Last fall, Mark Erwin hosted a Charlotte City Club fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, headlined by her husband, Bill. Earlier, he'd hosted one at his southeast Charlotte home for another Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards.
So why was Erwin, an investor and one-time developer, sitting in the VIP box in St. Paul on Thursday night watching Republican John McCain accept the GOP presidential nomination?
Because the prominent Democratic fundraiser and former U.S. ambassador under President Clinton is now state chair of a group called N.C. Citizens for McCain.
“I'm not trying to get anything except a good president,” says Erwin, 64.
Erwin has kept a hectic schedule in the Twin Cities. He has spoken to groups such as Republicans Abroad and conferenced with reporters. Thursday, he joined a small group at lunch with Cindy McCain and later shared a box at the convention hall with top McCain adviser Carly Fiorina.
“Frankly, I really am surprised,” says Jeannette Hyde of Raleigh, a fellow Hillary Clinton fundraiser who was also made an ambassador by Clinton's husband. “I would think that McCain's philosophy would not be compatible with Mark's.”
He's a friend of Bill's
Erwin has close ties to Democrats.
He met Bill Clinton in the mid-'80s at Renaissance Weekend, an annual Hilton Head Island retreat for selected people in business, government and the arts. They became golfing buddies and Erwin kept pictures of the two at his Charlotte home. He also raised money for the president and his allies.
Along with Hillary Clinton and Edwards, he contributed to Democrats such as Al Gore, John Kerry, Mel Watt and Erskine Bowles. Now he supports Democrat Kay Hagan over Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole and raises money for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bev Perdue in her race against Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory.
But a registered independent, Erwin has worked both sides of the aisle.
He supports Republicans including U.S. Reps. Sue Myrick and Robin Hayes. And he was friendly with the late GOP Sen. Jesse Helms, who helped guide his ambassadorial appointment through the Senate, and spoke to groups at the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate.
Erwin says he's backing McCain because he can't support Democrat Barack Obama.
“He really isn't qualified to lead this country,” Erwin says. “If you look at him objectively … it turns out that he's been in the business for most of his life of collecting credentials, of building a resume.”
If Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee, Erwin says he'd be supporting her.
“It is astonishing to me that somebody can say they're voting on a set of values and then change it 180 degrees when their candidate loses,” says Bob Perkowitz, a Charlotte businessman and member of Republicans for Obama, a group that Thursday announced more than 200 N.C. adherents. “He's sour grapes.”
Party labels don't matter
To Erwin, a big game hunter who made his first million dollars by the age of 38, party labels don't mean much.
“I firmly believe in the fact that we're Americans before we're Democrats or Republicans, and we need to not mix that up,” he says. “So many times people get caught up in the ideology of a party.”
Erwin says he likes divided government.
“As much as I'd like to say Bill Clinton, my friend, did such a marvelous job, the fact of the matter was it was Bill Clinton in the White House and a Republican-dominated Congress for six of those eight years.”
After getting a call from a McCain staffer last month, he flew to Atlanta for a 20-minute private meeting with McCain and independent U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman.
“Essentially I said, ‘Whatever I can do to help, let me know,'” he says. “And the next thing I knew, I was head of N.C. Citizens for McCain.”