It’s been nearly a quarter-century since he last ran for office, but Raleigh mayoral hopeful Charles Francis seems comfortable campaigning. He uses a handful of phrases regularly, delivered each time with conviction and precision.
One of his favorites: “We’ve got to let go of the side of the pool and learn how to swim.”
Francis, a 54-year-old attorney with deep family and business ties in Raleigh, has made dissatisfaction with the status quo the theme of his campaign ahead of Tuesday’s election. The Democrat is challenging three-term incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane, an unaffiliated candidate, and also faces Republican Paul Fitts.
Raleigh has enjoyed years of growth as families move to the Triangle for jobs, but Francis says the city’s poorest residents have been left out. He emphasizes the need for more affordable housing, better access to mental health care and improved public transportation.
If elected, Francis would be Raleigh’s second African-American mayor and the first in a generation. Clarence Lightner served one term, from 1973-75. But Francis says he doesn’t want to be defined by his race.
“My friends growing up have had all variety of experiences, from people who have gone on to be professors, lawyers, doctors, to people who have been locked up,” Francis said. “I’m equally comfortable in the parks and community centers of Southeast Raleigh as I am in the boardrooms of North Raleigh. My life experience has prepared me to work with all kinds of people.”
Those experiences have put him in the public eye over the years. He worked as a federal prosecutor for the Middle District of North Carolina from 1989-1990. He then served on the city’s planning commission for a year before he was appointed at the age of 29 to a seat on the City Council in 1993. He lost a subsequent bid for an elected term.
In the early 2000s, Francis served on the board of the Centennial Authority, which was created by the state legislature in 1995 to plan and build what is now PNC Arena.
He is a founding director of North State Bank, a founding trustee of the John Rex Endowment, a Wake County public health nonprofit, and serves on the board of the Research Triangle Foundation. The Francis Law Firm has represented North Carolina Mutual Life, at one time the country’s largest black-owned business.
Now Francis says he’s ready for elected office, and he has been quick to criticize McFarlane’s leadership.
“Raleigh is a good city, but it’s not a great city,” Francis said. “What keeps us from being great? We can’t be unnecessarily polite in calling things as they are. For progress, you sometimes need conflict.”
Francis says he has a track record of standing up for the less fortunate. He points to the multimillion-dollar settlements he has won for clients in personal injury cases and his involvement with the YMCA as a basketball coach and board member. At North State Bank, he says he has helped Raleigh’s poorer residents get mortgages when larger banks refuse them.
“The difference between most marginalized people and others is money,” Francis said. “In helping marginalized people to get money through my law practice, to get better housing as the Housing Authority’s attorney and helping people get an education as the general counsel at St. Augustine’s, I’ve done a lot to help people move from instability to stability and success.”
And as the Housing Authority’s lawyer, he said he’s done much of the legwork associated with every stage of providing affordable housing. Francis said he thinks McFarlane relies too much on city staff and consultants to guide those processes. As mayor, he said, he’d have the background knowledge to take recommendations to analysts instead of the other way around.
“The people who are at the grass roots, who are on the ground providing services to poor people, that’s valuable service,” Francis added. “But the people who are putting deals together, to get the money for low-income people, that’s a service as well.”
Friends and associates say Francis is a hard worker who keeps late hours.
“Him running for mayor is not a surprise,” said Harriet Hurst Turner, who Francis represented in a nine-year legal battle over property the state wanted to take from her family. “I’ve been waiting for him to do it. Professionally and personally, you could not ask for a better mayor. No matter what he’s doing, he gives it everything he has.”
Francis takes pride in his family’s history in Southeast Raleigh, a predominantly black neighborhood. He said his maternal grandparents came to the city from Jones and Lenoir counties in 1919, and his mother graduated college when she was 18.
Growing up, Francis worked for his father’s printing business and attended Sanderson High School. He graduated from Princeton University before returning to the Triangle to earn a law degree from Duke.
He met his wife, Marvea Francis, while they were both working as clerks for Richard Erwin, the first black federal judge in North Carolina. They raised three children and now live inside the Beltline.
Francis calls himself a “proud, lifelong Democrat” who has received support from some powerful Republicans through years of connections with the business and legal communities.
Kieran Shanahan, an attorney who served as secretary of public safety under former GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, is backing Francis.
“People with diverse backgrounds need to work together, and you have the best opportunity to do that at the city level,” Shanahan said. “To do that, you need to be not just a good but a great listener. (Francis) is usually the last one to speak in meetings.”
Francis has said Raleigh spends too much on things like parks and bike lanes, and he’s not in favor of a plan to build a new city government complex downtown. He wants to spend more money on affordable housing, an issue he is familiar with, without raising taxes. Since 1995, he has served as general counsel for the Raleigh Housing Authority, which helps provide housing to low-income families.
Last year, the City Council approved a 1 cent property-tax increase that will generate $5.7 million a year for affordable housing. The city is working with federal and county programs to redevelop the East College Park neighborhood and is partnering with a nonprofit to redo Washington Terrace.
Francis points to two privately owned developments for low-income senior citizens – Sir Walter Apartments and Wintershaven – that are being sold to developers. He says McFarlane has been too slow in working to help the city’s poor.
Beyond affordable housing, Francis says the city must do better to provide public transportation so people can more easily get to work. He also wants improve access to childcare and mental health services.
“We have a crisis in mental health care in this community, which the closure of Dix (Hospital) has not helped,” Francis said. “I think the city has a role in trying to address that also. We have people clogging up our emergency rooms.”
McFarlane, who trails Francis in fundraising, hasn’t responded directly to his criticism. Some McFarlane supporters say they have no reason to dislike Francis – they’re just pleased with the job McFarlane’s been doing. McFarlane helped negotiate with the state to buy Dix Park, a roughly 300-acre green space near downtown that city leaders hope will become a regional draw.
“She’s an experienced leader with proven results,” said Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the Wake County commissioners. “Someone who’s proven they can lead, they can make things happen, you tend to stick with them.”
While McFarlane is known for being cautious, Francis is taking a more aggressive approach.
“People who know more about politics and campaigning than I do have told me, ‘Don’t talk about her, talk about you,’ ” Francis said. “But I’m a trial lawyer from Southeast Raleigh. I run to the fight.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan
Bio: Francis, 54, was born in Raleigh. He attended Sanderson High School, Princeton University, and the Duke School of Law. He was appointed to the Raleigh City Council in 1993 and has had a law firm in Raleigh since 1995. He has been active as a board member and trustee for many civic and business institutions. He has been married to his wife, Marvea Francis, for 26 years, and they have three children.
Issues: Francis wants to shift spending away from projects like the planned City Hall complex, bike lanes, and parks and toward social services like affordable housing, transportation, and mental health services.
Endorsements/Affiliations: Francis is a registered Democrat. He has been endorsed by the Wake County Democratic Party, Equality NC (which also endorsed McFarlane), the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association and the Wake County Voter Education Coalition.
Fundraising: As of Sept. 25, Francis had raised $231,000, including a $19,000 personal loan to his campaign.