Who’s in Charge in Charlotte?

Once, the city was run by a group of civic-minded business leaders who wanted to transform a small city into a national player—and succeeded. But they’ve stepped aside, and the city has become a Babel of atomized and often conflicting interests. Political leaders squabble, and many corporate leaders live elsewhere. What happened?
Opener Chaos Charlotte
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ROB DONNELLY

Four decades ago, a handful of business titans would meet—in their offices, sometimes at the Lance plant off South Boulevard—to discuss their vision of a vibrant New South city. At the core were five men who led the city’s biggest banks, daily newspaper, power company, and retailer.

Hugh McColl Jr., Ed Crutchfield, Rolfe Neill, Bill Lee, and John Belk—who also happened to be Charlotte’s mayor—were hard chargers who shared a passion for their city. Their plans helped boost the arts and wake up a sleepy downtown. They put their resources, and those of their companies, where their aspirations were.

Known collectively as The Group, they helped Charlotte blossom into a financial capital with a thriving central city, emerging arts community, and one of the world’s busiest airports. Developers scramble to keep up with demand in an area consistently ranked among the best places to live in America. The Group helped lay the foundation for Charlotte’s evolution from mid-sized Southern textile town to major, fast-growing American city.

“Where Charlotte was extremely fortunate is that it had charismatic, proactive, and powerful business leadership that stepped up to the plate and shared a vision as to what that city could be,” says Ron Carlee, Charlotte’s city manager from 2013 to 2016, now a professor of public service at Old Dominion University in Virginia. “It helped knit together all the other pieces.”

Today, it’s hard to romanticize The Group, whose members have died or retired. For all they accomplished, they reflected a city that in many ways no longer exists. All were white men who lived within blocks of each other in Charlotte’s toniest neighborhoods. They hardly reflected the city of 40 years ago, let alone now.

Their absence raises a question: Who leads Charlotte now? The answer, like the city itself, is complicated.

Mccoll

“It’s not complicated. We had a plan, and it was a shared vision. In order to get behind a project, you have to imagine it. … We could really use a vision for this city.”—Hugh McColl

To say Charlotte was different when I first started covering it for The Charlotte Observer in 1983 is an understatement. From our uptown office, we had to hike blocks in search of lunch along streets that emptied after 5 p.m. Professional sports were something we could watch only on TV. Democrats and Republicans actually got along. For politicians and business leaders alike, the mantra was growth. They wanted Charlotte to become “world-class”—Atlanta without the traffic. And Charlotte took off.

Since 1980, the population has risen nearly threefold, to almost 900,000. It’s doubled since 1990, in effect adding the population of Raleigh. As in big cities across the country, demographics and politics have undergone seismic shifts, which have created complications The Group never had to face. In an age of globalization, the city is no longer the only hometown for corporate leaders. As the city’s population has diversified, racial and ethnic minorities have gained more political power.

At the same time, Republican voices in the city and Mecklenburg County are muted in a state where the GOP just increased its majorities in the General Assembly and where political polarization has deepened. That puts Charlotte at odds with lawmakers who can help decide the city’s future. For example, it’s been two years since a city task force called for a penny sales tax hike that would raise $6 billion for transportation needs, revenue its chairman said could “shape our community for generations.” As of January, no bill had even been introduced.

Political divisions weren’t always so pronounced. At the time of The Group, business, civic, and political leaders united for what they believed was the greater good (which often happened to align with their own interests). It was called “the Charlotte Way.” Now, there are more people making the decisions, more folks to consult, more visions to consider. Institutions, like the Observer, that helped shape the civic agenda are largely sidelined or undergoing leadership changes. It’s harder to assemble the disparate parties to get big things done. The Charlotte Way is far more difficult to achieve.

“The most frustrating thing is to get people to stop talking and start doing,” says McColl, the former Bank of America CEO. “The speed at which things get done is frustrating to older people, because we don’t have much time.”

So how did we get here? And what does it say about where we’re going?

***

On a sunny fall day, McColl, 87, sits on his shaded patio in Eastover, dressed in jeans and a faded polo. He’s a thread that ties the old power brokers to the new. He played a major role in uptown redevelopment by fostering projects like Fourth Ward and Gateway Village. Like others, he wanted a walkable city with a strong core.

“It’s not complicated,” McColl says. “We had a plan, and it was a shared vision. In order to get behind a project, you have to imagine it. … We could really use a vision for this city.” 

McColl became the bank’s CEO in 1983. That year, Democrat Harvey Gantt, who had a master’s degree in city planning from MIT, was elected mayor. For most of the years that followed, “The corporate community was basically the GPS,” says Malcolm Graham, a City Council member from 1999 to 2005 and again since 2019. “The mayor and council, all they had to do was steer the car—and don’t wreck it.”

The business community, once the pace car of public policy, is now riding bumpers on a crowded track. Consider the companies that members of The Group used to run.

By the time McColl retired in 2001, major companies had expanded beyond Charlotte. Bank of America and Wells Fargo, the big-bank successors to McColl’s North Carolina National Bank and Ed Crutchfield’s First Union, have global interests. Duke Energy has customers in half a dozen states. Belk is owned by a New York private equity firm, while the Observer is owned by a New Jersey-based hedge fund. Even Lance, the Charlotte snack food company founded in 1913, is owned by a global conglomerate. Many CEOs of the city’s flagship companies no longer live here. Brian Moynihan, the head of the bank McColl helped build, lives in Boston.

“There’s a cost to not living here,” McColl says. “If you live here, you encounter the issues of the city daily, and it makes you more aware of them and more interested in solving them.”

As existing corporations grew in an era of globalization, new ones arrived. The number of businesses in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County jumped 84% between 1990 and 2020. New faces came with them. Republican John Lassiter, a former council member, says he “used to tell people I knew who the top five people were at Bank of America and First Union (now Wells Fargo). Most folks couldn’t name one or two today. They haven’t turned their backs on Charlotte but have had to embrace lots of other communities.”

***

Local politics have fragmented along with business. Gantt became Charlotte’s first Black mayor in 1983, a notable achievement in a city where nearly seven in 10 residents were white. He took 42% of the white vote, unusually high at the time for a Black candidate in the South.

GantSince then, Charlotte’s demographics have changed as much as the skyline. Black people accounted for 35% of Charlotte’s population in 2021, not much higher than the 31% it was in 1980. But the white share of the population has shrunk dramatically. Charlotte first became a majority-minority city in 2010. By 2021, white people made up 45% of the population, its lowest share ever.

Latino residents, who make up nearly 15% of the population, and Asians, now nearly 7%, have contributed to the shift. But the Black population has tripled since 1980, while the white population hasn’t even doubled. Taxes, crime, congestion, and cost of living have pushed many white residents to the suburbs or surrounding counties. So have schools. White enrollment in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is just 24%, lower than the share of Latino students.

“Charlotte is going through a process that urban centers across the country are going through—whites are getting the hell out,” says local historian Dan Morrill (no relation). “They’re leaving. It’s just a reality.”

The evolving demographics have helped turn Charlotte-Mecklenburg into an island of blue in a sea of red. Forty-five percent of Mecklenburg County voters are registered Democrats, and more than a third are unaffiliated. Less than 18% are Republicans—a profound change from the 1980s and ’90s, when the two parties regularly flipped control of the City Council. After Gantt lost a reelection bid in 1987, Republicans enjoyed a more than two-decade run in the mayor’s office that lasted until 2009. 

Charlotte has had Democratic mayors ever since and will for the foreseeable future. The only Republicans on the 11-member council are from two southern districts, which themselves are beginning to turn Democratic. The nine members of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners are all Democrats. “If you don’t have the potential of ever winning, if there’s one or two seats you’re jockeying over on the deck of the Titanic,” says Tariq Bokhari, one of the council’s two Republicans, “where do you go?”

When the two parties swapped control, each of their primary elections mattered. Now, only Democratic primaries really count. Democrats’ most motivated voters have the loudest voice.

“Republicans are on the endangered species list there, and that is true for most large cities,” says David Goldfield, a history professor at UNC Charlotte and author. “This is the urban phenomenon. It used to be that the political differences were regional. Now the political differences are simply metropolitan areas (versus) small towns and rural areas.”

In the first council race I covered, in 1983, Willie Stratford and Bob Davis, two well-known Black candidates, led the Democratic primary for four at-large seats. Both finished behind white candidates in the general election.

Now, Black candidates and voters have more clout, best exemplified by the group Davis once led, the Black Political Caucus. The caucus has more influence than ever in a city dominated by a single party. Larken Egleston, a former Democratic council member who failed to win the group’s endorsement last year, says the caucus succeeds because its volunteers work especially hard to get out its vote. “The concerns of the African American community are being heard today,” says Mecklenburg Commissioner Arthur Griffin, a former caucus chair, “as opposed to not being heard several years ago.”

In 1983, five years after the city switched from a council of at-large seats to district representation, only two Black people were council members. Now, nine are people of color, all of them Democrats. The council’s two Republicans, both white men, are on the outside looking in.

That complicates relations with state lawmakers. Charlotte has long had a tenuous relationship with the General Assembly, which once derided “the Great State of Mecklenburg.” But the city and county used to have more influence in Raleigh under both parties. Lawmakers from Mecklenburg County chaired powerful committees. Two, Democrat Jim Black and Republican Thom Tillis, have served as House speaker in the past two decades.

Local legislators have helped the city fund the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the Levine Center for the Arts, two cornerstones in the development of uptown. But cities like Charlotte have become bluer while the rest of the state has grown redder. As across the country, North Carolina cities are at the mercy of a legislature still dominated by rural interests.

***

Wind and rain lash the patio at Napa on Providence on a blustery fall day. At a table under a heater, Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles nurses her lunch as she discusses how her adopted city has changed. Few have her perspective.

Lyles

“I do not have a kitchen cabinet. I have a household of advisers.”—Vi Lyles

A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Lyles arrived in Charlotte in the late 1960s to attend college at Queens. After she earned a master’s in public administration at UNC Chapel Hill, she worked as a budget analyst for the city and moved up to budget director, then assistant city manager, before she retired from city government in 2004. She won an at-large seat on the City Council in 2013 and was elected mayor four years later. Voters elected her to a third term last year.

Mayors have little inherent power in Charlotte’s council-manager government. It’s technically a part-time job—though that’s rarely true in practice. But Lyles, 70, is the face of a growing and diverse city, now the nation’s 15th-largest.

JoesMayors have always been big players in Charlotte. Stan Brookshire led desegregation efforts in the 1960s. John Belk helped expand the airport in the ’70s. In the ’80s, Gantt pushed for citywide growth. Pat McCrory championed the light rail in the ’90s. For Lyles, transportation remains a priority. But her vision, unlike that of The Group, doesn’t center on a growing skyline. She’s launched efforts, like the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative, that have more to do with human capital than flashy projects.

“Being world-class I understand,” she says. “But committing to the people in this community (for) real action and change is what our vision is. … Everybody should have a decent and safe place to live. Everyone should have a job that allows them to live in our city. And we need a mobility system that moves them to and from home and work in an easy and efficient way.”

MarsicanoLyles was first elected mayor in 2017, a year after the protests that followed the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott and underscored problems of equity and opportunity. She ran on promises to address those problems, including the city’s chronic shortage of affordable housing. In November 2021, Lyles announced the Racial Equity Initiative, a public-private effort to raise $250 million and direct the money to “address inequities and remove barriers to opportunity.” As of November 2022, the Equity Initiative had raised $230 million, more than half from private donors. The same month, voters approved $50 million in affordable housing bonds, as they had in 2018 and 2020.

Unlike some predecessors, especially McCrory, Lyles is soft-spoken and given more to gentle persuasion than back-slapping. “I do not have a kitchen cabinet,” she says. “I have a household of advisers.” Her household includes clergy and business leaders like business executive Malcomb Coley, City Manager Marcus Jones, and stalwarts like Gantt and Michael Marsicano, who retired in January as president and CEO of the Foundation for the Carolinas.

Marsicano, who declined to be interviewed, has always been near the top of any list of Charlotte power brokers. After 23 years at the Foundation—and several at the Arts & Science Council before that—his connections extend far beyond the philanthropic and arts communities. In the past three years alone, he has raised nearly $500 million for civic initiatives, according to the Foundation. Six years ago, when this magazine ranked the city’s 50 most powerful people, Marsicano was at the top.

“Michael’s fingerprints are all over our community,” Lyles said as she presented an award to Marsicano last fall. “And we are the better for it.”

In many ways, Marsicano represents the traditional Charlotte Way, where civic, business, and political leaders work together to mobilize support for large-scale goals. But they’re no longer the only players in town.

***

House Spot CharlotteRobert Dawkins has never made a list of official power brokers. But as political director of the grassroots group Action NC, he knows how to get things done.

DawkinsDawkins and his team have worked with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to address racial profiling and make changes to the Citizens Review Board. They’ve also pushed to have social workers and mental health professionals, not police, act as first responders on many 911 calls. 

Dawkins represents an evolution in Charlotte, where changes increasingly come not from the top down but the bottom up. He’s also part of a legacy of grassroots activism.

Historian Tom Hanchett recalls local civil rights activist Reginald Hawkins, once dubbed “the militant dentist.” In 1963, Hawkins led a march from Johnson C. Smith University to the county courthouse uptown. “We shall not be pacified with gradualism,” he told the crowd. “We shall not be satisfied with tokenism. We want freedom, and we want it now.”

Then-Mayor Brookshire responded. He urged white businessmen to join Black leaders in peacefully desegregating city restaurants. It worked.

More recently, the protests that followed the 2016 police killing of Scott in Charlotte—and, four years later, George Floyd in Minneapolis—led city officials to emphasize racial equity and affordable housing. I ask Dawkins: Who runs Charlotte now? Without missing a beat: “It’s the bureaucrats. The city manager’s office and county manager’s office. Before, we tried to find a city councilman to be your personal champion. It’s a smarter play to spend your time dealing with staff and bringing in elected officials when you need them.”

Under Charlotte’s form of government, the city staff runs the day-to-day operations of the city while council members set policy. Charlotte has always prided itself on its professional staff. It has enjoyed a succession of able city managers, including Wendell White, Pam Syfert, Curt Walton, and Carlee, before Jones arrived from Norfolk in 2016. Unlike his predecessors, Jones rarely speaks to the media. Nonetheless, the mayor praises Jones for his background in financial and urban issues, and Malcolm Graham refers to him as a “quiet manager.” Other council members, though, complain that policies come to them “already baked,” with little room for changes by the officials elected to set policy.

“What has changed,” Lyles says, “is that you’ve got a council that would like to know more about the options. There’s less institutional knowledge, and that perhaps has diminished the trust that people have.”

GrahamJones did not respond to my interview requests for this story, and not everyone sees his reticence as a virtue for a public official.

“By every measure, the City of Charlotte has gotten less transparent during Marcus Jones’ time as city manager,” says Nick Ochsner, chief investigative reporter at WBTV. “(The) city routinely takes years to fulfill records requests. … There is no transparency among city staff and no consequence from city leadership when the public is shut out of government business.”

Jones has clashed with Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio, notably over responsibility for the evacuation of the “tent city” near uptown during COVID. The departures of several high-profile department heads have marked his tenure; CATS CEO John Lewis left in November after a series of controversies over the city’s bus service. Several top staffers left early in Jones’ time as city manager; some took managerial jobs of their own in places like Asheville and Gaston County. One former administrator recalls it as “a time of chaos.”

In November, council members gave Jones—already the highest-paid city manager in the state—a 14% raise, from a base salary of $379,586 to $434,551. Three of the 11 council members voted against it.

Council members serve two-year terms. The system offers opportunities for a range of citizens to serve no matter how long they’ve lived here. But the churn can mean a lack of institutional knowledge and familiarity with the communities they represent.

***

When the new council was sworn in last September, smiling members stood behind the dais with their families, posing for snapshots and exchanging hugs. Then they voted for mayor pro tem, a post that usually goes to the top at-large vote-getter. But they bypassed Dimple Ajmera in favor of fellow Democrat Braxton Winston.

“I will NOT support any person who I have watched lie, manipulate & play politics,” council member LaWana Mayfield had tweeted days before. 

So much for harmony.

It’s a quality that’s been in short supply even on a council where Democrats have held nine of 11 seats since 2011. Hopes were high in 2017, when Winston and Ajmera were among a half-dozen millennials elected—a result notable enough to merit a story in The Wall Street Journal. But the high hopes landed with a thud. Council members have frequently argued and thrown accusations of bad faith at one another. The squabbling hit a peak during the contentious discussions over a new comprehensive plan and an overhaul of land-use regulations that eventually passed, in split votes, in 2021 and 2022.

For Democrats, being in control doesn’t mean being on the same page. “When you don’t have a two-party system, politics becomes a competition of personalities,” says Wilbur Rich, who teaches urban politics at UNCC. Then-Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, in a 2021 Observer op-ed column, announced she wouldn’t run for a fourth term. She wrote that her main regret was “that we as a council often could not work cohesively to have greater impact in the community. Good governance does not work when you have lone wolves who want to go at it alone, using divisive rhetoric toward their colleagues and staff.”

At times, council members have shown a surprising lack of familiarity with issues, even with Charlotte. Some members point to a minor but telling example.

When the iconic Price’s Chicken Coop closed in 2021, Democrat Renee Johnson urged colleagues to intervene to save it. Council members scratched their heads. Price’s, after all, was a private business whose owner had decided to close. According to four current and former colleagues, she even suggested that Foundation for the Carolinas buy what she referred to as the “Chicken Box,” a different restaurant. (Price’s owner eventually sold the site for nearly $4 million.) Johnson, who represents council District 4 in northeast Charlotte, says, “I don’t recall saying that.” She also describes herself as “very creative and open-minded and not constricted by the Charlotte Way.”

Part of the problem is the way leaders are elected. Charlotte is one of only four North Carolina cities (along with Kinston, Sanford, and Winston-Salem) with partisan municipal elections. Primary turnout is always low. In Johnson’s district, for example, it was less than 12% last year, or just over 1% of the city’s registered voters. She was one of four council members with no opponent in the general election. “You have a small group of people who participate in the primaries, and they’re having an outsized impact on local politics,” says Democrat Michael Barnes, who represented District 4 from 2005 to 2013. 

For better or worse, ties between council members and the business community have frayed. Candidates no longer rely on business endorsements and money to win primaries. Unlike many past council members, most don’t come from traditional business backgrounds. “When you have a one-party system,” says Rich, the political scientist, “people know that the only people they have to pay attention to are the activists in the community.” 

The lack of collegiality is, in part, a consequence of the pandemic. Physical distance and meetings over video, Lyles says, have eroded connections among council members. “Individual and personal relationships mattered more in the past,” she says. Now, “you can come and sit down on Monday and not have a conversation with anybody until the next Monday. Those relationships are not as collegial but more (competitive). People are very ambitious.” 

***

Megaphone Spot CharlotteSipping a cup of coffee outside a South Boulevard bagel shop, Malcomb Coley recalls his own crash course in the Charlotte Way. Shortly after he arrived in town a decade ago, he took an elevator to his office in the Bank of America Corporate Center. In stepped McColl, on his way to his retirement office.

“Mr. McColl, my name is Malcomb Coley,” he said as they ascended. “I’d love to pick your brain on how I could get involved in the community.”

“What are you doing now?” McColl replied, inviting him up for what turned into a two-hour meeting.

As if making up for lost time, Coley dove into community activities. Aside from his job as Charlotte managing partner for EY, a global accounting and consulting firm once known as Ernst & Young, he’s served on various boards and chairs the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance. He’s raised millions for the Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative as he’s overseen an EY staff of 2,000. Two years ago, he and McColl, along with former Duke Energy executive Lloyd Yates, launched Bright Hope Capital, a firm they created to invest in minority-owned businesses. Last September, the Charlotte Business Journal ranked Coley fourth in its Power 100.

In a city where public-private partnerships have always been a key to success, Coley is part of a new generation of business leaders trying to guide the city’s future. 

Their leadership reflects Charlotte’s new diversity. Coley is Black. So are Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison; Kieth Cockrell, president of Bank of America Charlotte; Atrium Health CEO Gene Woods; and Jesse Cureton, a top executive at Novant Health. Women hold positions of power: Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good; Pat Rodgers, CEO of Rodgers Builders; and Janet LaBar, CEO of the Business Alliance. Business leaders have made room for new corporate players like Truist, Ally Financial, and Red Ventures.

In 2015, top CEOs formed the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, whose 32 members include the city’s higher education leaders. Though it’s kept a low profile, the CELC has taken on issues such as education and workforce development, and it’s brought Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and GOP legislative leaders Phil Berger and Tim Moore to Charlotte to hear members’ concerns.

The Charlotte Chamber, under Carroll Gray and later Bob Morgan, led not only on economic development and business recruitment but connected members with city leadership. But in 2018, the Chamber merged with its regional counterpart to form the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, which focuses on a 15-county area in both Carolinas.

Coley says it’s harder to get the corporate community on board for public initiatives than in McColl’s day. “It’s a harder lift because so many companies have their own separate objectives,” he says. “Now it takes multiple calls, multiple meetings to get everyone on board. … There are a lot of new players in the market now, and we’re working with them to understand the Charlotte Way. They’re slowly understanding how Charlotte works. It’s a relationship community.”

***

CockrellNot long ago, Charlotteans could come together in a sort of town square. “Back in the day, when there was an editorial in The Charlotte Observer about something, it was the thought leader,” says Hanchett, the historian. “And the TV folks would pick it up and do a riff on it and it was something that would be talked about at least for that news cycle. And that was how a lot of things mobilized. The issue didn’t become an issue until it was widely discussed. The Observer doesn’t have that leadership position, and nothing does.”

Like the skyline, the media looks nothing like it used to. Corporate cost-cutting and changing consumer tastes have shrunk newspapers here and around the country. The three legacy broadcast TV networks, once the only game in town, now fight for eyeballs with hundreds of cable competitors.

News is siloed. Public debates take place on social media. In a sense, asking who runs Charlotte is like asking: Who runs the news? Interviews with more than 30 people underscored a common theme: There’s no longer a handful of voices but many that vie to be heard. Some are louder than others.

Vi Lyles has a bully pulpit and the connections to make things happen. Democratic primary voters have an outsized voice. So do elected leaders, at least when they can agree, and activists, civic leaders, and new and old players in business. Voters have rejected referenda to pay for projects, like an increase in arts funding, that traditional civic leaders championed.

ColeyToday’s Charlotte is a dynamic city. With apartments and towers rising all around, growth is no longer the shared mantra. Other priorities, including racial and economic equity, compete for attention and resources. It’s no longer the small Southern city where the City Council was comprised solely of white men and where every county commissioner attended the same Myers Park church.

 Getting things done is a lot more complicated than when McColl and his friends gathered in a room to share their visions, then pull the necessary strings to make them happen. In a city of nearly 900,000, consensus is elusive. The Group exemplified the forces that not only made Charlotte a major city but brought political and demographic changes, and challenges, that run throughout urban America. They helped create a city where a bigger collection of players pursues diverse objectives in a space far too big for a group as limited as The Group.

JIM MORRILL is a longtime Charlotte political reporter who began his career covering the city for The Charlotte Observer in 1983.

Headshot photos by Daniel Coston, Logan Cyrus, Chris Edwards, and Rick Hovis, 

Categories: The Buzz