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Charlotte came last among major cities in a 2014 report measuring economic mobility. That served as a rallying cry for Charlotte leaders to try to figure out how to improve opportunities for the city’s poorest residents. We look at where Charlotte is eight years later.

Black leaders, politicians rise in local government. A different governing style has followed.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles launched this year a $250 million racial equity initiative fund. She was elected mayor in 2017.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles launched this year a $250 million racial equity initiative fund. She was elected mayor in 2017.

Twenty years ago, Charlotte city government saw itself like a private company.

It talked about efficiency and “providing value to the customer.”

Former city attorney Mac McCarley said Charlotte adopted new business jargon, such as calling all department leaders “key business executives.”

Today’s city does not think of itself as a business. It has a new agenda: Social justice. Equity. Inclusion.

It’s a change due to the city overall becoming more liberal — and to Black politicians and administrators assuming the reins of power.

Stephanie Sneed, the chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, said Black leaders are needed “to try and repair what has happened in systemic racism.”

She said new leaders have acknowledged that systemic racism “has had a generational impact. It wasn’t just at that moment in time.”

African Americans have won five of the last six Charlotte mayoral elections. The city manager is Black, as is the police chief, fire chief and leader of the transit system.

The chair of the county commission is Black, as is the health director and county attorney. Half of the county’s judges are Black. Same for the superintendent of the school system and the sheriff.

Spencer Merriweather was elected in 2018 as the county’s first Black district attorney.

“You know, some folks have asked the question, 'well does every position have to be held by an African American or Latino in this community?'” Merriweather said.

He was talking about the 2018 Comedy Central show hosted by Jordan Klepper.

Klepper noted that after the 2018 election, “Charlotte’s local leadership is now majority Black. This is a huge achievement for representation — but also a huge blow to representation.”

He was referring to white representation. He then played comments that Pat McCrory — Charlotte’s former mayor and the state’s former governor — made when he hosted a radio talk show on WBT.

“I’m worried about the segregated aspects of Charlotte-Mecklenburg politics and the potential lack of diversity that we might have,” McCrory said.

So how did African Americans rise to power in a county where white residents are still a plurality with 46% of the population – and only 1 in 3 residents are Black?

The biggest factor may be the collapse of the local Republican Party. That started in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected. The GOP shifted to the right and Mecklenburg unaffiliated voters moved left.

A year later, in 2009, Anthony Foxx was elected Charlotte mayor — the first African American to hold that job since Harvey Gantt 22 years earlier.

Since then, most Charlotte and county elections have been decided in the Democratic primary, where African American voting strength is magnified. In the 2018 Mecklenburg Democratic primary, for instance, 48% of voters were Black.

“If they run a good campaign, (a Democratic candidate) is going to win the primary and more than likely win the general,” said Democratic political consultant Dan McCorkle, who is white.

So how has that changed public policy?

In 2001, McCrory, who was then mayor, vetoed a measure that would have provided a living wage to all city employees of $9 an hour. That was when the city saw itself as a business. (Some have said that veto led to the defeat of a referendum that would have built a new arena uptown.)

Around 2015, council members — both white and Black — successfully pushed to raise the city base pay to $13 an hour. The city later raised it to $15 an hour. Mecklenburg County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools followed.

The City Council also brought back a program to increase the use of minority contractors.

And the city began giving tax incentives to companies that would bring blue-collar jobs to Charlotte, even if they paid less than the city’s average wage. Charlotte had previously only focused on subsidizing high-paying jobs, which were often in financial services.

One was a Black and Decker factory in southwest Charlotte whose jobs paid less than $35,000 a decade ago. City Council member Michael Barnes, who is Black, said it was important to bring manufacturing jobs to the city.

“Those jobs could be held by Black people, brown people, anybody,” he said.

And Sneed, who leads the Black Political Caucus, says there have been important symbolic changes, “such as renaming schools, renaming streets.”

She doesn’t think that would have happened if there weren’t African American leaders.

Perhaps the biggest change has been in criminal justice.

Merriweather, the district attorney, said he wants to make sure people have access to him — and to feel they are being heard.

“There’s a whole host of cases where it’s important for me to not only say what my reading of the law but finding opportunities to have people understand I am hearing you,” he said.

He’s talking in part about his decision three years ago not to file charges against a Charlotte police officer who shot and killed a man who had waved a gun inside a Burger King on Beatties Ford Road. The man didn’t initially drop his gun after officers told him to.

In announcing he wouldn’t press charges, Merriweather wrote that while the shooting was justified legally, he and other prosecutors were “not even asked on whether it was the right thing to do.”

The City Council required body cameras and deescalation training for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.

And former chief district court Judge Regan Miller, who is Black, moved the county away from cash bail four years ago, following a nationwide trend of not keeping people locked up while awaiting trial.

“It’s a mindset that we have had historically that if you are charged with a crime you should be arrested and put in jail, pending your trial," Miller said during a 2018 interview. "That’s really not what constitutionally we are supposed to be doing as judicial officials, so we are trying to change that culture.”

But not everyone is on board.

Barnes, who ran unsuccessfully for district attorney in 2010, said he’s concerned about what he said is some anti-police rhetoric in Charlotte and nationwide. And he’s concerned about the move away from cash bail.

“Within the framework of the Constitution, you have to consider what’s best for society,” Barnes said. “You don’t want people who are dangerous to move throughout the community and commit crime after crime. I think there are some sensitivities that people have to the abuses of bail and the bail system, but at the same token there is a responsibility we have to the community to keep it safe as well.”

In Mecklenburg County, 2018 was a landmark election year in that Merriweather was elected, and Garry McFadden became the first Black sheriff.

Noteworthy as well, was 2021. That’s when Mint Hill — 74% white and very conservative — elected its first Black town council member, Twanna Henderson.

Henderson said she tried to downplay the historic nature of her candidacy.

She said she asked herself: “What are those common things that have nothing to do with color, that has nothing to do with race? I really leaned into those things that resonated with people,” she said. “I was intentional about not making race a factor.”

Henderson said she wants to make sure she’s speaking for the white residents as well as the other 26% of the population of Mint Hill.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.