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The mayor doesn’t matter – or does he?

By Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

As intrepid and forward-looking journalists, we at the Observer quickly turned last week to who would serve as Charlotte mayor once Anthony Foxx steps down to become U.S. transportation secretary.

Almost as quickly, we came to this conclusion: Who cares?

Foxx’s replacement would serve only the remainder of his term, which ends in December. He or she would be the ultimate placeholder – not only in office for just six months or so, but in an office that, let’s face it, has almost no statutory power.

This was mildly disconcerting to realize. We grew up learning all about government and leadership positions such as mayor. We in the news business spend much of our time covering those leaders’ every move. And now it turns out Charlotte can go without a mayor and it really wouldn’t make much difference?

Apparently. The City Council is in no rush to name Foxx’s replacement (assuming he is quickly confirmed). City Council member Michael Barnes spoke for many when he said, “In light of our form of government, I don’t think there’s a rush to make a selection. And I’m sure we’ll take our time and figure out who we’d like to have in that spot.”

As a reason for the delay, Barnes even cited the council’s need to deal with major issues that a mayor would normally be in the thick of: negotiating control of the city’s airport and crafting a city budget for the coming fiscal year.

But who can argue? Charlotte’s council-manager form of government gives the power to the council and the manager. City Manager Ron Carlee runs the place; the City Council makes the policy decisions. And the mayor? He doesn’t even have a vote. Don’t tell your kid’s civics teacher, but the chair could be empty from now til December and it wouldn’t make much difference.

And yet.

Charlotte, of all places, home of the powerless mayor, knows just how powerful the mayor can be.

It matters that Anthony Foxx is mayor. It’s possible – probable? – that the Democratic National Convention, its 35,000 visitors and its week of bright television lights would never have landed in Charlotte without Foxx as mayor. Many other key players were vital, to be sure, but that seismic event for this city probably goes to St. Louis without Foxx lobbying the White House. More branch libraries would have been closed in 2010 if Foxx hadn’t threatened a veto, leading to the city spending $1.4 million to help keep them open.

It mattered that Pat McCrory was mayor. The LYNX light rail line from uptown to I-485 might not have been built without McCrory’s consistent push for it. The uptown arena almost certainly doesn’t get built without McCrory making it happen. And developers were forced to include sidewalks in most new subdivisions only after McCrory insisted.

And you know it mattered that Charlotte elected Harvey Gantt its first black mayor – 30 years ago.

This all might be instructive as mayoral candidates begin pleading for your vote this fall. We already have an administrator to hold the place together. We already have a City Council to vote on city policies. What we need from the mayor is completely different: Leadership. A vision for the city, the communication skills to convey it to the people and the political skills to make it a reality. That’s who will get my vote.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com.
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