Susan Kluttz, Pat McCrory’s choice to run the state’s arts, history and library programs, helps expand the diversity of the governor-elect’s cabinet and top staff – into territory not traditionally on the GOP’s agenda.
As a Democratic politician, she represents a nod toward moderation and bipartisanship in the new Republican administration, which has been criticized for its inclusion of polarizing conservative financier Art Pope.
Kluttz was Salisbury’s longest-serving mayor and is still on the city council there. She abruptly lost her position as mayor in the November 2011 election following her decision that summer to issue a controversial proclamation declaring a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender pride day to coincide with a parade and festival.
Her successor declined to issue that proclamation this year, saying it was too divisive.
Whether or not the proclamation led to her being replaced as mayor is a matter of speculation. But it marked the end of a 14-year run during which Kluttz became one of the most visible public figures in Rowan County.
During that time she forged a political relationship with McCrory, beginning when he was mayor of Charlotte. They co-founded the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition in 2001 and worked closely together for a decade.
Kluttz supported McCrory for his campaigns for governor in 2008 and this year, and says she encouraged him to run for governor years ago.
“I came out publicly supporting him because I worked with him in a bipartisan group,” she said in a phone interview Thursday. “I knew how well he worked with those parties. I sincerely feel that to have an effective and efficient government you have to have people working with both parties.”
A graduate of UNC-Greensboro, she worked as an executive assistant to a superintendent of schools, raised a family with her husband, current District Court Judge William C. Kluttz Jr., did a lot of volunteer work and decided to run for city council. She surprised herself and everyone else when she became the top vote-getter in her first campaign, entitling her to the position of mayor, and repeated that victory in six more elections.
She turned the mayor’s job, which had been a largely ceremonial post, into a full-time position. Despite her experience in local politics, Kluttz says she didn’t see the controversy over the GLBT Pride Day proclamation coming.
Promoting “diversity and understanding” had become one of her main initiatives, she says, beginning with improving relations between blacks and whites, then Hispanics as they moved into the region. Eventually, through the city’s Human Relations Commission, there was a citywide move toward multicultural appreciation.
“I feel very strongly as mayor I represented every single person in my community equally and fairly and could not tolerate any kind of discrimination,” she said. “I represented the people of Salisbury; I didn’t judge them.”
There was a backlash in the community and she was harshly criticized, but Kluttz says she would do it again.
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, said the proclamation wasn’t out of step with the mainstream there.
“Salisbury tends to be a little more progressive, a little more liberal than the rest of the county,” he said Friday. “It was a competitive election and she stood by that decision when she campaigned. It may have cost her some votes. It was a very close election.”
Kluttz came in second by 35 ballots.
Now 63, Kluttz will become the next secretary of the state Department of Cultural Resources, replacing current Secretary Linda Carlisle, whom Gov. Bev Perdue appointed in 2009. Kluttz is one of three of the nine high-level hires announced so far who are not white men.
It’s not the most prominent position to which McCrory could have appointed someone if he was trying to make a statement about diversity and bipartisanship. But McCrory said at his news conference announcing his most recent appointments last week that it was important to him.
His mother was an artist, he said, and he believes that art and history can play a big part in the state’s future.
“I believe art can be used to help soften the infrastructure …” he said. “I have a special connection with arts and bridges, which I’d like to spread statewide.”
He also called her a close friend. “She has an energy and a passion for public service that is second to none that she has been doing all her adult life,” he said.
McCrory directed Kluttz to work closely with the commerce department to integrate arts and culture into efforts to make North Carolina an attractive destination. He also said the new secretary would be looking for ways to run the department more efficiently. “There is no new money,” as he has been saying recently.
The Department of Cultural Resources is the umbrella agency for the N.C. Symphony, the N.C. Museum of Art, the N.C. Arts Council, the Office of Archives and History and the State Library.
Museums, historic sites, grants to local arts groups have all been vulnerable to budget cuts in recent years. The department has sustained $19 million in funding reductions over the past four years, leaving the operating budget at $72 million currently.
While in Salisbury, Kluttz helped develop the city’s cultural arts plan, but otherwise does not come from an arts background – neither have other DCR secretaries in recent years. She says her experience in Salisbury convinced her that art can make a differenced in everyday life.
She said the city responded to the economic downturn of 2000-01 by making art part of recovery efforts. An education component was also useful in deterring youth from joining gangs. Other programs have introduced art into libraries and protected historic buildings.
“I would love to see everyone touched by art,” she said. “That’s what I’m hoping that maybe I can bring to this.”