Mayor Patrick Cannon extends olive branches

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comDecember 18, 2013 

New Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon has been quietly reaching out to Mecklenburg lawmakers after a year that saw relations between the city and state plummet to a new low.

Cannon has offered to meet with each member of the delegation. He named one of the City Council’s two Republicans to head the committee that serves as a liaison with state government.

And he’s talking to some of the city’s starkest opponents: The airport commission created to run Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

In effect, he’s hitting a reset button.

“It’s important for people to know I’m willing to extend the olive branch,” Cannon says. “It’s important that we knock on each and every door whether it has a ‘D’ on it, an ‘R’ on it or an ‘I’ on it.”

Tension between the Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic-run city flared as they clashed over issues such as money for the Carolina Panthers, tax law changes, zoning proposals, annexation laws and environmental controls.

But their biggest fight was over control of the airport. The city sought to retain control even as lawmakers created first an independent authority and then a commission to run the airport. That fight is still in court.

Republicans accused former Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx of “bad faith.” Foxx criticized a “culture of intimidation” and decisions made “in the backrooms of Raleigh.”

GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews bumped heads with the city over several issues.

“I (hoped) that we would find a compromise,” he says. “But we were never able to do that.”

“In some ways it was like we were speaking different languages,” adds Republican Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte. “So now … we’re trying a do-over and see if we can speak the same language.”

Outreach begins

Last week Cannon named Republican council member Ed Driggs to chair the committee that deals with state government. The council’s only other Republican, Kenny Smith, was also named to the five-member committee.

“We just got to a very bad place,” says Driggs. “The relationship between Charlotte and state government is important. So I regard it as one of my missions, regardless of the status of the airport, to get us on a better footing with regard to other business.”

The outreach began last month. Samuelson called Cannon around Thanksgiving. On Nov. 27, Cannon emailed each of the delegation’s 15 members.

“I hope that we can begin a dialogue on how to continue moving our community forward,” he wrote. “…I am open to meeting with you at a mutually convenient time … whether here in Charlotte or at the General Assembly.”

The mayor has begun following up on the offer.

He and GOP Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville had lunch Wednesday at McCormick & Schmick’s seafood restaurant. Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes invited Jeter to breakfast at a north Charlotte restaurant Friday.

“I give Patrick credit,” Jeter says. “For all the differences between the city and the General Assembly this past year, it’s in both our best interests to work together as we move forward … He and I pledged to do that on a more regular basis.”

‘Healing’ to be done

Several council members trekked to Raleigh to fight the airport bill introduced by Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews. Among them were Republican Andy Dulin and Democrats David Howard and James Mitchell.

During their Democratic mayoral primary opponent, Mitchell said Cannon wouldn’t “fight” for the city’s interests and sided with Republicans on the airport issue. Cannon called Mitchell’s comments a “total misrepresentation.”

But Cannon kept a low profile in the airport fight, which quickly escalated.

Rucho once placed an angry call to the council member he blamed for leaking an early draft of the legislation. Council members returned the fire. Dulin said fellow Republicans “absolutely bum-rushed” the airport legislation through.

Now they all seem ready for a fresh start.

“(Cannon’s) looking at trying to find ways of working together and allowing a smoother transition for his mayorship, and we welcome that,” says Rucho, who introduced the airport legislation.

Samuelson and Dulin have met twice over coffee at Bruegger’s.

She says people on both sides are willing to talk to resolve their differences.

“It’s just that it was hard in the beginning and it’s still hard,” she says.

Adds Dulin: “Some healing has to take place.”

Brawley, a former county parks commissioner, has worked before with Cannon, who was on the City Council for 20 years. He expects the mayor to set “a different tone.”

“We need to sit down at the table and work it out,” Brawley says, “where we can live with it, they can live with it, and the people benefit.”

Productive talks

Legislators aren’t the only ones Cannon has reached out to.

He has also talked to Robert Stolz, who chairs the Charlotte Airport Commission, which the General Assembly created this summer to remove control of the airport from the City Council. The city sued to block the commission, blocking it from using almost all of its powers while the case works its way through the courts.

Stolz calls his talks with the mayor productive.

“I’ve had conversations with the mayor, and I’m very encouraged,” says Stolz, who is CEO of the Wurth Group’s North American division.

“Throwing grenades over the fence is not going to solve anything.” Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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