Hoping to draw their clearest distinctions yet, Charlotte’s two mayoral candidates clashed Wednesday night over taxes, the streetcar and money for the Carolina Panthers.
Democrat Patrick Cannon and Republican Edwin Peacock sought to underscore their differences less than two weeks before the election. After a campaign generally lacking drama, the forum often turned testy.
Peacock, a former City Council member, accused Cannon of “flip-flopping” in his support of the streetcar. Cannon, the mayor pro tem, said Peacock was “anti-Charlotte” for opposing a $816 million capital budget.
The forum at UNC Charlotte’s uptown campus was sponsored by the Observer and PNC Bank, one in a series of such community events. More than 300 people attended.
The candidates also said they would make changes in the Citizens Review Board. An Observer investigation found the board, created in 1997 to look into allegations of police misconduct, has always sided with police.
“It needs more teeth,” said Peacock, adding that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police could consider having the State Bureau of Investigation look into the department.
Cannon, who helped lead creation of the review board, said he supports a current study. On Monday, a City Council committee plans to vote on a statute that would strengthen the board by enacting recommendations from a task force.
“We want see a fair and balanced process,” said Cannon. “A lot of that stuff, some of it has to happen at the state level.”
One of the biggest differences came over taxes, particularly this year’s capital spending plan. Approved in June, it increased property taxes by 3 cents.
Peacock said he would have supported a plan that did not raise taxes. Cannon said the budget represented a smart investment.
“I would have supported a smaller capital improvement plan,” said Peacock. “Are we tone-deaf to the fact we’ve just come out of a recession?”
“Are we blind to the fact that we need to invest in Charlotte’s future?” Cannon replied. He argued that the budget would create 18,000 jobs and expand police and other services.
“The reality is you don’t support economic opportunity for the east and west sides of town,” Cannon said.
Peacock accused Cannon of violating the public’s trust with the closed-door negotiations that led to the city giving the Panthers $87.5 million for stadium improvements. Though Cannon cited a conflict and didn’t vote on the measure, he supported it.
“When you’re seeking the public money, you need public input,” Peacock said. “I wouldn’t have given the Panthers money.” Because the money was taken from hospitality taxes that support the convention center, he said “we just robbed Peter to pay Paul.”
Cannon turned the question back to public spending, particularly the capital budget.
“I don’t know if you just don’t get it or what,” he said to Peacock. “If you don’t have a capital improvement plan, you can’t move this city forward.”
Though he has voted for capital budgets before during two terms on council, Peacock said he opposed this year’s plan because of the tax hike.
On another contentious issue, Peacock said Cannon “flip-flopped” three times on the streetcar.
Cannon, who had been a streetcar supporter, opposed former Mayor Anthony Foxx’s 2012 capital budget because it included nearly $120 million for the streetcar, designed to connect the east and west sides. This year he supported a compromise that would match an anticipated federal grant with city money, though not directly from property taxes.
Peacock called that a “shell game.” He pointed to studies showing limited streetcar ridership. And by allowing the streetcar to “leap-frog” regional transportation priorities, he said Cannon had “broken the trust” of taxpayers in the region.
Cannon repeatedly defended public spending. “Our community and city can’t grow if we don’t invest in it,” he said. “Private investment follows public investment.”
Peacock, on the other hand, called for a leaner government, with more consolidated city-county departments to save money.
“The point is coming at which the community is going to need to get more revenue, and it can’t come through annexation,” Peacock said. “There are functional consolidations that can and should occur,” in areas such as human resources, emergency medical services and business permitting.
The candidates did find common ground.
Both said they support keeping Charlotte Douglas International Airport under city control. The Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly passed a law transferring control to the new commission. The issue is now in court.
Peacock called that “a political grab” He said he was surprised Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, did not publicly oppose the measure.
“That was not Mayor Pat, that was Gov. Pat,” he said. “That was unfortunate. I think he should have spoken up.”
Cannon said he would continue to fight to keep the airport.
Peacock was asked if he would continue to be a moderate Republican, even after campaigning this week with more conservative Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
“I’m going to make decisions on principles not partisanship,” he said. “I’m going to … have a pro-Charlotte agenda.”
Both Charlotte natives were asked how their backgrounds influenced their politics.
Peacock talked about his discovery as a high school senior that he had dyslexia, and how he learned to deal with it.
“It turned out to be one of my greatest strengths,” he said. “What made me different made me stronger.”
Cannon talked about being raised by a single mother after his father was killed when he was a boy.
He said his mother had been an immense positive influence on his life, and recalled her running 99 yards down the sideline next to him when he returned a football kickoff for a touchdown.
“I score a touchdown and look to my left – it’s my mom,” he said, to applause and laughter.
Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter @ESPortillo