James “Smuggie” Mitchell knows he got a late start in the 12th District congressional race. But he says that won’t matter if he’s elected.
“I can hit the ground running on the first day,” he says. “(I’m) the only one with national relationships and who understands policy at the national level.”
Mitchell, 51, touts his record not only as a member of the Charlotte City Council but as president of the National League of Cities, a position that exposed him to a national audience of policymakers.
He was the last major Democrat to announce for the seven-way primary, waiting until U.S. Rep. Mel Watt formally took over the Federal Housing Finance Agency in January.
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Six months ago, Mitchell was a late entrant to another primary.
Some business leaders, dissatisfied with mayoral candidate Patrick Cannon, encouraged Mitchell to challenge him. He went on to lose to Cannon, who was arrested Wednesday on federal corruption charges.
First elected in 1999, Mitchell served on the City Council for 14 years. Over that time he led the city’s economic development efforts and worked to bring more affordable housing.
Some of his highest-visibility efforts involved pro sports.
He was a strong advocate for helping the Charlotte Knights and one of the lead negotiators in talks that ended with the city giving the team $8 million toward the new uptown ballpark.
Last year he was the council’s key negotiator with the Carolina Panthers on improvements to Bank of America Stadium. The city gave the team $87.5 million in exchange for agreeing to stay six years.
And last year he was among the most outspoken defenders of continued city control of its airport, traveling to Raleigh more than once to lobby state lawmakers.
For years Mitchell had a higher national than local profile.
He had been active in the National League of Cities, serving in various roles including chairman of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials. But in 2008, he was elected the NLC’s second vice president. That put him on a trajectory to be elected president two years later.
Mitchell led the national organization in 2011. It was a role that took him to Capitol Hill and the White House and helped build relationships along the way.
“How do things get done in Washington?” he says. “By those relationships.”
The mayoral candidate
Last year the longtime district council member announced he would run at-large, then a few weeks later jumped into the mayor’s race. He acknowledges that his late entry hurt his chances.
By the time he got in, Cannon had corralled donations and support.
To critics who suggest his run for Congress may have come too soon after his bid for mayor, Mitchell defends it. He says he turned down invitations to run for other offices, including county commissioner and the state Senate.
“The congressional race was a long-term goal for me,” he says.