There might be nobody in Raleigh with a tougher job than Dana Fenton, the lobbyist for the city of Charlotte.
Quiet and unassuming, he’s a pro with nearly two decades experience in legislative diplomacy. He knows how to negotiate arcane policies and big egos.
But for legislators, he’s the daily face of the city that started North Carolina down the road of celebrity boycotts, corporate pull-outs, late-night punch lines and now, a legal showdown with the federal government.
“There was no love lost to start with for Charlotte in this building,” says Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican. “It certainly got exponentially more difficult.”
The reason: February’s city ordinance that added sexual orientation to anti-discrimination protections and allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.
(Charlotte’s image in the Republican-controlled legislature is) somewhat better than Stalin, not as good as Pol Pot.
Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican
The General Assembly responded with House Bill 2, which pre-empted the ordinance and others like it. That led to Monday’s dueling lawsuits, with the state suing the U.S. Department of Justice and DOJ suing the state.
According to Jeter, Charlotte’s image in the Republican-controlled legislature is “somewhat better than Stalin, not as good as Pol Pot.” Fenton told me a fellow lobbyist called him “radioactive.”
It’s all made Fenton’s job a little tougher.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t harder,” he says.
‘Persona non grata’
Fenton, 56, is a native of northern Virginia. Even in high school, inspired by the work of city government in nearby Alexandria, he dreamed of being a city manager. He went on to study public administration as an undergraduate at George Mason University and as a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
From there he went to work for local government in Kansas, where he spent nearly five years as a budget analyst before beginning to lobby for the county in Topeka. In 2000 he returned to Prince William County, Va., and lobbied in Richmond for the county. He came to Charlotte in 2010.
Fenton is easy-going, a genuinely nice guy. But being Charlotte’s lobbyist has brought challenges.
He’s fought bills that would reduce the city’s power to enforce billboard laws and regulate its own building design standards. He’s also lobbied for money for Charlotte’s light rail. But two of his biggest fights came in the last two sessions.
In 2013 there was the push to take Charlotte’s airport from city control and put it under first an authority and then a commission. The issue ended up in court and now is in limbo, though the city is still in charge. Last year came an effort by rural lawmakers to take a chunk of city sales taxes, a move that would have cost the city millions. A compromise shares some money but not as much as cities feared.
Fenton was in the thick of both.
“Toward the end of last year he was definitely on the persona non grata list,” says Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat. “He pushed back against the sales tax redistribution plan because he knew what the cost would be for Charlotte. Dana, along with the rest of the Mecklenburg delegation, is usually playing defense up here.”
Last year, Republican Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Concord was pushing a financial bill that Charlotte had an interest in. Normally Fenton would have worked lawmakers on its behalf.
“I asked Dana not to get involved,” says Hartsell. “There’s always been a conflict between Charlotte and the state. It’s ebbed and flowed over the years. It’s sort of … a love-hate relationship.”
Tension over Charlotte’s LGBT ordinance eclipses any tension over the airport or other issue. No other issue has resulted in lost jobs, a Bruce Springsteen boycott or a legal battle with the federal government.
‘Great State’ returns
For years the conflict was reflected in a name: “The Great State of Mecklenburg.” It carried the baggage of a metropolitan city in a state – and a legislature – dominated by rural interests, usually Democrats. Now Charlotte, run by progressive Democrats, is up against a Republican-controlled legislature. And then throw in the almost visceral rift over HB2.
That’s why Sen. Bob Rucho flagged me down last week. He ticked off a list of Mecklenburg lawmakers including himself, Democratic Rep. Becky Carney and former Democratic Sens. Dan Clodfelter and Fountain Odom, who he said had tried to rid the county of that baggage.
“All of the folks in our delegation have worked hard over the past 20 years to reverse the stigma of ‘The Great State of Mecklenburg’,” said Rucho, a Matthews Republican. “And in a month, (Charlotte Mayor) Jennifer Roberts destroyed all that good work.”
Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, says Fenton “has an impossible job just with all the HB2 stuff.”
“He’s got to be up here to face the music,” he says.
The renewed tension is unlikely to disappear this session or even by the start of next year’s regular session, when Charlotte is certain to face more fights over revenue and other issues.
Connie Wilson, a former Mecklenburg lawmaker turned lobbyist, says, “You couldn’t pay me enough” to have Fenton’s job.
But Fenton, who makes $149,000 a year, plows ahead. He walks the halls with his ever-present tablet trying to keep the doors of communication open.
“I’ve gotten a lot of ‘Bless your hearts’ this session,” he says.