After prosecutors divulge the sordid details of how former Mayor Patrick Cannon betrayed his city, his defense team is expected to remind the court at a sentencing hearing Tuesday of something else:
The good Cannon did for Charlotte.
“Patrick is not a mean-spirited guy,” said Don Reid, who served six years with him on the City Council.
At Cannon’s request, Reid wrote U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney and offered this perspective: Cannon, a Democrat, wanted to do what was best for the community and was willing to compromise even when it was not politically expedient.
Reid, a Republican and outspoken critic of government spending, told Whitney that it was especially important to him that “unlike some elected officials ... Pat was always accessible and willing to listen.”
Before rendering his sentence Tuesday, Whitney will hear from both the prosecution and the defense, including letters written on Cannon’s behalf and testimony from up to three character witnesses. The Observer interviewed some of the people who wrote letters, as well as others who didn’t, about what Whitney should know about Cannon.
Though saddened and angered by his arrest on his 114th day as mayor, they said the judge – and the community – should not forget Cannon’s 20 years of public service.
“He has done a lot of good,” said Harvey Gantt who, as Charlotte’s first African-American mayor, inspired a generation of future leaders such as Cannon. Gantt backed Cannon’s opponent in the Democratic primary last year, but nevertheless spoke of Cannon as man whose opinion others valued. “A lot of people feel Patrick had a positive impact on their lives and on the community – and I think so, too.”
That portrayal of a servant-leader was echoed by others who worked closely with Cannon during his rise in politics, beginning in 1993 at age 26, when he became the youngest person ever elected to the council. It culminated last November with his election as mayor.
They said his influence spanned political and social divides. Former school board Chairman Arthur Griffin said Cannon spoke for “people who didn’t have a voice.” At the same time, he advocated for the business community, said Charlotte developer John Collett, a longtime supporter.
Collett said he wrote Whitney in the hope that his judgment would be tempered by mercy for a man who “worked tirelessly for this community.”
“I have a long history with him, and there was never any impropriety,” Collett said. “You need to add up all the good this guy did.”
At stake: Years in prison
That narrative of a magnanimous public official willing to listen to anyone clashes with the corrupt politician portrayed in a 42-page government affidavit detailing Cannon’s crimes.
One of the most damning images is of Cannon meeting in February with an undercover agent in the mayor’s office on the 15th floor of the Government Center. There, Cannon accepted a leather Fossil briefcase filled with $20,000 in cash from the agent, who posed as an out-of-town business executive.
Cannon, 47, was arrested March 26 when he met with undercover agents for another illegal payoff. He pleaded guilty in June to accepting seven bribes totaling $50,500 from January 2013 to February 2014.
Most of the money came from the agents. Cannon also took bribes from a Charlotte businessman, whom the Observer identified as strip club owner David “Slim” Baucom. Baucom has not been charged.
U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins described Cannon as a politician on retainer – accepting a steady stream of cash and gifts and more if something needed to be done. Government documents allege he also solicited $1.2 million in kickbacks from undercover agents.
In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors promised not to ask for a prison sentence of more than four to five years, as proscribed under federal guidelines. But Whitney isn’t bound by the plea agreement. The maximum sentence is 20 years.
One factor in Cannon’s favor is that he pleaded guilty, publicly confessed his crimes and apologized. “Much has been given to me in the way of the public’s trust,” Cannon said in June. “I regret having acted in ways that broke that trust. For that, I am deeply sorry.”
‘Truly a giving person’
Cannon’s fall was especially hard felt among African Americans for whom he was often held up as a role model. His political trajectory was considered remarkable for a man born in public housing and raised by a single mother after his father was murdered.
Even when he moved to suburban Ballantyne and enrolled his two youngest children in private school, Cannon maintained relationships among rank-and-file supporters in westside precincts that first elected him to office.
“He was brought forward to show kids from the inner city that if he could do it, you can do it, too,” said former county commissioner Norman Mitchell, who also wrote Whitney on Cannon’s behalf. “People that he helped in this community will never forget what he did.”
A common refrain was that Cannon genuinely cares about people.
“He’s truly a giving person,” said former school board member Sara Stevenson.
“He was concerned about issues affecting ... persons who were not getting their fair shake,” said Anna Hood, former president of Charlotte’s Black Political Caucus.
Former City Council member Malachi Greene said Cannon helped those unable to help themselves. Greene, who served with Cannon, was not asked to write Whitney and, like others, he qualified his praise with profound disappointment: “I’m just as mad at him as I can be.”
Greene’s ambivalence brought to his mind a scene from the Broadway play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” about a black family’s desire to be the first to integrate a Chicago suburb. In the play, Mama Lena Younger berates her daughter, Beneatha, for disowning her brother, Walter, after he loses the family money.
“You done wrote his epitaph, too, like the rest of the world?” Mama asks.
Greene quoted the dialogue from memory, ending with these words from Mama spoken in her vernacular:
“When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”
Reporters Michael Gordon and Rick Rothacker contributed.