In fall 1993, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt asked his own political mentor to take under wing a young politician long on promise but short on experience.
Democrat Patrick Cannon was 26 and had just won a City Council district primary. He was about to become the youngest member ever elected.
For James Foxx, the straight-talking mentor, Cannon was a project. “He is so green,” Foxx told a reporter that fall.
Two decades later, Cannon is running for mayor on experience.
More than any one opponent, Cannon is campaigning on his biography, casting himself as a man who has run against the odds and won.
Cannon has groomed himself for the post since being elected at-large in 2001. Along the way he has built a network of supporters. No Democrat has raised more money.
He’s the council’s longest-serving member, mayor pro tem and one of two leading candidates vying for the Democratic mayoral nomination. He faces fellow council member James Mitchell in a Tuesday primary field that also includes businessman Gary Dunn and former housing commissioner Lucille Puckett.
In a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, the primary winner will have a distinct advantage in November.
Over 20 years, Cannon has come a long way from the raw project that Foxx took on.
Raised by a single mother in public housing, he has become a family man with a suburban home and kids in private school. After bouncing from job to job, he built a business with the help of one of Charlotte’s pre-eminent bankers and started another. At 46, he is a polished politician, but not without controversy.
Cannon is reserved and soft-spoken, a demeanor that belies the passionate feelings he evokes from admirers and critics alike.
“One of the things I always admired about Patrick was his openness, his honesty, his integrity,” said Democratic activist Geneal Gregory.
His endorsements include the Black Political Caucus, the Charlotte Post and at least two labor groups.
Critics are more muted, at least publicly. But Gantt, Charlotte’s first African-American mayor, took the unusual step of endorsing a candidate in a Democratic primary when he came out last week in praise of Mitchell.
And Mitchell frequently invokes the name and likeness of Charlotte’s second black mayor, Anthony Foxx, now U.S. transportation secretary and grandson of Cannon’s one-time mentor.
“(Cannon) does inspire positive and negative reactions from his leadership and service,” said state Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat who hasn’t publicly endorsed a candidate.
Cannon knows he evokes divergent views.
“Typically those that really, really like me really, really know me,” Cannon said. “And those on the other side of the fence have not had the opportunity to sit down with me and understand who I am and what I represent.”
Against the odds
Cannon’s self-view is portrayed in a radio ad called simply, “Odds.”
“Patrick Cannon fought against the odds, making it without a father,” a narrator says, “because someone would take his father’s life. The odds of growing up in the public housing communities. … The odds of coming from a single-parent home and the odds of some saying he would never go anywhere, do anything or become anybody. … He would defy those odds.”
Cannon was 5 when his father, Thomas Odom, was found outside a vacant westside school in January 1972, dead from a gunshot wound. Cannon was raised by his mother, Carmen, who worked on a truck assembly line in south Charlotte. They lived in Fairview Homes and Pine Valley public housing.
For years Cannon rarely talked about his father or the circumstances of his death. Lately he has, inspired by his own son’s questions about the grandfather he never knew. Cannon has begun looking into the facts of what he calls a “frozen” case homicide.
Cannon and his wife live near Ballantyne with their children, a boy, 11, and a girl, 14. He said he continues to have a relationship with another daughter, now 25, from a previous relationship.
In 1988, when he was 21, that relationship resulted in his conviction for failing to pay $2,080 in child support. Cannon has said he never knew his debt was growing.
All his life, he says now, he was motivated by wanting to overcome the odds, whether as the child of a single parent or as a young, inexperienced council member.
“Hearing the number of people suggesting that I wouldn’t go anywhere, do anything or become anybody,” he said, “gave me nothing more than a greater desire to do something.”
After his first election, Cannon held a succession of jobs. He was a consumer relations specialist for a finance company, a resume consultant and a marketer for a company that supplied printer paper and toner.
Around 1996, Cannon said, he got a call from Hugh McColl, then-chairman and CEO of what would become Bank of America. McColl, he said, asked for the names of minority vendors in areas including security and parking management. That planted a seed.
He researched the parking business. Later, he said, he went back to McColl.
“Mr. McColl, I think I found somebody who understands the parking business,” he recalled saying.
“Me,” Cannon said.
Cannon’s new E-Z Parking gave the bank an opportunity to help start and nurture a small, minority-owned business.
“We saw that as a good fit and a good way to help out, to get businesses started and cranked up,” said John Saclarides, then a senior vice president in the bank’s real estate division.
E-Z Parking started with a small uptown lot on North Tryon Street. It expanded to other lots owned by the bank, and then to other companies. Now, Cannon said, E-Z manages around 25,000 spaces in the Charlotte area for businesses, institutions and even the Carolina Panthers.
Cannon and a partner own their company headquarters, an historic building on West Trade Street valued at nearly $1.7 million.
Last year Cannon also started another company called BritTrick Energy, a company whose website describes it as a “leader in energy efficient lighting systems.” Fellow Democratic council member Michael Barnes, a partner, said the two are winding the company down.
“It’s taken more time than I have and he has,” Barnes said.
In 2005, Cannon abruptly ended his first mayoral campaign, citing the deaths of two relatives and a renewed focus on his family. He didn’t tell the whole story. In 2009, the Observer discovered another reason: a series of Internal Revenue Service liens involving his parking company that by 2008 would total $193,553. All were eventually canceled.
Cannon acknowledged in 2009 that “people were misled about the truth.”
Cameron Harris, a former Mecklenburg Democratic Party chairman, still harbors ill feelings about a deal he said he and his wife Dee Dee had with Cannon years ago. He declined to discuss details of the deal, though he said it involved an upfront fee to Cannon.
Cannon said he was trying to help the couple get project capital by putting them in touch with a third party and he received nothing in return. A Cannon associate involved in the deal supported his account.
“My level of involvement was really zero beyond introducing them to someone,” Cannon said.
Cannon is running on a record that includes luring investment and affordable housing to low-income neighborhoods. He helped champion the Westside Strategy Plan and once even drove the bulldozer that razed a blighted corner on West Boulevard.
He said he also helped spur development of Ayrsley, a booming commercial center in southwest Charlotte.
In contrast to Mitchell, who took on high-profile issues such as the airport and help for the Panthers’ stadium renovation, Cannon has focused on less splashy issues. He protested the Charlotte Area Transit System’s plans to put alcohol ads on buses and trains. And after a fatal shooting at an uptown festival, he won support for a stricter youth curfew.
During the past term, Cannon’s biggest role in the spotlight came in the debate over a nearly $1 billion Capital Improvement Program, which included a streetcar. Saying he didn’t want to increase property taxes to pay for the streetcar, he was one of six council members to vote against the CIP in June 2012.
The streetcar decision angered some council members, who believed that Cannon was sabotaging Foxx. But Cannon said he was protecting low-income residents whose taxes would go up to pay for the streetcar.
He voted for the streetcar in May once the financial plan removed property taxes. He also voted for the CIP.
While Cannon expects to win Tuesday, he said he’ll stay involved no matter what happens.
“Whatever happens I am always going to be a servant leader,” he said. “Because we all have a season and in that season we are to do all we can to bloom. And that’s what I plan to do.” Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.
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