Being John Lassiter
Despite more than fifteen years in elected office, Republican mayoral hopeful John Lassiter is relatively unknown. He's also closely linked to the incumbent. His chances in November's election may depend on how well he emerges from both his own and Pat McCrory's shadow
Lassiter greets voters at Park Fest, an event held in August at the Park Conference and Expo Center, formerly the Merchandise Mart.
And North Carolina Senator Dan Clodfelter sat there grinning, like he held an empty bucket.
From the expression on his face, one could tell Lassiter isn’t used to such a chilly reception. But if he becomes Charlotte’s next mayor, he might want to brace himself.
It was July in Charlotte, and Lassiter was at a morning meeting Mayor Pat McCrory and council had called out of exasperation. Raleigh lawmakers were preparing the state budget, and local leaders felt Mecklenburg County was not getting a proportional share.
Lassiter asked Clodfelter, a Democrat who was there as one of Mecklenburg’s delegates, a simple question: why? "Why do we continually end up having to take the bigger hit in the attempt to balance the state budget?" he asked smoothly.
"Because you use the privilege license tax in ways it wasn’t intended," Clodfelter replied, his mustache twitching. And then came that grin — mean looking and … perplexing.
Unless, that is, you’ve been mayor for fourteen years, like McCrory. "That’s just the way Raleigh operates," he said, sighing.
In his defense, Clodfelter said later he felt a lot of tension at the meeting. And that’s just the way it’s been between Charlotte and Raleigh when it comes to budget matters. It’ll be up to our next mayor, however, to try to get past it.
A bit of background: McCrory’s fuse is burnt by years of begging Raleigh for money. Mecklenburg County lags in stimulus funds and in road money, and the financial state of its criminal justice system is practically a crime in itself. And this year, state leaders threatened budget cuts of more than $30 million, the highest in the state. "Can you explain?" McCrory asked Clodfelter again and again at that meeting, flanked by photographers and media. "Can we have more details?" Confrontation crept into his voice, while Clodfelter simply sat there, sipping coffee, shaking his head. Nope. No more details.
Meanwhile, Lassiter grew very quiet, too.
It was not, however, that initial splash of shock that silenced him, the Republican mayoral hopeful claims.
It was strategy.
"It is vitally important that we develop a different methodology with Raleigh so it isn’t us versus them," Lassiter says. "I’m just not the kind of person who calls a press conference or stands on the steps and demands answers, saying, ‘This is what you have to do.’ "
Which means — despite the fact that the two are old cronies (Lassiter managed McCrory’s first campaign) — he’s a different politician than McCrory.
Our current mayor once brought a caravan of hundreds, unannounced, to Raleigh’s doorstep to ask for money to fight crime. He didn’t get it. He’s held press conferences and protests. He’s called so long and loud for transparency that his voice has grown hoarse. He didn’t get it. And McCrory will be the first to tell you that. Nearing the final stretch of his marathon run as mayor, he’ll shrug his shoulders and give a resigned look that suggests maybe it is time for something different.
McCrory’s biggest beef with state lawmakers has been, he says, that "everything they do is behind closed doors." Lassiter says he’s not afraid to do his debating in private. Lassiter’s not worried about shutting the door if it’ll get him results. In fact, he prefers it.
After the meeting with Clodfelter, Lassiter did some research, discovering "twenty-one other cities use the business tax that way," he says. He didn’t dial up the press, but he did make some calls — and so far Charlotte hasn’t lost the $17.5 million from that tax that Clodfelter was threatening to yank. "[Lassiter’]s got a great ability to seek solutions," McCrory says. "But I still think," he adds, flashing a wicked grin of his own, "it’s a weakness that he’s never sought public attention while doing it."
Lassiter needs that spotlight now, as he’s seeking to continue the GOP’s twenty-two-year stranglehold on Charlotte’s mayor’s office.
Lassiter, fifty-four, is a lawyer from Lexington, Kentucky, where he was raised, he says, with strong Southern Baptist principles. "We were in church a lot," he says. "My parents were very active there. They believed in being involved." He attended Wake Forest for undergrad and law school and moved to Charlotte in 1983 to join the attorney general’s office. Three years later he left that position to work for a man who intrigued him: John Belk, head of Belk department stores. Belk, who died in 2007, was a local activist and Charlotte’s longest-serving mayor before McCrory won the title, and it was because of Belk that Lassiter plunged into public service, starting with a seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.
Today, Lassiter’s name is engraved on plaques hanging in dozens of CMS schools. He’s been on so many planning committees over the years that it’d be tedious to list them.
"I’ve begun revitalization efforts along several business corridors," Lassiter says, citing the sorely needed blitz along Wilkinson Boulevard as a pet project. He helped bring the Charlotte School of Law to the west side, and a spinoff of the beloved Penguin diner, too. Lassiter has helped land real estate deals much bigger than those, such as the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and GMAC’s (now Ally Bank) new headquarters uptown. "Those were very complicated deals," he says matter-of-factly, "and I’m very comfortable making them.
I’ve got the right business connections." Tim Newman, chief executive of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, worked with Lassiter on the NASCAR project. "He’s long been a proponent for the hall, and we were grateful to have his leadership and support," Newman says. "He has certainly been a longtime supporter of local business development."
Lassiter calls himself a small-business owner. His company, Carolina Legal Staffing, is headquartered in a towering uptown high-rise, and there are satellite offices in Raleigh, Columbia, and Greenville. The company pulls in more than $3 million a year and has thirty-five to fifty lawyers and paralegals loaned out at any given time. Lassiter leads a permanent staff of ten.
He looks like a CEO, tall, suited, silver haired, and he carries himself like one, too, confident and composed. He is reserved, but there’s a subtle earnest side to him, too, a sincerity that makes him popular in parts of town where people have known him long enough to catch it.
On a sweltering evening in early August, Lassiter worked his way through a crowd at Kilgo United Methodist, tickling babies’ feet.
It was National Night Out, a crime and drug awareness event, this just one stop of many, and Lassiter’s twenty-five-year-old son, Ben, was with him.
Ben Lassiter, a CPA here in town, is about as clean cut as they come, dressed that night in pleated pants and a blue button down, carrying a benign but assured demeanor, all very much like his dad’s — you can sense the closeness between them. Ben stayed hot on Lassiter’s heels, snapping pictures, and chatted about the campaign. "I’m excited for him," he said.
"John!" a woman bellowed, cutting Ben off. "We missed you at Rotary." About a hundred people stood on the church’s front lawn, and over the course of twenty minutes, many of them called out to Lassiter or came up to shake his hand. "It’s kind of cool how many people he knows around Charlotte," Ben said, smiling. "He’s been doing this my whole life."
And yet he’s been very careful, Lassiter says, not to let his political life overwhelm his private one. "I’ve never let it get in the way of my business life, or my family life, or the things that bring me joy," he says, like playing golf and traveling with his wife, Beverly, to exotic locales. "She wants to see Croatia," Lassiter says, lifting one side of his mouth in a small smile. "And she wants to do it by train."
Beverly has been selling Mary Kay for as long as her husband can remember, along with heading up the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of North Carolina. The two have another son, twenty-one-year-old Alex, a senior at Chapel Hill. "Both of my children have been involved in my public life, but I’ve also taught them how to protect themselves from it," Lassiter says. "I’ve worked very hard, for example, to impress upon them that one of the most important things you have is your reputation. You won’t find me doing things that discredit what I stand for. I want them to be proud of me."
Which is why he won’t spend too much time talking about his competition. "I will spend the lion’s share of my effort talking about my record, my experience, what I’ve done," Lassiter says. Translation: not slamming Anthony Foxx.
"But based on his filing speech, I’m not sure Anthony feels the same," he adds.
Despite Lassiter’s differences with McCrory, they are Republicans and longtime confidantes, and Foxx is building his mayoral campaign on the claim that the two are fundamentally interchangeable.
"Some people are going to say the stakes are too high to break with past leadership," Foxx told a crowd on the day he claimed his candidacy. "I say they’re too high not to."
But that wasn’t the comment that upset Lassiter about as much as you’ll see him upset.
This was: that day, he says Foxx also called him "divisive." Foxx says he can’t recall making the comment. "That’s like asking me if I said hello to the postman," he jokes. "I probably did, I just don’t remember." Foxx pauses, running a mental inventory. "I can remember a time, though, on City Council when I felt John and I could have played a role in alleviating tension," he continues. "But I don’t think he did what he could have there."
Lassiter looks dour hearing it. "That’s about as foreign a concept as I can imagine," he says. "I’ve always tried to drive solutions across party lines, and I am absolutely committed to running an issue-based campaign, not one that’s run on personal attacks."
"We always knew it was going to be a very tight, close race," says Lassiter’s campaign manager, Perry Lucas. Lucas is soft spoken, Southern, and painstakingly polite—exactly the type you’d expect Lassiter to choose to run his camp. "Anthony and John are both really fine men. And I think people appreciate that fact. They’re just trying to find out what the differences between them are."
When Lassiter is asked what really sets the two apart, he shrugs, again with the side smile, and says, "I’m taller." ("John’s got a wicked sense of humor," McCrory says. "People don’t know that about him.") "Seriously, though," Lassiter continues, "on a person-to-person basis, we get along pretty well. We both have legal training. We both care a lot about the city. We just differ inherently on how to solve problems."
And Lassiter thinks that difference starts with this: he believes government should operate much like he does — a little under the radar, quietly and coolly, but, of course, he says, effectively. Foxx, he thinks, wants government to play too big of a role in people’s lives. It’s an old argument, really, Democrat versus Republican, big government versus small.
"We differ in that methodology — perhaps it’s political, perhaps it’s philosophical," Lassiter says. "Look — we’ve got to arrest criminals and get them off the streets. We’ve got to create a platform for small businesses to grow. But I will continue to look for solutions that limit the role of government by putting responsibility in an individual’s hands so, ultimately, we have responsible citizens who pay their taxes and support their families."
So perhaps it is more philosophical. "Yes, government should do what’s appropriate to enable people to realize their own talents and abilities," Foxx rebuts. "But sometimes that means exercising restraint, and sometimes that means being proactive. The key is knowing when restraint is a better solution, and when [government] needs to take action."
Of course, philosophical and fiscal differences really do mean a lot, because Charlotte’s next mayor will have serious problems to solve. He’ll attempt to lead the city out of an economic crisis. He’ll have to get us cash from a cash-strapped state government. And that means, maybe more than ever, our next mayor will have to work well with Raleigh.
"We were one of the last cities to go into the recession, now we have to be one of the first out," Lassiter says. "But that’s going to take the right touch … a careful, multifaceted approach. This is a difficult time, and difficult times require experienced leaders.
"That is not," Lassiter adds carefully, "a dig at Anthony. It’s just a fact."
The race is on.
Melissa Hankins is a frequent contributor to this magazine. She is also the business reporter for WBTV.