Christensen: Anthony Foxx ready to tell Charlotte's story

rchristensen@newsobserver.comSeptember 3, 2012 

— From the 15th floor mayor’s office it is about five miles from the working class Lincoln Heights neighborhood in West Charlotte where Anthony Foxx grew up.

But his journey seems longer and more improbable.

Tonight it will take him to the podium of the Time Warner Cable Arena Tuesday to welcome the Democrats to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention – the first national party convention hosted by the state.

The planning has consumed his life for the past 18 months. It is, Foxx said, a statement event for Charlotte – and for the Tar Heel State – a place, he said, that has not quite seeped into America’s consciousness as a mega state.

“This convention provides us with a platform as a state and as a city to really talk about who we are and not just what we do,” Foxx said in interview. “We’ve been one of the best kept secrets in this country for a long time, and the secret is about to be out.”

This week, Foxx’s life will be filled with daily briefings with city and security officials, greeting guests, attending receptions and, of course, the convention.

“I am hosting a giant dinner party with 35,000 guests and I want everyone of them to feel special,” Foxx said. “On top of that I have 750,000 people who are in the house already, so I want to make sure that they feel good too. So it will be an interesting balancing act.”

Foxx is a soft-spoken man not given to tooting his own horn – even though he is an accomplished trumpeter and friend of jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. When he showed up Saturday at his mayor’s office in blue jeans, tennis shoes and a knit shirt, Foxx looked younger than his 41 years.

Foxx is a rarity among Charlotte mayors – a native Charlottean, a Democrat and an African-American. He was raised by his grandparents and his mother – one of seven people in a 1,200 foot split level on a fixed income – in a struggling middle class neighborhood. Not poor, but like much of America, just getting by.

“I was very fortunate to have a wonderful family that taught me values like hard work, and belief in education as a pathway forward,” Foxx said.

Foxx also said he grew up in “a unique time” in Charlotte when the schools were integrated because of the landmark court-ordered busing for racial integration. He attended West Charlotte High School with the sons and daughters of some of the wealthiest families in Charlotte as well as some of the poorest.

“That was a distinct difference versus the life of my mom or the life of my grandparents,” Foxx said. “So I grew up without a view that I had a ceiling. I was encouraged in my home and outside my home to go as far as my talent would take me.”

With the end of busing for purposes of integration, West Charlotte High is now 92 percent black and three-quarters are now poor, and the graduation rate that is now about 50 percent.

“Even before desegregation, the performance level was not that low,” Foxx said. “It’s an urgent concern to me, not just that particular school, but the huge number of young people who are walking off the precipice of what we provide for them after the 12th grade into a global economy that is going to challenge them in ways they don’t even understand yet.”

Foxx has been working with Charlotte area business and civic leaders to try to find ways to close the achievement gap.

Prominent mentors

He attended Davidson College, where he was the first black to become student body president, and New York University law school. The second generation of black political leaders in Charlotte, Foxx had some prominent political mentors, people such as former Charlotte mayor and two-time Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, and civil rights lawyer James Ferguson.

Foxx practiced law in Charlotte, and in 2005 he was elected to an at-large seat on the Charlotte City Council. Four years later, he became the city’s first Democratic mayor in 22 years – succeeding current gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory.

He was re-elected last year, with the help of the Obama organization.

Politics had long been his blood. His grandfather, James F. Foxx Sr., a retired school teacher, was a major figure in Democratic politics for decades. He was heavily involved in all of Harvey Gantt’s campaigns for mayor and for the U.S. Senate among others.

Foxx briefly considered seeking the Democratic nomination for governor when Gov. Bev Perdue announced earlier this year that she would not seek re-election. A future run may be possible, although Foxx deflected any such questions saying he was focused on his job as mayor.

No surprise

That Charlotte would land a convention was not so surprising to the mayor. It was a gradual process. As Charlotte grew, it passed various barriers – such as getting an NBA basketball franchise, then an NFL franchise. Foxx sees the Democratic convention as just another step in the city’s maturation.

The idea was first pushed by the late Susan Burgess, the former mayor pro tem, but Foxx quickly embraced it.

For more than a year, he’s traveled across the country to help raise money for Charlotte’s share of the $37 million needed to put on the convention. He’s given speeches in New York and Los Angeles and cities in-between, telling Charlotte’s story as well as his own.

There were those who doubted Charlotte would land the convention, among them, political columnist, Charles Cook, who predicted the Queen City would never get it. When it did, Cook sent a photograph of himself with a big plate with a crow on it.

More recently, a Washington lobbyist, was quoted as sniffing at the lack of quality of restaurants and attractions in Charlotte for the upcoming convention.

That’s all right, Foxx said. Being underestimated has never hurt Charlotte in the past.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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