Kris Gardner is a partner at a thriving law firm and the newest member of the Morrisville Town Council.
But when he was a child, he never envisioned himself as a lawyer or politician. He dreamed of becoming a garbage man or police officer.
“When I was a little kid my first aspiration was to be a garbage man because they could ride on the back of the truck,” said Gardner, who was sworn in to the council on March 25. “Then, my plan was to graduate N.C State (University) and go back to be a police officer in Charlotte. It was just a way to be outside, to help people, to be involved in the community.”
Gardner, who was born and raised in Charlotte, ended up at N.C. State for two years before transferring to UNC-Chapel Hill with three friends.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and then attended law school at N.C. Central University.
Things might not have turned out quite like he planned early on, but Gardner, 37, is embracing his new role in public service.
The Town Council chose Gardner out of a pool of 15 eligible candidates to fill the at-large seat left vacant by Mark Stohlman, who was elected mayor last fall. The term ends December 2015.
Town Council elections are nonpartisan, but Gardner’s selection keeps the Democratic majority on the seven-member panel.
TJ Cawley, Steve Rao and Vicki Scroggins-Johnson are Democarats, while Stohlman and Michael Schlink are Republicans. Gardner is an unaffiliated voter, along with Liz Johnson.
Strong work ethic
Even once he decided on law school, Gardner wasn’t sure about his future plans.
“A law degree is very flexible,” he said. “You don’t have to be a lawyer. I thought I could still pursue a career in law enforcement in the FBI or ATF.”
During a one-year break between college and law school, Gardner took a job at the Tharrington Smith law firm in Raleigh as a mail courier. The firm then offered him a job as a summer clerk.
By the end of his second summer of law school, Gardner was offered a full-time position.
He credits Michael Crowell, then an attorney at Tharrington Smith, with getting him involved with government law.
“My mentor asked if I would start serving as (the town of Enfield’s) attorney,” Gardner recalled. “I was fresh out of law school. I really enjoyed it. Just seeing government in action. It’s so direct. It’s so much easier to get involved. I just really liked that dynamic. When there is a problem in town, you will hear it. That’s what good government was all about.”
Gardner continues to represent Enfield, a small town in Halifax County. He is also a registered state lobbyist for beer and wine wholesalers.
Crowell, who now works for the UNC School of Government, said Gardner rose through the ranks at Tharrington Smith because he was eager to learn.
“He started out as a runner and errand boy,” Crowell said. “Now he’s a partner. This is a good law firm. He got there starting at the bottom and demonstrating to people what he can do.”
Crowell and Gardner worked together on a landmark case. The town of Laurinburg in Scotland County went to court with BellSouth over the town’s right to install its own fiber optic cable.
The case reached the N.C. Court of Appeals, which ruled in the town’s favor. The case had ramifications for towns and cities throughout North Carolina.
Crowell expects Gardner to apply the same work ethic to town business.
“Here’s what the town can expect: He will show up on time, he will have studied whatever issue there is, he will be very conscientious,” Crowell said. “He will be nice to people. He will make fair decisions. With Kris what you see is what you get. There’s no pretension about him. He’s very straight forward.”
Basketball and bow ties
When Gardner isn’t practicing law, he’s either hunting or saltwater fishing.
“In North Carolina I hunt everything from deer to ducks, geese and turkeys,” he said. “My grandfathers hunted. I’m sure it runs in the blood.”
Gardner donates the meat from his hunting trips to support local food banks.
Gardner also spends time with his wife, Olivia. They married 11 years ago.
The Morrisville Town Council meets on Tuesday evenings, so Gardner will have to tweak his schedule. He used to play basketball with friends that night.
He joked that it might be time to retire the basketball sneakers, anyway.
“I’m 37, I’m getting a little older and slower,” he said. “I get banged up. I am always the point guard, I’m too short to do anything else.”
His fashion sense is already making a mark on the council.
Gardner likes to wear bow ties. In a show of solidarity, his fellow council members each wore a bow tie during a recent meeting.
“He’s coming in during an (election) off-cycle,” said Scroggins-Johnson, who came up with the idea. “We wanted to do something for him to make the night special.”