls it.

Foxx’s reply: “I know the distance I’ve traveled, and I know that better than anyone else.”

This week, Foxx could be in line for far more criticism, on top of a daylong list of media demands, public appearances and hour-by-hour damage control.

“It’s amazing how much stuff, all the little snafus and so many moving parts,” says Hickenlooper, with whom Foxx has talked. “In the end, it’s challenging. But that’s why you take these jobs.”

“Anthony Foxx, by all measures, has done everything right. He’s got the right people. He’s put the time and preparation into all of the planning.”

A new template

In his desk at City Hall, Foxx has a snapshot of himself, on the phone, at the very moment he learns that Charlotte had landed the convention.

He’s been helping raise money ever since.

To make a point about the role of corporate money and politics, Barack Obama wants his renomination paid for only with individual donations. All $37 million of it. No host city has ever been handed such a task.

“Of course, I have nightmares,” says Gantt, a member of the convention host committee. “I like what the president is trying to do. But I’m not sure he fully appreciated all the difficulties.”

Clarence Avant, an entertainment mogul and Democratic donor, gave $15,000 to the convention after having dinner with Foxx at a Los Angeles fundraiser. But even he thinks the ban on corporate money makes little sense.

“Sometimes you can be correct and be absolutely wrong,” he says. “All that ‘I-don’t-want-the-corporations-involved bleep.’ Hell, man, this is the president who bailed out the auto industry, who bailed out the banks. You got banks in Charlotte, don’t you? You should be sayin’, ‘Hey, we’re having a convention. Help!’ ”

If Obama had anything close to that conversation, he had it with Foxx.

Foxx was a big reason why the convention came to Charlotte in the first place, Gantt says. He believes Obama has told Foxx that “if this convention is going to be successful, you’re going to have a lot to do with it. So I am holding you responsible.”

Foxx won’t say how much money the host committee, headed by Duke Energy’s Jim Rogers, has raised, only that the city will have what it needs.

If he’s doing the White House a big favor, he was already in Obama’s debt. In 2008 another young, tall introvert, raised by his grandparents, spoke mythically of how he had been helped along by a variety of races and people. In doing so, many believe he changed the political template for candidates of color.

“I do believe Barack has done us all some good by getting the whole ‘first black president issue’ out of the way,” says Gantt, Foxx’s mentor. Now, candidates such as Foxx will be judged on their ideas, he says, “not shut down” because of their skin.

For now, Foxx is still working to be seen as a mayor for his entire hometown. Too often, projects such as the uptown streetcar or the city’s summer-jobs programs for kids are framed as plums for his part of town.

For “National Night Out” in early August, he visited neighborhoods across the city. At his first stop, in predominantly black Hidden Valley, the lines of well-wishers threw the mayor behind schedule.

“I don’t care what anybody says about you, I know you’re the man,” roared Denise Pierce, a nonprofit director and the first person to hug Foxx at the picnic.

In the north Charlotte community of Highland Creek, Foxx received a polite but reserved reaction. Here, the predominantly white residents stayed in their own groups when the mayor and his small entourage appeared. For about 30 seconds, Foxx stood by himself.

But gradually, the mayor and a trickle of residents, including Beth DeLawter and her backpack-wearing daughter Kaitlyn, collectively broke the ice. Foxx made a short speech. He clowned with kids. He posed for more pictures.

“Cool pack,” he told Kaitlyn as the 8-year-old and her mother turned to leave.

Mayor’s memories

Recently, Friendship Baptist Church had a surprise for the Foxx family. The mayor and his grandmother were baptized together there 35 years ago, and on this day, Foxx, his wife and children, his mother and his grandmother were seated in the front rows.

Clifford Jones stopped the service, and each of the family members received a quilt from Friendship’s sewing guild. Foxx got his last. It’s called “Mayor’s Memories.”

“We have a fine mayor in Charlotte, and we are so very proud of him and his family,” Jones said, as several thousand church members rose to their feet in a building Harvey Gantt designed, and Foxx and his longtime pastor hugged.

The quilt seems a fitting gift for a man who claims to have been brought to this pivotal moment by so many other Charlotteans, and who now embodies their hopes for the week and the future.

“Charlotte is a very successful city,” says Vinroot, “and our mayor is an attractive, bright young man who has always shown he is capable of standing up on a larger stage. I have no doubts about him at all.”

On Monday, Foxx helped open CarolinaFest, the convention’s uptown street festival. He took the stage at Trade and Tryon as a sweating audience of several thousand fanned across The Square. Fitting, he said, that they were all standing where Charlotte had begun, built on the civic belief passed between generations “that the future would be better.”

As he was launching his political career, Obama wrote “Dreams from My Father,” an autobiography that delves into race, family and personal ambitions.

Foxx, who considers the president a friend, says he is contemplating his own memoir.

The working title? He’s not ready to say, only that it could be based on Scripture – Hebrews 11:34 to be exact.

That verse tells us that Samson, David and the prophets, among others, “quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong…”


With faith.

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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