CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Anthony Foxx had been mayor for barely a year when he got the news: Charlotte was chosen to host the Democratic National Convention.
He had spent the year promoting his city as a symbol of the New South — a place that helped President Barack Obama win a state that for decades had gone for the Republican. Now, the chatter among fellow Democrats is that Foxx himself is a symbol of the New South and could parlay this week — with all the opportunities to court delegates, political advisers and national media — into higher office.
“You just heard from a great leader here in Charlotte and I think the face of the New South,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the convention chairman, said Monday after Foxx spoke at the convention’s opening news conference. “He’s not only a leader for the South, he’s a leader for the nation.”
Foxx, 41, became this city’s youngest and its second African-American mayor when he was elected in 2009 to his first two-year term after serving on the city council.
His time in office has been marked by efforts to diversify Charlotte’s commerce after the Great Recession and support for Obama’s economic-recovery policies. The lawyer has become a leading campaign surrogate for the president in North Carolina.
The question is whether Foxx can get elected to higher office, something most other recent Charlotte mayors have failed to do.
He’ll be watched closely when he addresses delegates Tuesday, the convention’s opening night.
Foxx has been making it his mission to sell Charlotte on the world stage. The city has been trying to recruit energy and other industries to supplement a bank-dominated economy that soured in 2008.
Obama scored an upset in winning North Carolina’s electoral votes on the way to the White House that same year. The 14,000-vote victory, a first for a Democratic presidential candidate in North Carolina since 1976, occurred in part because people in cities here like Charlotte voted for him. A generation ago, bringing a national party convention to Charlotte seemed like a dream nowhere near within reach.
“That’s why we say, ‘Make it possible in Charlotte,’” Foxx said.
Foxx’s story is somewhat similar to the president’s. Born in Charlotte, he was raised by a single mother and grandparents, including a grandfather who was a local political activist.
“I grew up running around under his kitchen table while politicians were trying to get his support and it sort of germinated there,” Foxx said in an interview with The Associated Press, adding that he had other great role models, including Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte.
He went to Davidson College, north of Charlotte, and became the student body’s first black president. He went to New York University law school and ultimately returned to Charlotte as an attorney. Foxx joined the city council in 2005 and was elected to the part-time mayor’s job four years later after Republican Pat McCrory decided not to run. He was re-elected to another two-year term last fall by a wide margin.
Foxx’s position made him an obvious campaigner for Obama. He has been recruiting volunteers through a program that gives them tickets to the president’s nomination-acceptance speech at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night in exchange for their donating nine hours to the campaign.
“I would consider him a friend and someone whom I’ve seen working in very, very trying circumstances who’s cool under pressure,” Foxx said of Obama. “I admire him.”
Felicia Gray, a Bank of America employee in Charlotte, said Foxx is an impressive figure who has tried to be inclusive in governing. She doesn’t expect his political career to end as mayor: “He is a rising star and I think for him to live up to his potential, it’s going to be greater than Charlotte.”
Foxx considered briefly running for governor earlier this year when Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue decided not to run for re-election. But he decided against it, saying it wasn’t the right time while he and his wife, Samara, still have two young children. The kids “still like hanging out with me,” he quipped, but “maybe the time will come again, we’ll see.”
While McCrory could be elected governor this year, other mayors like Gantt have failed to win statewide. Charlotte City Council member David Howard said Foxx could be different because he has crossover appeal to non-Democrats: “He’s very pragmatic. He’s not totally left or totally right.”
Unsurprisingly, Republicans aren’t as enamored with Foxx, who has closely aligned himself with Obama’s policies. He recently supported a proposed property-tax increase to pay for city capital projects, but the plan fizzled.
“I don’t know if Mayor Foxx has ever met a tax increase that he didn’t like, which does make him a rising star in the North Carolina Democratic Party,” state Republican Party spokesman Rob Lockwood said Monday in an email.
Susan Roberts, a political science professor at Davidson, said Foxx needs to gain more experience and avoid setbacks to position himself for higher office. How he performs and the perception of how smoothly things go this week at the convention are key to how voters will view him.
“His face is the face of Charlotte,” Roberts said. “The stakes are very high. … He will be the one who takes the heat.”