What Foxx's promotion means for him, the White House and Charlotte

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CHARLOTTE — When Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said that he would not run for a third term that he was almost guaranteed to win easily, most folks in town figured something big was in his future. The explanation everyone expected officially came on Monday when President Obama announced Foxx, a Democrat, was his choice to join his second-term cabinet as Secretary of Transportation. The White House praised Foxx’s dealing with federal, state, regional and local transportation issues.

Foxx, who turns 42 on Tuesday, is Charlotte second African-American mayor, the city’s youngest when he was first elected in 2009. If his confirmation goes smoothly, Foxx will be returning to Washington, where he served on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee and worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. His nomination is also an answer to critics who have questioned the president’s commitment to diversity in his second-term cabinet choices.

No one in the region is surprised. When the FBI starts vetting you, it’s pretty hard to keep it a secret, especially in a Southern city that can be more like a small town.

A mayor who ‘doesn’t get enough credit’

At a public reception for newly hired city manager Ron Carlee, residents said they were happy with Foxx’s performance as mayor, particularly with his efforts to improve educational and economic conditions in predominantly African American West Charlotte. While many I spoke with were sorry he was not running again, they were consoled with the prospect that he would be working with President Obama in such a high-profile role.

Foxx was full of smiles and “no comment” comments at that event a little more than two weeks ago. City council member James “Smuggie” Mitchell was looking ahead to big issues, from settling on funding to improve the stadium where the NFL’s Carolina Panthers play to contentious discussions over city versus regional governance for Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

“What Charlotte will be missing is a great consensus builder,” he told me. “Mayor Foxx doesn’t get enough credit for that.”

Mitchell was clear that he would not be running for mayor in the fall in a city where Democrats have an edge but where Republican Pat McCrory, now North Carolina governor, served as mayor for 14 years before Foxx was elected. The city council is charged with naming a replacement for Foxx. At a recent awards event sponsored by Johnson C. Smith University, a Charlotte HBCU, guests in gowns and tuxedos traded rumors on how Foxx’s decision not to run would shake up the city’s political scene.

A Democrat will need to replace him

One of those guests, a council member first elected in 1993 and mayor pro tem Patrick Cannon, was weighing his own decision whether or not to run in the fall. As mayor pro tem, he has had to step in when the mayor is absent for both the Foxx and Pat McCrory administrations.

If Foxx’s nomination is approved by the Senate and he becomes Transportation Secretary, the council must appoint a Democrat.

Cannon told me on Monday, “Typically what has happened in the past, the city council has devised this unwritten rule that would suggest that anyone who may be interested in filling this unexpired term would agree not to run for that post when it becomes available.” If not, it would give that person “a leg up” on anyone else. So that leaves Cannon out of current consideration. He said he would announce his decision “fairly soon,” and has reached out for the support of fellow council member David Howard, also rumored to be considering a run.

Will Foxx help Charlotte from Washington?

There is no time limit on how soon an appointment must be made, but, Cannon said, it’s an active time for city issues. “It’s very important that we have someone who can hit the ground, not walking, but running very fast,” he said, and someone who has a sense of city governance and would have the necessary time to devote to such a position. Two former city council members have approached the council, he said. Cannon said the city needs “a qualified and capable person able to take on the reins to help us move forward in the short period we have.”

Will having Foxx in Washington help Charlotte? “Anthony doesn’t come with the notion of helping out one city,” he said. “He comes with a holistic approach.” He did speculate that Charlotte “would be in a very good position still, having him as Secretary of Transportation, knowing what our needs are and how they would get met.”

In a recent conversation after he announced his decision not to run again for mayor, Foxx had told me he was looking forward to spending more time with his two young (and I would add photogenic) children. He also talked about his interest in transportation issues, mentioning, for example, his lobbying for projects such as extension of the city’s light rail system.

“We’ve made the largest transportation investments in the city’s history,” he told me.

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the Republican Foxx would replace, has visited Charlotte and made appearances with Foxx to announce grants toward a light-rail extension and a streetcar project. (In anticipation of the pending nomination, U.S. House member Robert Pittenger, a North Carolina Republican, quickly issued a statement that said, “As Secretary of Transportation, my hope is that Mr. Foxx will prioritize funding for widening and improving major road systems, which are used by far more commuters and generate significant economic growth.”)

A rising national profile

While Foxx leaves unfinished business for the next mayor, he probably won’t miss his sometimes contentious dealings with his predecessor. “In terms of Raleigh,” Foxx said in our interview, “I just think there are some philosophical differences not only between municipalities and the general assembly, but even between this general assembly and any general assembly we’ve seen in the modern era.” If Foxx moves to Washington, he will still have to work with Pat McCrory on transportation issues – but this time as one of 50.

From mayor to cabinet secretary is a big though not unprecedented leap. Foxx’s national profile rose significantly when Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention in September 2012, and he has often visited Washington and the president. His life and career is one of rapid progress, from a childhood in West Charlotte, raised by his grandparents and a single mother, to being the first African-American student body president at Davidson College and earning a law degree at New York University.

As President Obama announced the nomination of his “friend,” the front row featured a tableau of generations, including an irresistible back story of a grandmother who worked for President Truman.

Foxx was mentored by a grandfather active in politics, neighbors such as Mel Watt, now a U.S. congressman from North Carolina and the subject of rumors for an administration post, and Harvey Gantt, who became the city’s first African-American mayor. Now Gantt is being mentioned as a possible choice to fill the rest of Foxx’s second term as Charlotte mayor.

Follow Mary on Twitter @mcurtisnc3