CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The fight over Charlotte’s airport is emerging as an issue in the November mayoral election, as both candidates position themselves as best qualified to retain and run Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Republican Edwin Peacock and Democrat Patrick Cannon, who won primaries this week, say they want to keep the airport under city control.
Cannon said his years of overseeing the airport on the City Council and his business experience as head of one of the city’s largest parking companies make him the best candidate.
“As a businessman who brings a business perspective to the governing body, I would imagine my approach is going to be more businesslike,” Cannon said. He said his experience with the airport goes back to the late 1980s, when he worked as a skycap at Charlotte Douglas.
Cannon said he couldn’t discuss the employment status of Jerry Orr, the city’s longtime aviation director, or how long he would pursue litigation against the state as mayor, because the case is in court.
Edwin Peacock, the Republican, could face a tough political balancing act. He wants to repair the city’s damaged relationship with GOP state lawmakers, who passed the bill to transfer control of the airport to a regional commission.
He also said he opposes bringing back Orr to run the airport. State lawmakers have pushed to restore Orr, who lost his job after the passage of the airport commission bill. City officials and Orr’s supporters still disagree about whether he was fired or resigned.
Peacock said he believes he could patch the city’s ties to Raleigh.
“That’s really my argument for the future – Who’s going to be able to repair the relationship with Raleigh?” Peacock said.
Cannon countered: “Whatever happens with the airport, in terms of being able to communicate on the federal, state and local levels is not about party affiliation. It’s about coming up with a common-sense solution.”
Agreement on lawsuit
The city has run Charlotte Douglas as an independently funded city department for decades. Both candidates also say their priorities would include keeping the airport a low-cost, efficient hub for US Airways, which is seeking to merge with American Airlines.
Peacock said he didn’t agree with many of the state legislature’s stated reasons for establishing the commission, including that city leaders were trying to divert revenue from the airport to pay for a proposed streetcar.
“Not true,” said Peacock, who served on the City Council as an at-large member from 2007 to 2011. “I didn’t see that ...or anything like that.”
Peacock said he would have voted for the city to file its lawsuit to retain control of the airport if he had still been on the council. “I would have been right there with them,” Peacock said. “I’m in agreement with the City Council.”
His position on the airport is the same as the council’s two outgoing Republican members, Warren Cooksey and Andy Dulin.
That puts him at odds with powerful Republican legislators in Mecklenburg County’s delegation, including State Sen. Bob Rucho, House Speaker Thom Tillis, and Reps. Ruth Samuelson and Bill Brawley.
Samuelson said that because the airport issue is in court, Charlotte’s next mayor won’t have much say in what happens. But she said fixing the relationship between Raleigh and Charlotte is a priority no matter who wins.
“The legislature, regardless of who is mayor, wants to have a better working relationship with Charlotte,” she said. “The majority (Republican) members know Edwin better. The other members probably know Patrick better. They’re both good guys.
“I don’t think either one of them has burned bridges with Raleigh.”
Poll numbers suggest it would be politically risky for either mayoral candidate to support dropping airport litigation.
In May, an Observer poll found that Charlotte voters want the city to keep control over the airport by a 3-1 margin. And another poll of Charlotte voters found only 16 percent supported an airport authority.
UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig said neither candidate might be able to influence the struggle, now that it’s in court.
“I doubt a mayor could do very much about it,” Heberlig said.
He said that as a Republican, Peacock might have more credibility with the Republican-controlled state legislature over Cannon. But in Charlotte’s “weak mayor” system of government, policies are set by the City Council and implemented by the city manager, meaning a mayor can’t change policies on his own.
“So in that sense it doesn’t matter as much from a state legislative perspective who is mayor,” Heberlig said.
The airport is in limbo right now. Although the General Assembly’s law transferring control of the airport to a 13-member commission was supposed to take effect by now, Charlotte sued and a judge temporarily blocked the law’s implementation.
Both sides await a ruling from the Federal Aviation Administration on whether the commission can legally operate. There’s no timeline for a decision.
In the meantime, Gaston and Iredell counties have appointed members to the commission, even though it doesn’t exist.
Mecklenburg, Union and Cabarrus counties are considering applications or soliciting applications.
Charlotte Mayor Patsy Kinsey and the City Council haven’t said whether they’ll make their appointments before the Oct. 1 deadline.
The mayor will control three appointments to the airport commission, if it is created. The City Council will appoint four members.
The airport issue arose in the Democratic primary. Former candidate James “Smuggie” Mitchell published ads accusing Cannon of wanting to give control of the airport to an authority. Mitchell said Cannon actually agreed with state legislators that the city should no longer run Charlotte Douglas.
Cannon said there was no evidence to back up that claim and pointed out he had voted to file the city’s lawsuit seeking to block the state’s new airport law.
Peacock said he wouldn’t reinstate former aviation director Orr.
Orr sent a letter to the city that City Manager Ron Carlee said amounted to his resignation, but he asked for his job back after officials told him to leave. Orr would be reinstated as director of the airport if the commission is approved.
Peacock also said that he supports the city’s lawsuit, unless it were to become clear that there was no way for the city to win.
“If there’s a legal break point there where it’s obvious we’re not going to win, then, yeah, we have to work with the reality we have,” Peacock said.