Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon’s two worlds

eleland@charlotteobserver.comMarch 29, 2014 

Mayor Patrick Cannon was talking on the phone with the governor of North Carolina some time after 10 a.m. Wednesday. Hours later, he was sitting in a federal courtroom facing a litany of charges that have ruined his public life and could take his freedom.

The stark contrast of those few hours is a theme in Cannon’s life. He negotiated poverty and prosperity, friends and critics.

Publicly, he maintained an image of a smartly dressed, rags-to-riches politician at the center of decision-making in Charlotte.

Privately, there were enough questions by enough Democrats about his fitness to serve that some sought out another candidate to challenge Cannon last year in the Democratic primary for mayor. They became known as the ABC crowd: Anybody But Cannon.

“I heard people last fall using the word ‘corrupt,’ ” said Lynn Wheeler, a former Republican City Council member who remains politically connected. “I’ve never ever experienced that with Patrick so I kind of rolled my eyes ... I don’t know who this other Patrick Cannon is.”

How do we reconcile the two images? One, a soft-spoken politician, father and radio host whose supporters expressed shock after he was charged last week with public corruption.

The other, the subject of long-circulated rumors, who emerged on FBI tapes as a corrupt politician willing to sell himself – and his city – for a leather Fossil briefcase stuffed with cash.

“The Patrick that I knew, or at least the one I thought I knew, was the Patrick that cared deeply about his city and the people in it,” said Malachi Greene, a former council member. Greene said he heard rumors of impropriety but said he “never for one time believed that there was something wrong with him.”

Only one businessman, Cameron Harris, ever publicly accused Cannon of swindling him in a deal. But many civic leaders saw Cannon as an inauthentic opportunist who talked about himself in the third person. He often spoke in measured and abstract words – a trait that evoked distrust. A few times, he was caught in public lies, but always had an excuse.

Several detractors described him the same way: It was all about Patrick.

Staying clear of Cannon

Those who became disenchanted with Cannon worked behind the scenes last year to keep him from becoming mayor. Former Democratic Mayor Harvey Gantt took the unusual step of endorsing James “Smuggie” Mitchell in the primary.

But no one spoke candidly and publicly about reasons for not backing Cannon. So most voters – including Cannon’s base in blue-collar African-American communities – were left with the image Cannon portrayed: A servant-leader and small businessman who defied the odds.

At 26, he became the youngest person ever elected to the Charlotte City Council. His rise to elected office and eventually the mayor’s job was remarkable for someone born in public housing, raised by a single mother and burdened with the memory of knowing his father was gunned down outside a vacant school and nobody was ever caught.

Cannon, 47, looked the part of the successful Southern mayor. He wore his hair in a conservative cut, military-style on the sides with a slightly longer flair up top. His suits appeared to be tailored. His smile was warm, his manner reserved.

Cannon was aware that many civic leaders mistrusted him – some told him so.

“Typically those that really, really like me really, really know me,” Cannon told the Observer last fall. “And those on the other side of the fence have not had the opportunity to sit down with me and understand who I am and what I represent.”

But even some African-American politicians, who could have helped as allies and mentors, stayed clear of Cannon. Anthony Foxx, the former mayor, now U.S. transportation secretary, felt Cannon couldn’t be trusted, according to people close to Foxx. City Council member David Howard said that “out of a sense of caution” he kept his distance.

“I always tried to put community first,” Howard said, “and I’m not sure I always felt that’s what he was doing.”

A rising star

The federal affidavit that outlines the bribery charges against Cannon also portrays him as a man untroubled with telling a lie.

The affidavit says an undercover agent pretending to be a business developer met with Cannon last June and Cannon agreed to lie to foreign investors on a trip to Las Vegas.

Cannon came up with an elaborate ruse, the affidavit alleged: He would claim he knew the undercover agents for years and had used his official position to help overcome challenges with city permits and zoning.

“Well, if it’s made up, I mean then it really wouldn’t matter,” Cannon is quoted as saying.

Questions about Cannon’s truthfulness came up as far back as 1999, during his first campaign for City Council.

In answers on an Observer questionnaire, Cannon wrote that he had never been charged with a crime. In fact, he was convicted in 1988 of failing to support an out-of-wedlock daughter. At the time, Cannon said he was so young he didn’t realize it was a criminal conviction, and didn’t know he owed child support.

During the campaign, he also listed his home as his mother’s house in the Pine Valley neighborhood. But neighbors said he didn’t live there and questioned whether he was eligible to represent the district. His license and voter registration listed the house, and nothing ever came of the complaints.

In 2005, Cannon withdrew from public life saying he needed more time with his family. In 2009, he decided to run for council again. Then the Observer discovered a series of IRS liens involving his parking company that totaled $193,553 between 2003 and 2008.

Even when the Observer questioned him, he wasn’t clear he had lied: “It’s unfortunate that people were misled about the truth rather than the facts during that particular time. But it was what it was, and we’ve moved on.”

That retreat from politics in 2005 also was one of the strangest moments in Cannon’s career.

Democrats thought Cannon was their best chance in years of unseating Pat McCrory. Then three months into the campaign, Cannon abruptly quit the race and also said he wouldn’t seek re-election to City Council.

He cited the deaths of an aunt and his wife’s grandmother, saying he wanted to focus on his family.

But was that the full truth? A salacious rumor had circulated for months about Cannon’s personal life.

In a farewell speech in December, Cannon acknowledged the gossip:

“I want to thank my family for their sacrifice that they’ve made, being both victims and praised for the 12 years I’ve been in office. My wife, especially, for enduring, oh in some cases, good times, but in some cases, bad times, particularly from one that dealt with the spread of vicious rumors that weren’t true, to assassinate my character on a matter that in my family’s mind as well as my own, is an abomination unto God, that also sent a few media outlets into wild-goose chases.”

He told the Observer the rumor was “an absolute lie.”

“If you do believe he had this pattern of dishonesty, which I do, after you get by with it for so long you just feel immune,” said a high-ranking city figure who worked with Cannon for more than 20 years.

Straddling two worlds

Part of Cannon’s political savvy was his ability to maintain relationships among his rank-and-file supporters in key west-side precincts while living in a home in suburban Ballantyne and enrolling his two youngest children in private school.

After President Barack Obama was declared the winner on election night 2012, Cannon commandeered the microphone at the Excelsior Club, a well-known African American nightspot in west Charlotte, and led revelers in the electric slide.

He seemed equally at ease in Charlotte’s more buttoned-up circles. In a talk last month to a group of bankers and private equity professionals, Cannon reflected on the two different worlds he’s known in Charlotte. He talked about a need for manufacturing jobs. Without jobs, he said, people might turn to crime.

“They’d look for ways and do some things ... in a negative way against you, you or your families, that we wouldn’t want to see happen,” Cannon said. “I’m trying to keep crime down, not take it up.”

Access to an apartment

When Cannon returned to politics in 2009, he won another seat on council. Then last year, after Foxx left to go to Washington, Cannon decided to run again for mayor. He easily won the Democratic primary against Mitchell, the candidate hand-picked to stop him.

Edwin Peacock, the Republican candidate, said he was approached by Democrats who didn’t think Cannon should be mayor.

“There were a lot of Democrats who came to me wanting us to go below the belt with personal attacks,” Peacock said. “I refused to make my campaign about rumors. We had been told about ‘pay to play’ allegations, but no one in the development community would come forward.”

In the November general election, Cannon defeated Peacock. He was sworn in Dec. 2.

A week later, according to an FBI affidavit, an undercover agent said he presented Cannon with the key to the SouthPark apartment agents used in their undercover sting.

“Aww, man ... I got a key,” the affidavit quoted Cannon as saying. Why he wanted access to the apartment is a subject of even more speculation. The affidavit said Cannon was twice seen going there.

‘Above the law’

In February, the affidavit said, Cannon met with an undercover FBI agent in his new mayoral office and accepted $20,000 in cash.

Then on March 12, Cannon celebrated his 100th day as mayor with a six-page news release outlining what he considered his many accomplishments. He later complained to an Observer reporter that the newspaper did not publish a story about how much good he had done for the city.

Two weeks later, on his 114th day in office, he was arrested.

Cannon is accused of accepting cash and gifts in exchange for exerting his influence as mayor over public officials. If convicted on all charges, he faces up to 50 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines. He has not said anything publicly since resigning Wednesday as mayor, and could not be reached for this story.

Stan Campbell, a Republican who served on the city council in Cannon’s early years, said of the news about Cannon’s charges: “It had to be a battle within himself. He grew up in not the greatest environment and I think maybe at some point wanted to move himself forward as fast as possible and that’s where it created the conflict.

“Serving in public office is about making the community better for your service. Politics is everything about power. But power is not a pejorative term. It can be the power to do good things for the people you represent. It can also be the power to enrich yourself or punish your enemies. It’s just how you choose to use it.”

Reporters Fred Clasen-Kelly, Andrew Dunn, Steve Harrison, Jim Morrill, Rick Rothacker and Mark Washburn contributed.

Leland: 704-358-5074

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