Charlotte Council’s Composure Cracks

Squabble over Ajmera statement reveals RNC 2020 pressure
City of Charlotte

Anyone who imagines that the 2020 Republican National Convention, whether it’s in Charlotte or elsewhere, will be a controlled, by-the-books affair should consider what the prospect of hosting it is doing to the Charlotte City Council.

On July 2, Democratic council member Braxton Winston posted a video to his Facebook page that, while not flatly opposing Charlotte hosting the convention, expressed concerns about the message it would send to residents. Since then, assorted council members and their constituents have publicly weighed in on whether Charlotte should still host the event—most notably Democrats LaWana Mayfield and Justin Harlow, who say no; and Tariq Bokhari, one of two Republicans on the 11-member council, who says yes—in advance of a Monday vote on a formal agreement between the city and Republican National Committee to hold the convention. The Republicans meet next week in Austin and are expected to award the bid to Charlotte.

Then, Friday afternoon, the tensions among council members blew up. It started at a little before 3 p.m., when Democratic council member Dimple Ajmera—who had previously supported the general idea of Charlotte hosting the RNC—released a statement that announced her opposition. “This is not a political stance. Instead it’s an economic one,” Ajmera wrote. “Taxpayers will be on the hook for the potential liability, unknown risk and exposure.”

Bokhari quickly took to social media and stood for television interviews later in the afternoon to say Ajmera’s statement was “patently false. Taxpayers are not on the hook. I sat in the same clean room when she reviewed the contract today and made this statement to which the city attorneys tried to correct her and she wouldn’t listen.” To a reporter’s tweet and to Bokhari, Ajmera claimed that City Attorney Robert Hagemann “has reviewed and approved my statement”—which Bokhari responded was also “patently false.” Bokhari promised that a forthcoming memo from Hagemann would prove his claim.

Hagemann’s memo didn’t say specifically that Ajmera’s statement about liability was wrong. But it did “clarify”—his word—that the city would be liable for any convention-related cost overruns only if City Manager Marcus Jones and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney decided to spend more than the $50 million federal convention security allocation “for post-convention CMPD law enforcement purposes.” At roughly the same time, Democratic council member Larken Egleston backed Bokhari’s position, calling Ajmera’s liability rationale “fiction.” The Democratic mayor pro tem, Julie Eiselt, tweeted that Republicans know she wouldn’t support the convention if the city were exposed to any financial liability. “They agreed to protective language,” Eiselt said. “Council member Ajmera is looking for an easy out”—referring to published reports that at least six council members will vote Monday to accept the convention, enough for the deal to pass.

This is, it probably goes without saying, extraordinary: for City Council members to meet at midday and publicly accuse each other of flagrant lying by afternoon. It’s even more unusual, and telling, for two Democrats to join a Republican in accusing a fellow Democrat. In the midst of the turmoil Friday, the city refused to make public the draft convention contracts, claiming they’re exempt from state public records law governing economic development projects that are still in the works. It’s all unseemly and dismal, the sort of behavior this council in particular was supposed to try to avoid.

I wrote a story about the council that will run in the magazine’s August issue. It chronicles the progress and challenges of a group that, when it was elected in November, was seen as a collective fresh start. Six of the new members—including Ajmera, Bokhari, Harlow, and Egleston—were under 40 and winners of public office for the first time. They promised a change from the previous council, which had often seemed overwhelmed when dealing with House Bill 2 and the Keith Lamont Scott demonstrations, the two major events that defined its tenure. New council members may have their disagreements, they told me, but they’d be able to work through them.

They might still. But the pressure from the RNC 2020 bid is opening the first cracks in the foundation. This week, Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles wrote in an Observer op-ed that the RNC represents an chance to “show that our city is about inclusion and leverage it as an opportunity to demonstrate our values of respect while honoring our differences.” Bokhari has framed it as a kind of crusade, a civic project that can induce Charlotteans with different political opinions to cooperate.

Those views are looking more and more misguided by the day. Republican officials apparently led Charlotte to believe multiple cities were chasing the RNC when only Charlotte had made a formal bid, the Observer reported Friday—putting city officials in a hard spot and, simultaneously, making them look like suckers. As of Friday afternoon, 126 people had signed up to speak at the upcoming council meeting, which begins at 2 p.m. Monday and could last well into the night. It’s naïve to think that more than a few, if any, speakers signed up to coo about the great chance Charlotte has to demonstrate its values of respect while honoring its differences.

We are, after all, talking about a convention that presumably would nominate for a second term Donald Trump, someone who—as the events from just the last few days have demonstrated—thrives on the kind of division and chaos that the RNC already has induced in Charlotte before the city even formalizes the contract. We have a weekend to prepare for Monday afternoon, then a full two years to brace ourselves for whatever comes in 2020.

Categories: The Buzz