Malcolm Graham’s run for Congress fueled by tragedy


It wasn’t politics that catapulted Malcolm Graham back into the spotlight last year. It was a tragedy in a Charleston church.

Among the nine lives lost to an alleged racist at Emanuel AME Church was his sister, Cynthia Hurd. Graham, who’d left the N.C. Senate and run for Congress in 2014, suddenly found himself talking about the massacre, and the issues it raised, around the country.

At an MLK Holiday event in Charlotte, for example, he urged an audience of 1,200 to work to change a system that continues to tolerate racial hatred, gun violence and unequal access to quality education.

“Speaking has been a form of therapy for me,” Graham says. “And it gives me an opportunity to talk about my sister every day.”

Then, when court-ordered redistricting redrew the 12th District this spring, Graham jumped in. In 2014, he finished second to Alma Adams, who went on to win the seat.

Serving in office

Graham had a goal in college: to run for mayor of Charlotte or for Congress.

He would flirt with a mayor’s race. But the congressional opportunity came up two years ago when longtime Rep. Mel Watt stepped down to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Graham’s political career began in 1999 when he was elected to the Charlotte City Council. He went on to the state Senate in 2004.

When Democrats were in charge, Graham co-chaired committees. His effectiveness peaked in 2005, when he ranked 39th of 50 senators, according to the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

In 2013, he was the Senate’s most outspoken critic of the effort to transfer control of Charlotte’s airport first to an independent authority and then to a commission. He sparred publicly with the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews.

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.

Promoting diversity

Professionally, Graham has worked in minority outreach and corporate diversity.

In 1988, at 25, he became executive director of the Carolinas Minority Supplier Development Councils Inc., a nonprofit group financed by nearly 200 corporations. He later worked in minority business development for Bank of America and other companies.

In 2009, Graham returned to his alma mater as special assistant to Johnson C. Smith President Ron Carter. His job involved the redevelopment of the surrounding neighborhood.

He touts West Trade Street projects such as lighting on an overpass, a new Arts Factory and Mosaic Village, a student housing complex.

Motivation to run

The loss of his sister led Graham to create the Cynthia Graham Hurd Foundation, which he officially launched this month with the announcement of a book drive to benefit low-income students in Charleston and Charlotte.

It also motivated him to try again for Congress, especially after lawmakers shrunk the district to Mecklenburg County.

“It made me more committed to be a voice for Cynthia and to stand up for her,” Graham says. “One of the (last) things Cynthia and I talked about was my political future. She said, ‘Destiny delayed is not destiny denied.’ 

Malcolm Graham

Hometown: Charleston.

Education: Johnson C. Smith University.

Family: Wife, Kim; two daughters.

Job: Runs the Center for Supplier Diversity.

Politics: : Charlotte City Council, 1999-2005; N.C. Senate, 2004-2014.

Worth knowing: Came to Johnson C. Smith on a tennis scholarship.