CHARLOTTE, N.C. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx cant 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, hell describe what makes his hometown different than any other place in the country.
Then hell 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 citys 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 couldnt or wouldnt do. In that case and others, a desire to see the city succeed trumped differences of politics, class and race.
Thats a remarkable story, Foxx says, and its that story the world needs to see us tell.
Foxx has been doing just that. For more than a year and half, hes been on a coast-to-coast tour, boosting the city and helping raise money toward Charlottes $37 million share of the Peoples Convention.
And its there, during speeches in New York or Los Angeles, or in a town hall meeting not far from where he grew up, that the citys almost mythic rise becomes indistinguishable from Foxxs 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 citys 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 Foxxs 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 hes only interested in his current job. But last spring, he considered the governors race. And given his budding relationship with the White House and Democratic Party, a successful week and Obamas re-election could be a trampoline to almost anywhere.
Its huge, Harvey Gantt, the citys first black mayor, says of the convention. Its huge for Charlotte. Its huge for Anthony.
John Hickenlooper, mayor of Denver for the 2008 Democratic Convention, says a successful week there helped springboard him to the governors 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 citys 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 citys most influential circles, Foxx epitomizes the best of what Charlotte thinks of itself: a classless, raceless, nonpartisan meritocracy where anything and anyone is possible.
Thats why hes mayor, says the Rev. Clifford Jones, Foxxs pastor for the past 30 years and among the citys most prominent African-American ministers.
At the same time, Foxx still faces questions about his political effectiveness, particularly given the City Councils recent problems passing a budget. Even the shining city on the hill of the mayors 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, Foxxs alma mater, plummeted from cherished community icon to one of the states most struggling schools.
On many social issues, Jones said, the city has paid only lip service.
Weve 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 dont want anybody to poke it.
If Foxx is feeling any fear at presenting his city, hes hiding it. He believes the citys 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 whats 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 didnt 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 hasnt needed many second chances.
Laura Foxx remembers an early sign of her sons 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 citys 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 Gantts campaign manager on his two unsuccessful tries to unseat U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, and now he is a congressman. In 2004, Foxx ran Watts successful re-election campaign.
At West Charlotte High, Foxx made history himself this time as part of the citys 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, Thats got to be Jim Foxxs grandson, says Vinroot, another of Foxxs mentors. Hes turned out to be a pretty good image of his grandfather.
One of Foxxs close friends was Elizabeth Martin, the daughter of the late Joe Martin, a prominent banker. The elder Martin would later become Laura Foxxs boss and write one of Anthonys reference letters to Davidson. There, Foxx became, like Joe Martin, a varsity cheerleader, then the schools first African-American student body president. Now, hes one of the colleges 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 couldnt complete a required school form because he didnt know his fathers 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 Foxxs first race for mayor, fellow Democratic council member James Mitchell told Charlotte magazine that the mayors 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, hes 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 hed 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 dont 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.
Foxxs reply: I know the distance Ive 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.
Its amazing how much stuff, all the little snafus and so many moving parts, says Hickenlooper, with whom Foxx has talked. In the end, its challenging. But thats why you take these jobs.
Anthony Foxx, by all measures, has done everything right. Hes got the right people. Hes 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.
Hes 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 Im 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-dont-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, dont you? You should be sayin, Hey, were 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, youre going to have a lot to do with it. So I am holding you responsible.
Foxx wont say how much money the host committee, headed by Duke Energys Jim Rogers, has raised, only that the city will have what it needs.
If hes doing the White House a big favor, he was already in Obamas 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, Foxxs 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 citys 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 dont care what anybody says about you, I know youre 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.
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 Friendships sewing guild. Foxx got his last. Its called Mayors 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 conventions 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? Hes 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
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email email@example.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less