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Milestone mayoral race set the tone for one 30 years later

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/28/17/50/Fk21F.Em.138.jpeg|208
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/09/28/17/50/fJ9bl.Em.138.jpeg|240
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

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  • Charlotte then and now

    1983 2013
    Population337,720 797,690
    White voters77%53%
    Black voters20%37%
    Democrats66%50%
    Republicans29%23%
    Unaffiliated6%27%
    City Unemployment5.4%8.7%
    Airport emplanements3.8 million21 million
    PresidentRonald ReaganBarack Obama
    NASCAR points leaderBobby AllisonMatt Kenseth
    No. 1 on Billboard Top 40The PoliceKaty Perry
    Age of Patrick Cannon1646
    Age of Edwin Peacock1343

    Source: Mecklenburg Board of Elections, Charlotte Chamber



Their marathon contest made national, even international, headlines. It became a milestone in Charlotte’s history and raised its national profile as an up-and-coming New South city.

But 30 years later, some memories of that 1983 mayoral race are foggy for the candidates themselves.

“I do recall we had some different visions,” Democrat Harvey Gantt recalled. “But I swear I can’t remember, what did we argue about?”

“Nothing that I know of,” replied Republican Ed Peacock.

Over a recent lunch, the one-time rivals recalled the race that made Gantt Charlotte’s first African-American mayor and, in many ways, set the city on course to what it’s become in 2013.

Between bites of trout (Peacock) and hamburger (Gantt), they compared grandchildren, golf games and their halting steps toward retirement.

Gantt, 70, talked about recent back surgery. Peacock, 71, recounted his wife’s health challenges.

They also talked about how Charlotte politics has changed over 30 years, and how it hasn’t.

The backdrop was another race involving a black Democrat and a Republican named Peacock.

Edwin Peacock – Ed’s son – faces Democrat Patrick Cannon in November. As in 1983, the candidates are vying for an open seat, this time to succeed Democratic Mayor Patsy Kinsey.

But they face a starkly different Charlotte.

The city has more than twice as many people as it did in 1983. Democrats still outnumber Republicans 2-1, but unaffiliated voters, then a fraction of the electorate, now outnumber Republicans.

By the 2010 census, the city’s non-Hispanic white population had dipped below 50 percent for the first time. Half the city’s Republicans now live in just two southeast City Council districts.

White voters, 77 percent of the city’s total in 1983, now account for 53 percent. Black voters, then 20 percent, make up 37 percent.

The changes were often masked during the administration of Republican Pat McCrory, who over 14 years as mayor rarely faced more than token Democratic opposition. But in 2009 they helped Democrat Anthony Foxx, now the U.S. transportation secretary, become the city’s the first Democratic mayor since Gantt.

A different time

In 1983, the landscape was less favorable to an African-American candidate.

“Around the country at that time, many of the African-American mayors were elected in cities with a large minority of African-American voters or a large majority of African-American voters,” said David Goldfield, a UNC Charlotte historian. “And that was not the case in Charlotte.”

Ted Arrington, a retired UNCC political scientist, said the 1983 race could have gone either way.

“Thirty years ago Republicans had a better than even chance in my view of winning the mayor’s race,” he said. “And (Peacock) certainly thought he was going to win.”

Race was not an overt issue

The 1983 race came during the heyday of Charlotte’s neighborhood movement and just six years after adoption of council districts that dispersed power to corners that had never had any.

“It opened up the political system to neighborhood groups, to Republicans and Democrats other than the people connected to big business downtown,” Arrington said.

Gantt, a City Council member, ran on a platform of managing growth and planning for the future. He advocated alternative revenues such as a payroll tax to reduce city reliance on property taxes.

Peacock, a fellow council member and former county commissioners’ chairman, called him a big spender, “an attractive, articulate liberal.”

He touted his own “New Directions” program, which included incentive pay for some city workers and efforts to encourage families to spend more time together.

To Gantt, that was a diversion from the tougher issues of managing growth and leading the city forward.

Despite the stakes, race was never an overt issue for either candidate. Why?

“Because he was polite and I knew I couldn’t win if I talked about it,” Gantt said. “It wouldn’t have been good strategy anyway. In 1983 Charlotte was on the precipice of these big banks and really starting to make moves. ... We all got various kinds of messages from either side that we don’t want this to end up being a spectacle on race. It’s not good for business.”

Peacock said a common denominator in 1983 and 2013 was solid support for the African-American candidate in predominantly black precincts.

“If (Edwin) gets more than 10 votes in any of those precincts it will be a miracle,” he said. “That has remained constant and that will remain constant.”

In predominantly white precincts, Peacock acknowledged, he and other GOP mayoral candidates get roughly two-thirds of the vote.

Asked whether racial attitudes have changed, Gantt nodded toward the nearby Wells Fargo Atrium, full of noontime diners.

“It would be foolish to say it has not changed,” he said. “I just walk out into this atrium (and) see a far more integrated, diverse group of people. ... That never would have been the case in 1983. So the city has changed, and I think for the better. But to say that we’re living in a post-racial society is ridiculous.”

‘An honorable guy’

Though they don’t recall all their disagreements, there were some. But the tone of the 1983 race was relatively genteel.

Neither candidate wanted a repeat of what was happening in cities such as Chicago, where Harold Washington was in the midst of a bitter campaign to become that city’s first black mayor. Peacock said that race even prompted a call from his mother.

“She said, ‘Look, I want you know I keep reading about this Chicago race and how racist it is. ... Don’t you ever let anybody get into this kind of stuff.’ … Both of my parents would have taken me to the woodshed pronto, I can tell you that.”

Lunch over, both one-time adversaries parted with a handshake. Peacock promised to call about golf. Gantt offered a compliment.

“We are fortunate in Charlotte to have two candidates running for office that I think could represent the city honorably,” he said.

“You’ve raised a son that I think is an honorable guy. And I’m going to support the Democrat, because I think he’s also very honorable.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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