Patrick Cannon's Empty Space

The vacuum at the heart of the disgraced Charlotte mayor
Logan Cyrus

The harder you look at Patrick Cannon, the less you see.

We’re all familiar with the story by now: He was raised poor in public housing. His father was murdered when he was five. He rose to business ownership and election to the City Council in his hometown at 26. Then came the “fall from grace,” as U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney alluded to numerous times today in court before he passed sentence—44 months in federal prison and a $10,000 fine.

Whitney, known as a tough judge, seemed to buy into the prevailing narrative of Cannon’s corruption case—that it was a “tragedy,” in the Shakespearean sense, an example of a stellar citizen with a fatal flaw that ultimately undid him. “You’re a good man, a very good man,” the judge told the ex-mayor. “But you have made serious mistakes.”

What’s missing from the narrative—what would make a future redemption possible—is any sense that Cannon understands why he did what he did, what led him to do something so royally stupid and reckless as accepting cash bribes in exchange for help with a fictional development deal.

Oh, he’s sorry—Cannon’s statement to the court Tuesday was nothing but a grandiloquent plea for forgiveness. But nothing that emerged from the sentencing hearing shed any light on what the former mayor was thinking, or whether he was.

“Patrick doesn’t know how he got here,” his former Sunday school teacher, Mildred Smith Campbell, testified. “I know he wishes there’s some way he could have done it differently.” Done what differently? Accepted a Fossil bag full of cash somewhere other than the mayor’s office?

Cannon himself, and the lawyers representing him, were no more enlightening on that point. One of the odder aspects of their argument for leniency was their repeated reference to March 26, the date of Cannon’s arrest, as the one blot on his otherwise sterling record, as if he had taken leave of his senses only on that date.

Of course not, as U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins was quick, and right, to point out. His crimes covered at least 14 months, from January 2013 to March 2014. Still, Cannon pegged his “fall from grace” to that one day: “When I reflect on the day I was arrested—when it hit me, I was shocked, hurt, and appalled at my actions.” It apparently took an arrest and lonely march into the federal courthouse for the implications of accepting cash bribes to hit home.

I don’t buy the “fallen angel” theory, any more than I think Cannon’s contrition is pure. From the beginning, there’s been a curious void at the heart of his public service, a commitment referenced multiple times in court Tuesday. That service, as far as I can tell, consisted mainly of winning public office and returning constituents’ calls for help. Campbell related a story about how he once helped an elderly neighbor, a woman he’d known for years, when city sanitation workers failed to pick up her garbage.

That’s nice enough. But there’s far more to public service than making a call to get an old friend’s trash collected. Cannon lacked a coherent view of Charlotte and its future, and he was stunningly short on specific policies he might push as a council member or mayor to help construct a better one.

That’s something his predecessor, Anthony Foxx, a champion of public transit and the revitalization of decaying neighborhoods, understood and tried to enact. Cannon never did. His essential pitch was himself—or, more specifically, his story, the rise from poverty, the ascendance to the mayorship of his hometown. Cannon never grasped that public office is a vehicle to a larger goal, not the goal. He never broke outside the confines of his own inspiring narrative because, at base, that’s all he had.

Cannon’s lawyer, James Ferguson, spent several minutes Tuesday arguing that Cannon’s resignation as mayor, only hours after his arrest, represented some great sacrifice on his part. “He gave up the most important thing in his life,” Ferguson said. “He didn’t even sleep on it, your honor!”

When it came time to pass sentence, Whitney brushed that aside with ease. “Quite honestly, Mayor Cannon was caught red-handed,” the judge said. “He didn’t have much of a case, did he?” No, he didn’t, and that the mayorship of Charlotte was “the most important thing in his life” tells people the central truth about Patrick Cannon: Aside from ambition and its handmaiden, greed, there isn’t much to him. There never was.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest