Last week, Mecklenburg County commissioner Trevor Fuller had finished a phone interview with WBT’s morning radio show and still had the station streaming online at his desk at home.
It was the day after the board elevated the Charlotte lawyer and first-term at-large commissioner to chairman – opting not to go another year with Pat Cotham at the helm.
Suddenly, “The Keith Larson Show” came on, and Fuller heard host Larson talk about Fuller’s promotion:
“He was saying, ‘So Trevor Fuller is the new chair of the county commission. Who is this Fuller guy? I’ve never heard of him,’” said Fuller, 46. “I get it. I am the newest of the new on the board in every respect.”
Indeed, Fuller did ascend from political obscurity to one of Mecklenburg’s most influential posts.
After arriving in Charlotte in 2000, he’d had little involvement in the local Democratic Party.
Fuller joined the local Black Political Caucus in about 2005, but had been inactive in recent years as he built his law practice.
Still, he’s always been fascinated with politics and public service.
“It’s an occupational hazard of being a lawyer,” Fuller said. “I’d thought about running earlier, but the timing then wasn’t right. Last year, it was.”
Yet even campaign manager Dan McCorkle, who’d been involved in local Democratic Party elections for 30 years, didn’t know Fuller when he asked for help.
“He was as fresh as he could be,” McCorkle said. “He’d been active in the (black Mecklenburg) bar association. But as a Democrat I’d never come across him before.”
Growing up in two worlds
McCorkle, like others, was struck by his eloquence and drive – traits long aquired.
Fuller was raised by his mother, Laura Mays, in a working-class Buffalo, N.Y., neighborhood. He was older brother to three sisters. His father, a former Merchant Marine, moved away from Buffalo when Trevor was young and ran a soul food restaurant in Detroit.
Father and son had a relationship, but mostly during summers.
So it was Mays, Fuller said, who pushed her children to work hard and excel in school and hired a piano teacher to train Trevor for several years.
As a boy, he played soccer and basketball, but gave it up for his favorite competition – debating and public speaking – as a student at Nichols School, a private prep day school where he’d won a full scholarship after sixth grade.
“That school was the most transformative experience of my life,” he said. “There was a clear difference at Nichols from the public schools. It was interesting to be transported on a daily basis between two different worlds.”
Mornings he’d board the bus with the other neighborhood children. When they got off at the public school, Trevor rode alone to Nichols, where he was elected student body president his senior year.
There, English teacher Richard Stratton pushed students to write with power and precision. Doug Parker, another English teacher and debate coach, recruited students with big voices.
“He’d say you’ve got to be distinguishable when you talk,” Fuller said. “You can’t just say things without passion, without feeling. Who notices you when you’re merely listing off points? He knew the key to winning – you don’t win tournaments being just like everybody else.”
At one tournament, the debaters had to a deliver a speech from someone in history. Fuller chose Mark Twain’s 1882 talk called “Advice to Youth,” and won a national award for dramatic interpretation.
On his own, he’d read how-to books on powerful speaking.
That success led him to think about how he could use his skills to make a living.
So armed with an English degree from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., Fuller started law school at Georgetown Law near Washington, D.C.
‘Much opportunity here’
In his final year, he met second-year student Camille Davidson of Oxford, Miss. She was drawn to his “big personality.”
“He was ambitious,” she said, “... but nice.”
They dated, even after he graduated in 1992 and returned to Buffalo to practice law at the Phillips Lytle law firm for four years.
By the time they married, Davidson had clerked for a judge and was a legal counsel for the U.S. House. Fuller had to make a decision: “I couldn’t make this Mississippi woman move to Buffalo. So I went to D.C.”
He worked two years for a firm that included former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, and then broke off on his own. After son Jackson, now 14, was born, they began looking for a city to raise a family.
They chose Charlotte.
“There seemed to be so much opportunity here,” Fuller said. “I wanted to be involved in the life of a city.”
So in 2000, the young family moved themselves and Fuller’s fledgling law firm.
Pondered run for commission
Soon after they arrived, Fuller met Charlotte lawyer Michael Barnes, who’d run his own firm since 2000, and the two talked about merging their practices.
In April 2005, they opened Fuller & Barnes LLP. That year, Barnes also won a seat on Charlotte City Council.
Fuller, too, pondered running for office.
As Barnes got more entrenched on the council, Fuller grew more interested in running – but felt the firm couldn’t sustain two politicians.
“He had a fascination with politics because of my experiences on the council,” said Barnes, now an at-large member and mayor pro tem. “He asked a lot of questions about it, and he had a strong curiosity about the political experience.”
Fuller thought about a run for county commission, but decided the timing wasn’t right. By then, Fuller was father of two young children and he was building a practice.
They lived in Ballantyne, in longtime Republican commissioner Bill James’ district.
“I quickly disabused any notion of running head to head against Bill James,” he said.
Then in 2011, at-large commissioners Jennifer Roberts, Jim Pendergraph and Harold Cogdell decided not to go for another term.
Fuller talked to friends and people involved in politics and filed in February 2012. A month Fuller & Barnes LLP dissolved, an amicable parting, both say.
Campaigning “was out of his comfort zone,” said his wife, a Charlotte School of Law professor. “But he understood it was necessary to serve the community.”
Campaign manager McCorkle knew his new client had no experience and faced “a steep learning curve.” He was concerned.
No time to rant
But then McCorkle heard “that voice.”
“Many candidates are intelligent, but don’t know how to speak,” he said. “There was no learning curve with Trevor. He could talk off the cuff. He was knowledgeable. And he was eager.”
In a 2012 primary of 12 Democrats, Fuller came in third. That November, he finished third again among at-large winners, behind Democrats Cotham and Kim Ratliff.
Cotham was elected chair and Ratliff vice chair. Cotham immediately reached out to the board’s three Republicans and built a solid five-member coalition that included Democrat Vilma Leake.
Initially, Fuller joined the coalition, voting with them to fire longtime County Manager Harry Jones last May. But after Cotham wouldn’t let Jones speak and told him to leave the dais following the vote, he began to grow disenchanted with her leadership.
He and other Democrats complained that she collaborated with Republicans, but excluded them on several discussions, including the early stages of finding a replacement for Jones. They complained that she didn’t work with county staffers and instead undertook county business herself.
Last Tuesday, Democrats persuaded Leake to break from the coalition, and vote to replace Cotham as chair with Fuller. Cotham and three Republicans opposed.
Commissioner Dumont Clarke, the board’s new vice chair, said the change will be good for the relationship between the board and county staff. Fuller, he said, understands and respects the “proper roles of the board – and the manager and his staff.”
Cotham took issue that Fuller said little to her about his concerns but expressed them “when the cameras were around.” James is reserving judgement on Fuller’s leadership.
“Trevor’s a new politician,” he said. “He enjoys giving speeches, but whether he enjoys running the meetings, we’ll have to see. Being chair is as much about running the trains on time as it with blowing the whistle.”
Fuller says his priorities are to get a new county manager on board, restart committees long dormant, and start working earlier on a new county budget. He vowed to get meetings moving “at a crisper pace.”
He’s adamant that Republicans will have the voice they had with Cotham, but is expecting “some barking” from the often-combative James.
“Ideas get better with a variety of perspectives,” Fuller said. “The Republicans should be happy: now I won’t have time to rant. I’ll be too busy running the meetings.”
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