Ask Dan Clodfelter to unravel a thorny issue – the more complicated and challenging the better.
Just don’t ask him to call a press conference to trumpet it.
“One thing I’m not comfortable with,” he once told a reporter, “is the style of politics where the politician is more important than the issue.”
First as a member of theCharlotte City Council and later as state senator, Clodfelter developed a reputation as a workhorse, more intent on getting something done than on self-promotion.
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Now 63, he’s taking on another challenge. As Charlotte’s new Democratic mayor – and fourth in less than a year – he’ll try to restore the reputation of an office and a city tarnished by his predecessor, fellow Democrat Patrick Cannon, who resigned last month after his arrest on federal corruption charges.
Davidson College classmate Tom Ross says Clodfelter “thrives on problem-solving.”
“He’s always driven to find solutions to problems,” says Ross, now president of the University of North Carolina system. “He sees a problem (and) he’s going to work with whomever it is necessary to get the problem solved.”
Rising in the Senate
Clodfelter was student government president at Davidson. And when he became the school’s 17th Rhodes Scholar in 1972, his hometown of Thomasville declared “Daniel G. Clodfelter Day.”
After studying law at Yale, he returned to Charlotte, where he clerked for federal Judge James McMillan and joined Moore & Van Allen law firm.
He ran for the City Council in 1987 and served until 1993. First elected to the Senate in 1998, he’s now in his eighth term.
In Raleigh, Clodfelter’s influence peaked when Democrats were in control. Co-chairman of the Finance Committee, he rose as high as fourth-most effective member of the 50-person Senate, according to surveys by the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.
In 2009, the last session in which Democrats ran the Senate, Clodfelter was the point man on legislation that would have brought the biggest changes in decades to tax and water policy, while steering measures on annexation, transportation and even the regulation of boxing.
Clodfelter has usually preferred sober negotiations in a conference room to the glare of center stage.
“He’s quite smart and consequently is able to cut through some of the more complicated stuff that we deal with, and once cutting through it figure out what the sponsor is trying to achieve and what the ramifications will be,” says Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh.
David Hoyle, a former Democratic senator from Gaston County, says, “If you asked him a specific question about a specific issue and he gave a specific answer, you could just about book it.”
Clodfelter is affable but not a backslapper. A college philosophy major, he’s analytical.
George Hanna, a longtime friend and law partner, recalls that early in his career, Clodfelter worried that he wasn’t getting much trial experience. Colleagues pointed out that was because he won cases on summary judgment, when a judge ruled before trial.
“The other side didn’t even get to bat to go to trial,” Hanna says. “(Clodfelter) would knock them out at summary judgment stage.”
Ross says Clodfelter “doesn’t wear his brains on his sleeve.” But whether with lawmakers or reporters, Clodfelter can be impatient, even prickly. Colleagues say he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
But he generally gets along with people on both sides of the aisle.
“You could disagree with Dan but it wasn’t personal,” says Stan Campbell, a Republican who served on the City Council with him. “He could be (partisan) as we all could … But he was much more interested in finding a way to make something work.”
Last year Campbell was an early proponent of transferring Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city to an independent authority, and later a commission. None of that might have happened, he says, had Clodfelter been in charge.
“If he had been in charge over the last five years, there would not have been any issue at all managing the airport,” Campbell says.
Ross expects Clodfelter to look at his latest challenge like he has all the others.
“He’s always looking to the next thing to make a difference,” Ross says, “not the next thing to make Dan look better.”