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Democratic mayoral race

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Mitchell rose as candidate this year after new exposure

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For 14 years, James “Smuggie” Mitchell has represented City Council District 2, a mostly African-American, low-income slice of northwest Charlotte.

He always won re-election easily – sometimes with 80 percent of the vote – but was often overshadowed on the council by more vocal and well-known council colleagues.

Even so, Mitchell has been on a parallel track that few in Charlotte noticed until now.

That track elevated Mitchell virtually overnight to a higher profile, setting him on a surprising path to seek the Democratic nomination for mayor.

He was climbing the ranks of the National League of Cities, an effort that culminated with him being elected president for 2011. While most of the group’s leaders are mayors, his ascension to the top of the governmental lobbying organization was a testament to his networking and affable personality, supporters say.

Jackie Johnson, a council member from East Orange, N.J., said she remembers Mitchell leading thousands of elected officials at a convention in Denver, Colo. in a sing-a-long of “We are NLC,” a takeoff on the Sister Sledge song “We are Family.”

“People were swaying and singing,” Johnson said. “Why? Because James Mitchell asked them. They may not have been comfortable, but they did it.”

In April, Mitchell announced he would run for an at-large seat. In July, he changed course and announced he would challenge fellow Democrat Patrick Cannon for mayor. He said he was encouraged to run by local leaders who wanted another choice in the primary.

In making his case for being mayor, his campaign points to his service at NLC, where he gained exposure and worked to start a program that allowed municipal leaders to meet one-on-one with corporate sponsors of the group, in an exchange of ideas.

He also led the city’s economic development committee, a high-profile appointment given to him in 2011 by former Mayor Anthony Foxx, a friend.

That post put him at the forefront of issues such as the city’s decision to give $8 million to the Charlotte Knights for an uptown baseball stadium and to contribute $87.5 million to the Carolina Panthers for stadium improvements.

He began the race as an underdog against Cannon, the council’s longest-serving member. But he has shown a strong ability to raise money and gain the support of prominent business leaders, such as Howard Levine of Family Dollar and developer Cameron Harris. This week, Harvey Gantt, the city’s first African-American mayor, said he is supporting Mitchell.

Leadership questioned

But Mitchell’s campaign strategy, and at least one of his celebrated accomplishments, has led some critics to question his leadership style.

His campaign has unleashed negative mailers against Cannon, his primary opponent.

Others question his negotiating skills for perhaps his signature achievement: Keeping the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.

As chair of the economic development committee, Mitchell was involved with negotiations with the Panthers, along with Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble and City Attorney Bob Hagemann.

But during the process, some asked whether Mitchell drove a hard enough bargain for the city.

The city’s first proposal, supported by Mitchell, was to increase the prepared food and beverage tax from 1 percent to 2 percent for 30 years. It would have raised $1 billion, far more than the $125 million the Panthers had requested.

At the time, Mitchell explained that part of the money would be spent to improve amateur sports facilities. When it became clear that there would still be hundreds of millions of dollars left over, Mitchell said that money could be used for what the city believed would be a second stadium request by the Panthers in 2028.

One expert in sports business said the city would be giving away much-needed leverage with the Panthers for the future. If the city of Charlotte had already saved $500 million or so for a new Panthers stadium, a future City Council would be in a difficult position to push back against future requests.

Ned Curran is president and chief executive of the Bissell Companies, whose controlling family is a minority partner in the Panthers.

“I think the $1 billion request was an over-reach that caused us all to have to go in an entirely different direction,” Curran said.

Curran, a registered Republican, gave $250 to Mitchell earlier this year, when Mitchell said he was running for an at-large seat before switching to the mayor’s race. He has given $500 to both Cannon and Republican Edwin Peacock’s mayoral campaigns.

In an interview last week, Mitchell said the $1 billion tax hike request was a mistake.

The request wasn’t just rejected by Republicans in Raleigh. Democratic legislators also spurned the city’s request, along with a second, smaller request for a tax hike. They instead allowed the city to use existing money from its Convention Center fund.

Mitchell defended his embrace of the Panthers while he and the city were negotiating with the team.

He added: “We did get Jerry to move on one important aspect. Mr. Richardson had told me flat out, ‘I’m not going to tether the team.’ And I said, ‘I can’t get six votes for that.’” The final deal includes a six-year “hard tether” that binds the team to Charlotte.

Facing ‘personal challenges’

Mitchell, a West Charlotte graduate and Charlotte native, said he considered leaving his District 2 seat and running citywide in 2003 and 2007, but “personal challenges” interfered.

That included a reference to his marriage to Vivian Mitchell, which ended in divorce in 2010.

Their home off Sunset Road was foreclosed on, and court records show SunTrust Bank is owed $2,300. Mitchell has previously said that payment is in dispute between him and his ex-wife.

He has custody of his two teen daughters, who attend public school.

He has since remarried to Joan Higginbotham, a former astronaut, whom he met in 2009 at a Congressional Black Caucus event. Mitchell said they were both crashing the party, which was for people under 35.

People who know Mitchell say his marriage to Higginbotham helped boost his confidence. Mitchell said the death in June of his mother, Josephine Neal Mitchell, also prompted him to run.

When Mitchell ran in District 2, his name on the ballot always included his nickname, “Smuggie,” which is pronounced Smudgee.

Mitchell said he has had that name since he was three, when he had “food on my face.”

In an interview Wednesday, Mitchell said he has relocated from his Mountain Island Lake house in District 2 and moved into a house he purchased in District 4.

The move doesn’t affect his run for mayor, but it could complicate his ability to finish the last three months of his District 2 term because council members must live in the district they represent.

A campaign staffer later said that Mitchell only intends to move into the new house some day, and that his clothes and other items are still in the District 2 home.

Working in private, civic firms

Mitchell’s employment has involved the intersection of private business and government contracts.

Since 2011, he has worked for a Charlotte-based firm, Integrated Capital Strategies, where he is a consultant for municipalities nationwide.

Before that, he worked in sales for Narencro, a Charlotte-based solar panel installer. Narencro has at least two contracts with the city of Charlotte, one of which was landed while Mitchell was employed there. (He recused himself from the vote on that contract, which was for a solar panel farm at Charlotte Douglas Airport.)

Mitchell previously worked for Cinda Corp., which makes drywall. He managed an N.C. sales office. He said his “claim to fame” at Cinda is that the firm installed the drywall in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Campaign gaining momentum

The 2013 Mitchell organization resembles Foxx’s 2009 and 2011 mayoral campaigns, as they share some staff and style.

But there is one difference: Mitchell is running a far more negative campaign against Cannon than Foxx did in 2009 against Republican John Lassiter.

The Mitchell campaign has sent out at least six well-produced mailers that criticize Cannon.

Most have dealt with the airport, charging that Cannon sided with Republicans in their efforts to remove Charlotte Douglas International from city control.

In a news conference, Mitchell said Cannon “stood with” Republicans Bob Rucho and Ruth Samuelson, two Republicans who helped drive the airport push in the General Assembly.

Curran, of the Bissell Companies, worked to bring the City Council and GOP legislators together to reach an airport compromise.

He said it’s not accurate to say Cannon stood with Rucho and other Republicans.

He said Cannon was open to meeting with legislators, but he “consistently represented the city’s viewpoint of wanting to make sure it fell within the purview of city control.”

Dan McCorkle, a Democratic strategist who worked his first campaign in 1984, is not working for Cannon, but is supporting him.

“I have never seen a Democrat attack another Democrat with this much sustained ferocity,” he said about Mitchell’s direct mail effort.

Mitchell said his campaign has been fair.

“From day one we realized it would be a tough race,” Mitchell said. “The only way to do it was to separate (our positions).”

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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