Former governor McCrory questions Black Political Caucus influence
In 1995, the year Republican Pat McCrory was elected to the first of his seven terms as Charlotte mayor, none of the top government posts in the city and in Mecklenburg County were held by African-Americans.
Fast-forward to primary election night 2018. With the virtual election Tuesday of Democrats Garry McFadden as sheriff and Spencer Merriweather as district attorney — neither have GOP opposition in November — African-Americans will soon hold all of those government posts they were shut out of in 1995.
Other African-Americans in key positions: Mayor Vi Lyles, Police Chief Kerr Putney, City Manager Marcus Jones, County Commissioner Chair Ella Scarborough and school board Chair Mary McCray.
McCrory — a former N.C. governor and now host of a morning radio show — sparked controversy, even outrage, on Wednesday when he told his listeners on WBT (1110 AM) that the latest voting results were proof that "we have become a very segregated city and county regarding political affiliation and also the political race of the voters."
Black Political Caucus chair Arthur Griffin quickly condemned McCrory's remarks, calling them "race-baiting in its purest form."
In a Thursday interview with the Observer, McCrory insisted he made the comments drawing fire as a political analyst, not as a GOP partisan.
"I give accurate and complete political assessments in a bipartisan way," he said. "That's what I do on the show."
But the words McCrory used convinced Griffin and others that he was using coded language designed to stir up partisans.
On his hour-long show Wednesday, McCrory weighed in on what he called this "tremendous change in dynamics in Charlotte-Mecklenburg." He told listeners that endorsements from the city's Black Political Caucus now determine who wins in the Democratic primary and, increasingly, in the general election.
But he also used words with racial connotations to make his case: "We have become a very segregated city and county regarding political affiliation and also the political race of the voters — the African-American power within the Democratic Party through the Black Political Caucus where you have African-Americans leading the mayor, the county commission, the school board and now the sheriff, which is a big change (from) the last 20 years."
McCrory said the current political landscape in Charlotte-Mecklenburg lacked the "diversity" of even 10 years ago. Again, he pointed to the Black Political Caucus, which has "total control."
The 69-year-old Griffin, who's a Charlotte native, said he was shocked when he heard McCrory's remarks.
"They reminded me of the comments (white) people made when I was growing up (in the 1950s and '60s)," Griffin said. "He played the race card in reverse."
A member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board from 1985 to 2003 and its chairman from 1997 to 2003, Griffin added that he doesn't remember whites ever making it an issue when they held all the top government posts. "(White) folks thought: 'I guess that's how it's supposed to be.'"
Harvey Gantt, who became Charlotte's first black mayor in 1983, called McCrory's comments "unfortunate. ... (They) almost sound like the black community and the caucus are doing something illegitimate. That's not true. All people have the opportunity to run."
Gantt suggested that the real segregation worth worrying about in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is in public schools and housing. "Shouldn't we all be concerned about segregated schools?" Gantt said.
During his Wednesday show, McCrory did say that the African-Americans now holding or elected to top offices in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are all qualified, if liberal. And he singled out McFadden and Merriweather for praise, saying the sheriff-elect is "a close personal friend (who's) going to be engaging ... dynamic," and that the new DA even has some support among Republicans.
And in the Thursday interview with the Observer, McCrory said his on-air comments were more about the change from a competitive political landscape. The Charlotte City Council elected with him in 1995 had six Democrats and five Republicans. And Republicans narrowly controlled the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, 5-4, that year.
Now Democrats hold nine of the 11 seats on the city council and six of the nine county commissioner seats.
McCrory also told the Observer that his characterization of the Black Political Caucus was meant to be a salute to its effectiveness.
"I complimented the Black Political Caucus for running such a successful grassroots campaign," he said. "That's the best of America."
McCrory also pointed out that in 1999, the Black Political Caucus gave him — and many others, including Gantt and former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl — an award. An Observer article from that same year reported that many in the caucus wanted to endorse McCrory for mayor that year, though it ultimately backed his Democratic opponent, Ella Scarborough.
But McCrory's reputation as a GOP moderate who could work with Democrats suffered after he was elected governor in 2012, with many in Charlotte faulting him for signing HB2, a bill that overrode a Charlotte ordinance expanding civil rights protections to include LGBTQ persons.
And some of McCrory's on-air comments Wednesday and on a follow-up show Thursday were interpreted by some as a subtle warning to the mostly white Republican Party base — WBT's main audience — about the growing clout of black voters.
He called the caucus "a small group of individuals who hand out fliers at the polling places like the (predominantly black) McCrorey YMCA — different spelling — and that determines the election."
He also charged that "color of skin should make no difference, but the Black Political Caucus does consider color of skin when making recommendations. And they totally abandoned the white Democratic sheriff (Irwin Carmichael), who came in third place."
And yet, McCrory added, the caucus "went against one of their own," referring to its non-endorsement of state Sen. Joel Ford, a black lawmaker criticized by some Democrats for occasionally working with Republicans in Raleigh.
Gantt and Griffin pointed out that the Black Political Caucus has endorsed many white candidates over the years and even in Tuesday's primary. For example, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, who is white, got one of the caucus's three endorsements in the race for at-large seats. That meant the caucus did not endorse Ray McKinnon, a well-connected Democrat who happens to be black.
"Not only have we endorsed white candidates," Griffin said, "we have supported things like the arena, the transportation tax and school bonds that have benefited the entire community."
Gantt also suggested McCrory was simplifying the vibrancy of Charlotte's African-American community by focusing so sharply on the Black Political Caucus.
"The caucus is only one of the elements of the black community," Gantt said.
'The PC police'
By Thursday, when McCrory returned to the air amid controversy, he cast himself as a target of those promoting political correctness, who he said were trying to muzzle him.
"The PC police now have challenged my credibility by using a race card, using a political card and other cards," he said. "The PC police have been after me for years."
He told his listeners about how protesters tried to shut down dialogue after he was invited to speak at Duke University in the wake of the HB2 furor.
Then, in another racially-charged reference that may or may not have been intentional, McCrory said he asked the head of Duke's business school: "If I come back to Duke, will I be allowed to eat at the lunch counter?"
Among the earliest protests in the civil rights movement were the sit-ins in Greensboro, where young African-American activists were beaten and arrested for trying to desegregate lunch counters.
Charlotte's political landscape has certainly changed over the years. And African-Americans, who now make up two-thirds of the vote in local Democratic primaries, are a big reason why.
But what's happening in Charlotte is the story in many other cities and counties around the country, said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, where McCrory graduated in the 1970s with a political science degree.
"Nationally, urban counties are more Democratic and continue to diversify in ways that the Republican Party does not play well in," said Bitzer. "The days of a white Republican being elected in the city of Charlotte without redistricting help is harder and harder, if not impossible."
That doesn't necessarily translate into victories for just African-Americans. On Tuesday night, Democrat Cotham led the field in the race for Mecklenburg County commissioner. And last year, the top vote getter in the City Council race was Democrat Julie Eiselt, who is white.
What got McCrory into trouble, Bitzer said, was probably his attempts to co-opt words that have long been used in a racial context to describe the exclusion or inclusion of African-Americans.
"The use of the term 'segregated' and the use of the term 'diversity' are probably the hot potatoes causing the reactions," Bitzer said.
Though McCrory said he was just analyzing Tuesday's vote, Griffin heard something destructive.
"How can a leader demonstrate discourse, civility and respect if what's coming out of your mouth is 'They're all black!'" Griffin said. "He's dealt a serious blow to the racial trust we've tried to cultivate."
Republican City Council member Ed Driggs, who is white, agreed that the political balance in Charlotte has shifted, pointing to the bigger-than-expected win by Lyles, a Democrat, over Republican Kenny Smith in last year's mayor's race.
Still, he isn't convinced that the makeup of the 11-member City Council, with only two Republicans, is "reflective of the mix of the population" in Charlotte.
As for McCrory, Driggs said the former mayor and governor has been personally and unfairly blamed for HB2, toll roads and other divisive things.
"His intentions were always good," Driggs said. "Now he's just doing his job as a radio commentator."
Griffin said he wished McCrory would have taken the opportunity to recognize what it means to Charlotte's black community to see the recent election of the first black woman as mayor and the first African-Americans to become Mecklenburg County sheriff and Mecklenburg district attorney.
"We black people grew up in a segregated society, knowing that we were being treated wrong," Griffin said. "But we pledged allegiance every morning (in school). And now, what we're seeing gives us a sense that we're closer to that last line — 'liberty and justice for all.'"
Then and Now
In 1995, whites held all the top government posts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg:
Mayor: Pat McCrory
County Commissioners Chair: Ann Shrader
School Board Chair: William Rikard
District Attorney: Peter Gilchrist
Sheriff: John Pendergraph
Police Chief: Dennis Nowicki
City Manager: Wendell White
In 2018, blacks either occupy all of the same posts or soon will:
Mayor: Vi Lyles
County Commissioner Chair: Ella Scarborough
School Board Chair: Mary McCray
District Attorney: Spencer Merriweather
Sheriff: Garry McFadden*
Police Chief: Kerr Putney
City Manager: Marcus Jones
*Won Democratic primary, has no GOP opposition in November.