A mayor’s race with a policy taste

Not once, not twice, but three times in five minutes Tuesday, reporters asked Charlotte’s Dan Clodfelter about his reelection campaign. Each time, he demurred. “This is not the day for politics,” he said.

But when you’re the incumbent mayor running for reelection in a crowded primary, you inevitably launch your campaign, at least unofficially, when you deliver a high-profile speech to a room filled with political players.

Clodfelter, who was given the job in April after fellow Democrat Patrick Cannon resigned in a corruption scandal, delivered the annual State of the City address to a nearly full Government Center meeting chamber. His remarks were part pep-talk for the citizenry, part policy wonk lecture.

The tone and substance, including in a chat with reporters afterward, crystallized the question voters will have to decide in a primary this September and in the general election in November: Is boring competence a good thing in a mayor? Does a guy who basks in the nitty-gritty detail of public policy trump a charismatic ribbon-cutter?

Clodfelter addressed critics who have questioned the low profile he has kept in the job so far. “I have spent time, as I believe elected leaders in an open society must do, listening, observing, interacting and thinking before opening my mouth to speak,” he said.

While Clodfelter is no political naïf, he seems more comfortable chewing on policy than campaigning. After his speech, he talked with reporters about the need for new ways to fund transit projects.

“You got to repay financing regardless, whether it’s a public-private venture or a 3P or a TIFIA loan from the federal government, you have to have a source of revenue to pay that,” he explained.

Setting aside that a public-private venture and a 3P are the same thing, this is a mayor who is steeped in things like TIFIA loans, federal money used for regional and national transportation projects. When he said it was not a day for politics, he wasn’t kidding, because the meatiest part of his speech broached a politically unpopular idea: new or higher taxes.

State government is reducing its support for transit, Clodfelter said. That means Charlotte and other cities and counties will have to step up.

Taxpayers may have to accept “what has always been unthinkable – the idea that we may need to be willing to assume some additional responsibilities locally that have previously been the responsibility of state government,” in exchange for new ways to raise money, the mayor said.

Charlotte needs to protect its share of state money the best it can, he said, while at least starting conversations around new local taxing authority. He’s right.

“As unpleasant as that may be, the world changes,” he said.

It hardly seems like juicy fodder for kicking off a re-election campaign. Unless you’re Dan Clodfelter.