CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After an early morning announcement that rocked Charlotte and raised more questions than answers, Mayor Anthony Foxx said he is leaving office at the end of the year to spend more time with his family and because “I never intended to be mayor for life.”
“One of my goals has been to really show that you can serve in this office with dignity and honor, and at the appropriate time go do something else,” Foxx told the Observer on Friday night. “And that’s what public service has always been for me.”
Foxx, 41, who became the worldwide face of Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention and contemplated a run for governor in the same year, announced his decision not to seek a third term in an unusually private way.
Late Thursday night, he sat down for an interview with a TV station. Early Friday morning, an aide emailed a statement saying that after more than three years in office, Foxx’s current term will be his last.
Then he left town.
That left the campaign aide alone to answer questions during a quickly arranged news conference at the Government Center.
Late Friday, in a phone interview from a family vacation in the mountains, Foxx said he accomplished many of the goals he set after being first elected mayor in 2009, from steering his hometown through a crippling recession to helping land the DNC, an event that put Charlotte on an international stage.
But if his pending departure from public life seemed abrupt, the decision behind it was not.
Foxx said he has been discussing his future with his family for several months and announced his decision now to allow other candidates time to organize for the race.
“Mayor-for-life was not the mentality I brought to this office,” he said. “You come in with your priorities and you work hard to advance them. The city actually becomes a better, stronger place when there are more transitions, new ideas and people come in and put fresh eyes on this great city of ours.”
He’ll serve out his term
Foxx’s decision comes as the city is involved in pivotal discussions over the future of its airport, football stadium and a neighborhood-improvement plan that includes a controversial streetcar. City Manager Ron Carlee, who runs the day-to-day operations of the city, started work just this week.
Foxx, who said he plans to serve out his term, pledged to continue to lead, even if he’s suddenly a lame duck. “In some ways I can perhaps be more pointed. Diplomacy is a good thing. But sometimes being pointed can be better.”
The mayor’s pending departure follows Charlotte’s successful hosting of the DNC last summer, which was expected to launch Foxx’s political profile. Indeed, the Charlotte native is said to be a finalist for President Barack Obama’s next secretary of transportation, a Cabinet seat that would put him in charge of a $70 billion budget, 55,000 employees and make him the front man for billions of dollars in grants for highways, airports and trains.
Obama, whom Foxx in the past has described as a friend, is under pressure to add more diversity to his top appointments. Foxx is Charlotte’s second African-American mayor.
Asked about joining Obama’s Cabinet, Foxx gave a deflecting answer. “I’m still in Charlotte. I still have a lot of work to do.”
Foxx, who admits needing time to make decisions, has discussed his immediate future for months. Yet, he kept his circle tight.
In December, he said he expected to run again, even talking for the first time of endorsing City Council candidates in order to build more support for his initiatives.
At some point, he changed his mind.
U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, a lifelong mentor of Foxx’s, appeared to be caught off guard by the mayor’s announcement when interviewed Friday morning in Washington.
Others from Foxx’s inner circles describe a man, groomed for public service since childhood, torn by the price his family had to pay.
‘Quite a bit of anguish’
Lynn Wheeler, a former Republican City Council member who considers herself a friend and an ally of the Democratic mayor, said she has watched Foxx struggle for weeks on whether he should seek a third term.
She and council member James Mitchell had lunch with Foxx on March 20 at The Liberty restaurant on South Boulevard, hoping to persuade Foxx to serve another two years.
“He said that his kids are very young, and he feels that he is missing some of the key times in their lives,” said Wheeler, who served on the council for 14 years. “He seemed to be in quite a bit of anguish.”
Foxx is married. He and his wife, Samara, have two young children, both in private school.
Former Mayor Richard Vinroot, who has known Foxx since the mayor’s days as a student at West Charlotte High School, said he was surprised by Foxx’s announcement but understood the tug-of-war between the mayor’s job and family life.
“It was a man-eater when I was there, but it’s a much bigger city and job now,” said Vinroot, a Republican who served from 1991 to 1995. “I was spending 40 hours a week on city business and 40 hours a week practicing law.”
In the months leading up to the DNC, Foxx traveled the country raising money for the president and the convention, then returning to Charlotte to take care of business at city hall.
Foxx said “he continues to have a lot of fun doing this job,” but it comes with a personal cost.
“My children have grown up with me running out of the house after dinner and being late to soccer games and all sorts of stuff. I’ve enjoyed every bit of what I’m doing, but there are other parts of life.”
Recently, he was typing something for city hall with his son, Zachary, in his lap. The boy started typing on his father’s hand until Foxx told him to stop.
“Don’t you want me to be a good mayor?” Foxx asked.
“No,” his son responded. “I’d rather have you home.”
Day-to-day decisions are made by a city manager and staff. But like his predecessor, Pat McCrory, Foxx turned a part-time position into a full-time job, working long hours to appear at events and meet with constituents.
As mayor, Foxx receives about $37,000 a year in salary and allowances. His full-time paycheck is from DesignLine Corp., a Charlotte-based bus company that hired him as deputy general counsel in 2009.
His job with the company is now a matter of widespread speculation in political circles. DesignLine has suffered economic problems and undergone a management shakeup. Rumors are swirling that Foxx was not retained by the new leadership.
Calls to numerous DesignLine officials Friday were not returned.
Foxx said Friday night he still works for DesignLine and his status has not changed. Asked whether he had heard the rumor, he said he had. “But I’ve also heard my brother is going to be the next airport manager, and I don’t have a brother.”
‘No wall too high’
In his speech to the Democratic convention last September, Foxx welcomed the world to Charlotte, a place “where Americans have come together and made great things possible.”
He cited the city’s stand more than 40 years ago to make integration work.
“And because they did, they gave a generation of kids a chance to go to school together, to learn together, and to recognize that no wall is too high or too strong to be broken down, if we do it together,” Foxx said. “I was one of those children. I learned what it truly meant to be judged by the content of one’s character.”
Foxx, who was raised by his grandparents and a single mother off Beatties Ford Road, learned his politics as a boy from his late grandfather, Jim Foxx, and by spending time in the Fourth Ward households of next-door neighbors Mel Watt and Harvey Gantt.
Foxx became the first African-American student body president at Davidson College.
Gantt was the city’s first African-American mayor; Foxx its second.
Watt, Gantt’s former campaign manager, has served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Foxx ran one of his re-election campaigns and is widely seen as a possible successor to his mentor.
Foxx would not look that far ahead.
“What I’m doing has always been a calling,” he said. “To come home and serve the community I grew up in is an incredible honor.
“But I just think you can’t live your life figuring out the next thing to run for. There has to be a pull there. I’m going to be searching, myself, Samara and the kids.”