Martin: Celebrating the end of the Charlotte curse

May. 07, 2013 @ 08:08 PM

What is one thing we can do for Charlotte now that that former Mayor Pat McCrory has been elected governor of North Carolina and his successor, Anthony Foxx, has been nominated for U.S Secretary of Transportation?

We can stop referring to the Charlotte mayor’s job as a dead end or curse for politicians aspiring to statewide or national office.

It might take some getting used to.

The previous three Charlotte mayors who tried for statewide office, Eddie Knox (governor in 1984), Harvey Gantt (U.S. Senate in 1990 and 1996) and Richard Vinroot (governor in 2000, 2004 and 2008) were unsuccessful.

Another recent mayor, Sue Myrick, ran successfully, not for statewide office, but for U.S. Congress.

Knox, Gantt, and Vinroot were extraordinarily talented, ambitious and effective leaders whose talents would have served the state well.

Knox and I grew up in Davidson, where I got to know him and his many cousins. All of them were proud of their rural heritage and the success and status their energy had earned them. Two of Knox’s older brothers became mayors, one in Davidson and the other in Mooresville.

Friendly, cheerful, helpful and energetic, Knox had a special appeal that helped make him a very successful lawyer. Later, when Bill Clinton came along, he reminded me of the young Eddie Knox. Both of them could make you feel like you were something special to them.

Knox became a political ally of Jim Hunt during college days and he supported and gained support from Hunt’s progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But he was able to assure conservatives that he was not so liberal. In Charlotte, he gained support from business, African Americans and many Republicans.

With all those talents and charm, I thought that he would have a chance someday to run for president.

But all that potential came crashing down when Rufus Edmisten beat Knox in a bitter Democratic primary runoff in 1984. Some said the Charlotte curse made the difference.

Knox burned his bridges with his Democratic base by supporting Jesse Helms against Jim Hunt and later changing his registration to Republican.

I still think that if he had bit his lip and run for the U.S. Senate in 1986, he would have won and might still be in the Senate - or the White House.

Harvey Gantt was already a folk hero when he won the Charlotte mayor’s election on his second try, becoming the city’s first African American to hold that office. He earned a place in history as the first black student to attend Clemson University and had become a prominent and respected architect in Charlotte.

His two close losses in the U.S. Senate races against Jesse Helms were, looking back, extraordinary achievements for a black politician in a southern state. His campaigns prepared the way for Barack Obama’s narrow victory in this state in 2008. Ironically, if Gantt had defeated Helms and served in the U.S. Senate, he, rather than Obama, could have been our country’s first African American president.

Richard Vinroot and I competed in basketball in high school and were on different sides politically the rest of our lives. Still, I have always admired his courage, his commitment to public service, his ability to lead and bring together diverse groups, and his unselfish friendship.

Like his fellow Charlotte mayors Knox and Gant, Vinroot was one statewide successful governor’s campaign away from being a possible candidate for the nation’s highest office.

Looking back at the lost potential of Knox, Gantt, and Vinroot, we can be thankful that Governor Pat McCrory and Secretary of Transportation-designee Anthony Foxx have put an end to that dreadful Charlotte curse.

 

D.G. Martin hosts "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs, visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch