Pam Kelley, a former reporter for The Charlotte Observer, is author of Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South, out from The New Press on Sept. 25.
A willingness to host such a big but unwanted event speaks to the ambition and insecurity that has long characterized North Carolina’s largest city.
In 1791, after spending one night in Charlotte during his tour of the South, President George Washington dismissed the town, describing it in his diary as “a trifling place.” This early civic humiliation still gets mentioned in Charlotte, perhaps because it speaks to the ambition and insecurity that has long characterized North Carolina’s largest city.
It might also help explain the political drama that unfolded recently when this Democratic majority-minority city, finding itself on the verge of winning its bid to host the 2020 Republican National Convention, had serious second thoughts about taking it.
In early 2018, Charlotte bid for the convention with the support of all but one city council member. Liberal activists complained, and the Charlotte Observer warned to change course and pass on what may be “one of the most toxic conventions of our lifetimes.”
But the outcry wasn’t sustained, and actually winning the convention seemed far from a sure thing. Leaders figured numerous cities would be bidding, hoping to reap both cash and national exposure.
In June, however, just weeks before the selection, word spread that Charlotte was not only the leading contender, it was the only contender. A groundswell of opposition emerged. At a public hearing, dozens of speakers pleaded with the council to reject the event, citing concerns about violence and President Trump’s policies. “If hosting the RNC is such an economic benefit, why aren’t other cities clamoring for this privilege?” one woman asked.
Dozens also urged the city to seize the opportunity. The convention, the Charlotte Chamber’s CEO told the council, will “provide a stage on which Charlotte can shine.”
The 11-member council, which has nine Democrats, eventually voted 6-5 to approve. No one was surprised when the Republican National Committee picked Charlotte days later. Las Vegas had been the other city in the running, but its bid had come from Nevada’s Republican party without support from the city government or the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
To say Charlotte now has buyer’s remorse may be an overstatement. But some council members admit the outcome might be different if they could go back to early 2018 and re-consider their bid.
“Charlotte is by nature competitive. Our default has been to go for it,” says Larken Egleston, a Democrat on the council. “Maybe on our part it was a failure of imagination to realize that we might well get it.” He voted to host, reasoning that backing out at such a late date would damage already rocky relations with state and federal Republicans.
Ray McKinnon, a Democratic activist who opposed the bid, thinks the city’s ambition clouded its judgment. “We continue to care more about what others think about us than what we actually are,” he says. “Every glitzy big thing that we think will get us any second of time in national media or any promise of one additional dollar, we go for.”
McKinnon’s view is widely shared in Charlotte, which has long aspired to be more than it is. Journalist Peter Applebome, in his 1996 book, Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture, describes the city as “home to the purest strain ever discovered of the Southern booster gene.”
Numerous examples prove his point. The city once marketed itself as “A Good Place to Make Money.” In 1938, local businesses took out a newspaper ad (“Welcome to Charlotte, Stranger!”) that touted the city’s virtues and greeted new residents by name and address. For decades and still today, leaders debate what it will take to make Charlotte “world class.”
Growth gets celebrated in Charlotte, and a most unusual celebration marked the arrival of the county’s 300,000th citizen in 1963: The chamber of commerce piled 300,000 chocolate kisses on the square at Trade and Tryon Streets. The publicity stunt backfired spectacularly. “In seconds little kids were being trampled, frantic mamas were screaming and the air was full of candy kisses,” the Charlotte Observer reported. Police and firefighters averted disaster by pushing into the scrum and flinging armloads of candy outward, scattering the crowd.
Chocolate kiss fiasco aside, Charlotte’s hustle has often paid off. This once-middling town is now America’s 17th-largest city, a major financial center that boasts NBA and NFL teams and the nation’s sixth busiest airport. In 2012, it landed its biggest score to date—the Democratic National Convention. Afterward, basking in success, city leaders contemplated a future bid for the Olympics.
Yet Charlotte also has world-class problems. The most public of these was the 2016 fatal police shooting of a black man, Keith Lamont Scott. Violent protests followed, but even before Scott’s death, the city’s racial failings had grown impossible to ignore. Its schools, once a national model of integration success, have resegregated. A study by the Equality of Opportunity Project ranks Charlotte last among 50 of the nation’s largest cities. People born poor in Charlotte stay poor.
In November, voters elected a new mayor and a crop of youthful City Council members, a progressive group that ran campaigns promising to address these inequality issues—to build more affordable housing and create livable-wage jobs.
The election seemed to signal a new chapter for the city, a tempering of worldly ambition as leaders looked to fix their own house. The council has agreed, for instance, to ask voters to approve $50 million in bonds for affordable housing, more than triple the current funding. Nobody would have predicted that this group’s first major controversy would be over the Republican National Convention.
But the convention, still two years away, could become another big success for Charlotte. Boosters predict it will pump at least $100 million into the local economy. In a break with tradition, Mayor Vi Lyles, a Democrat, won’t deliver a welcome address. But Lyles has championed the convention, arguing that hosting gives Charlotte a chance to demonstrate its values of respect and inclusion.
For now, however, as people in Charlotte recall President Trump’s attacks on immigrants, anticipate hosting alt-right groups and brace for anti-Trump protests, another story from Applebome’s book seems relevant. “When I came here in 1959, a cousin in Richmond told me Charlotte's a wonderful place,” a bank executive told the author. “She said the best way to summarize Charlotte is to say that if the Russians bomb us and the first wave of bombs that comes over doesn't include one for Charlotte, people here would be very much disappointed.”
“That's Charlotte," Applebome wrote, “a place that would rather be incinerated than be small time.”