For Charlotte Mayor, Convention Is a Stepping Stone

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx participates in a panel discussion about energy innovation at the CGI America meeting on June 30, 2011 in Chicago. More than 700 business, government and non-profit leaders are participating in the two-day meeting, which is the first Clinton Global Initiative event to focus exclusively on driving job creation and economic growth in the United States.     (National Journal)

It's hardly breaking news to say that Anthony Foxx, the telegenic 41-year-old mayor of North Carolina's largest city, will likely shift his gaze to higher office sometime. But this week's convention brings renewed attention to what many conclude is a fait accompli.

For now, Foxx vows he's intent on running Charlotte and helping President Obama duplicate his 2008 victory here. Democrats doubt that will keep him content for much longer. "Anthony Foxx is an individual who has spent a lifetime preparing for public service," said Parks Helms, a longtime prominent Democrat from Charlotte. "It will lead him to some more important role than being the mayor of the city of Charlotte. What that is, I don't know."

Foxx, a graduate of Davidson College, was first elected to the City Council in 2005. He ran for the open mayoral seat in 2009 at age 38, winning a close race to become the city's youngest-ever mayor and the second African-American to hold the job. He glided to an easy reelection last year after leading the effort to bring the Democratic convention to Charlotte.

His talent is obvious: He fielded a reporter's question about Obama's chances in the Tar Heel State (he thinks they're good) as easily as a question about what local barbecue restaurant was the best in town (he was careful not to slight any local establishments). It's the kind of skill he's developed from a lifetime spent around politics. His grandfather, a former teacher and principal, was active in the local Democratic Party after retirement. "The consistent thread between his career and his retirement was, he believed people could make a difference if they were given a chance," Foxx said. "He told me I could be successful, and I've been able to achieve things I never thought possible."

Foxx wouldn't walk a red carpet into higher office, but his path is well-marked. The once deep-red state — it backed Republicans for president from 1980 to 2004 — flickered blue in 2008, when President Obama captured an unexpected 14,000-vote victory. The Right snapped back into power in 2010, and this year voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. But the state's growing diversity (28 percent of its 2008 vote was nonwhite, according to exit polls) ensures its status as a purple-state battleground for the foreseeable future. Both Romney's and Obama's campaigns have invested heavily in North Carolina during the summer, with the latest polling giving Romney a slight edge.

The mayor's office has also served as a traditional launch pad for North Carolina politicians. Since 1979, every Charlotte mayor sought to become a governor or senator. None of them succeeded, although Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, Foxx's predecessor, is expected to break through this fall.

"Being the mayor of Charlotte positions you as a statewide candidate," said Ferrel Guillory, a University of North Carolina professor of political science. "And Mayor Foxx, given his age and the fact he's host mayor for the convention, he's one of the emerging young leaders of the Democratic Party."

Foxx is coy about a future run, but he stops well short of a flat denial. "I don't know, man," he said. "I have a young family, a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old at home. They still like hanging out with me. So I'm going to try and milk that as long as I can.

"But who knows," the mayor added. "Life puts you through different twists and turns."