Even in college, Malcolm Graham had a goal: to one day run for mayor of Charlotte or for Congress.
He would flirt with the former at least twice. But now the political science major is running for Congress.
“I got pulled in both directions,” he says. “I stayed true to what I wanted to do, run for Congress.”
Graham has always been ambitious. Even in 2009, at the start of his third term in the state Senate, he said he wanted to “take my ship out where the big boats are,” to the U.S. House or Senate.
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Last spring, 12th District Rep. Mel Watt had just been nominated to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency when Graham, 51, began pulling together a campaign team.
In a seven-person race with three candidates from outside Charlotte, he believes keeping Watt’s seat in Mecklenburg County is key.
“It’s important that this seat remain in Mecklenburg,” he argues. “You rally around one candidate. And that candidate is Graham.”
Minority businesses launched Graham’s professional career – and nearly interrupted his political career.
He became executive director of the Carolinas Minority Suppliers Development Council at 24 and later was vice president of minority business development for what’s now Bank of America.
But when he was on the City Council in 2002, minority opportunities caused friction between Graham and many African-Americans.
He was the only one of four black council members who voted to scrap a program designed to increase minority business with the city, arguing the program wouldn’t stand up in court. Later he led efforts to create a program that helps small businesses regardless of race or gender.
So strong was the animosity that two black council members, fellow Democrats Patrick Cannon and James Mitchell, supported his Senate opponent in 2004. Graham calls the 2002 vote “a defining moment.”
“Do I do what is right or what is popular?” he says. “It demonstrated leadership.”
As chairman of Mecklenburg’s legislative delegation, Graham had a leading role in one of last year’s highest-profile issues: the fight over Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
He was the Senate’s most outspoken critic of the effort to transfer airport control first to an independent authority and then to a commission, often sparring with the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews.
When Democrats ran the Senate, Graham co-chaired committees. But in the 50-member Senate, his effectiveness peaked in 2005, when he ranked 39th according to the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.
Johnson C. Smith
In 2009, Graham returned to his alma mater as special assistant to Johnson C. Smith President Ron Carter. His job: help oversee redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhoods.
He touts West Trade Street projects such as a lighting on an overpass, a new Arts Factory and Mosaic Village, a student housing complex.
Mosaic Village resurrected tension from Graham’s 2002 vote, when some black contractors complained that Graham wasn’t committed to diversity. Carter defended Graham, who says the projects “demonstrate once again my ability to get things done.”