PINEHURST, N.C. -- The two men vying to be Charlotte’s next mayor squared off before city business leaders Wednesday, each positioning himself as the better choice to solve disputes over the airport, heal the rift with Republican lawmakers and boost economic prosperity.
Debating during the Charlotte Chamber’s annual retreat, Democrat Patrick Cannon and Republican Edwin Peacock made their first debate a civil, restrained affair in which both touted their strengths without overtly attacking each other.
Both men stressed the importance of Charlotte Douglas International Airport to the city’s economy and pledged to fight for the city to keep control of it, even as they decried the polarized politics that have swirled around it.
Republican state lawmakers from Mecklenburg’s suburbs have successfully pushed for legislation to create a regional commission to run the airport. The city has gone to court to retain the right to keep control of the airport, but a Superior Court judge has said the decision as to who should run the airport rests with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA has given no public indication as to when it will make a decision.
Peacock, a former Charlotte City Council member, said he would call for an in-depth, mediated summit in February between members of Mecklenburg’s legislative delegation and City Council to repair relationships.
“It’s critical. It’s essential to us getting things done,” he said, “because they are where the power resides.”
Cannon, the city’s mayor pro tem, cast himself as a leader who can build bridges across party lines. He noted that in the 1990s, when Republicans held the majority on council, he successfully pushed for a comprehensive redevelopment plan for Charlotte’s westside.
“I got a whole lot of stuff done,” he said. “We have to make sure we have a mayor who has been part of repairing relationships that have been broken in the past.”
Peacock, running in a city where only 23 percent of registered voters are Republicans, described himself as a “pro-mass transit, pro-regional mayor candidate” who believes the state legislature “got it dead wrong” with recent cuts in teacher pay.
He said he believes strongly that the west and east sides of the city need help. But he added that a streetcar – touted by former Mayor Anthony Foxx as the key to redeveloping those areas – isn’t necessarily the answer.
“We’ve been relying on that too heavily,” he said. “I think the next mayor has got to have a Plan B … to get east and west Charlotte back to their former glory.”
The city recently failed to win a federal grant to help pay for the streetcar extension, but City Manager Ron Carlee has said a plan that calls for using $63 million in city reserve funds can still move forward.
Peacock hewed to more traditional Republican themes as well. He spoke out against a recent city tax increase, saying he’s talked with too many city police officers who live outside Charlotte because they find lower taxes and better schools there.
City Council this summer passed a budget that includes a 7.25 percent property tax increase to help build affordable housing, police stations, sidewalks and roads.
Peacock also said relationships with suburbs like Ballantyne must be improved. He characterized as a “baloney argument” the notion that Ballantyne should secede from the city, but added that the next mayor must be able to address suburban residents’ concern that they’re shouldering a large portion of the city’s tax burden without receiving enough in return.
“You have to have a mayor who can answer the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’” Peacock said.
Cannon, who grew up in public housing in Charlotte, said the city belongs to everyone, not just one area. He offered his answer to suburbanites who feel they are paying more than their fair share.
“You’re paying for exactly what your house is worth. You’re paying your fair share,” he said, adding that someone with a less expensive house rightfully pays less in taxes.
Cannon, who was first elected in 1993, promoted his years of service on City Council. He noted that he helped bring the CIAA basketball tournament to Charlotte and helped get public money to bring the Mint Museum, the Harvey B. Gantt Center and other cultural amenities uptown.
He defended the city’s recent tax increase, saying Charlotte kept growing the past five years despite the recession. He said the city must expand its services accordingly.
“The day we stop thinking we need to invest in Charlotte is the day Charlotte stops being all it can be,” he said.
Cannon stressed the importance of mass transit as a redevelopment tool, and said projects like the Lynx Blue Line extension from uptown to University City help make sure all areas of the city get primed for economic growth.
Charlotte’s biggest flaw in the past five years, he said, was its inability to avoid partisan politics, with leaders looking at “scarlet letter D’s and scarlet letter R’s instead of looking at the scarlet letter P’s – the people.”
On other issues:
• Moderator Natalie English of the chamber asked both men whether they’d be a quasi-full-time mayor in the mode of former Mayor Anthony Foxx or operate in keeping with the job’s part-time title, like Richard Vinroot. Both men said Vinroot will be their model.
• Asked their feelings about giving incentives to lure businesses, Cannon said he supports incentives when they are appropriate. Peacock said the city needs to develop its people and quality of life, not just “give away cash” to corporations.
• Asked which job sector has the most potential for growth, Cannon said blue-collar manufacturing. Peacock said health care and energy.
• Asked what “the next big thing” should be for Charlotte to pursue in the wake of last year’s Democratic National Convention, Peacock mentioned World Cup qualifying events, while Cannon said the city should go after the Republican National Convention, the Super Bowl and the NBA All Star game.
The general election will be Nov. 5. Early voting starts Oct. 17.