All cities care about their public images. But Charlotte, North Carolina, a former textile town turned booming symbol of the cosmopolitan New South, tends to take self-conscious boosterism to extremes. The official slogan of the city’s travel and tourism authority — and the URL of its website — is “Charlotte’s got a lot,” a parry against the fact that, until about 15 years ago, Charlotte had little besides NASCAR, banks and Billy Graham.
That’s changed. Charlotte, long established as the South’s banking hub, now boasts two professional sports teams, a new downtown minor league baseball stadium, an arts and cultural campus in the city center, and fresh status as the nation’s 16th-largest city, up from 26th in 2000. For a time this year, it seemed the Queen City had inherited another, tawdrier feature of some of the nation’s big cities: high-profile corruption.
A federal judge sentenced Patrick Cannon, who served all of four months as Charlotte’s mayor, to 44 months in prison Tuesday for accepting cash bribes from supposed businessmen who turned out to be undercover FBI agents. Cannon’s arrest in March, and the publicity that accompanied it, tarnished the city’s reputation for clean government, as everyone from The Charlotte Observer to the U.S. Attorney to the presiding judge has asserted.
During the hearing, Judge Frank Whitney listed 10 of the country’s most corrupt cities, including New Orleans, Los Angeles and Chicago, and warned, “We cannot let our guard down … and presume public corruption does not exist here,” lest Charlotte join the ranks of the tainted.
But for all the conjecture that Cannon’s arrest had drawn pristine Charlotte down into the mudpile, no one has found any evidence to date that Cannon’s misdeeds illustrated a larger pattern of corruption in city government, or in the larger relationship between government and business in this very business-friendly city.
In July, four months after Cannon’s arrest, Forbes ranked Charlotte the 12th-best place in the country for business and careers. Electrolux, a Swedish company that houses its North American headquarters in Charlotte, recently paid $3.3 billion for General Electric’s appliances wing, a coup for the city’s manufacturing sector. Newcomers from decaying Rust Belt cities continue to pour in, leading to the locals’ joke that Charlotte is the southernmost suburb of Cleveland (or Buffalo). If the Cannon affair sullied Charlotte’s reputation, it’s hard to see any effect.
I say that with some nervousness. I’m two things that compel me to think there’s a big pile of subterranean malfeasance under my feet: a journalist and a native of New Orleans. Coincidentally, according to the FBI’s affidavit that led to Cannon’s arrest, Cannon offered to return one of the bribes on Jan. 18, 2013, the day a federal grand jury indicted former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for a large-scale kickback scheme involving city contractors.
Civic corruption is no big surprise in places like New Orleans and Detroit, where former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick went down for his part in another wide-ranging shakedown scandal. In the hours and days after Cannon’s arrest, that was the knee-jerk fear, or assumption — that surely Cannon was just the first domino, that Charlotte’s cultivated image hid a basement full of shady deals.
Those just haven’t materialized. One of the hedges against corruption is Charlotte’s council-manager form of government, which entrusts the mayor with very limited formal authority. (The mayor runs meetings and has veto power, but the city manager — Ron Carlee, formerly of the International City/County Management Association — runs the city government.) What the undercover FBI agents were buying, supposedly, was the mayor’s “influence” in helping them navigate the city’s zoning process, but it was never clear how valuable that influence was supposed to be — and, since the proposed businesses were fictional, it never will be.
The one lead that seemed tantalizing was Cannon’s admission that a friend and local strip club magnate, David “Slim” Baucom, regularly paid him for political favors. Local media went crazy over this news for a while — Strippers! Breasts! — but the connection added up to little. Baucom wasn’t charged in the Cannon case, and the only specific crime alleged was almost embarrassingly small-bore: a $2,000 bribe to Cannon in exchange for his help in fending off a rezoning that endangered Twin Peeks, a forlorn strip club in the path of a planned light-rail line. Baucom did win a zoning variance that allowed him to move his club to a different spot on the same property, but he had the club demolished, and it hasn’t been rebuilt.
Barring some new revelation, that’s about it. Charlotte hasn’t slid into the sewer, not yet, anyway. Maybe the funniest and most Charlottean moment in the FBI’s account of his crimes was Cannon’s offer to return the January 2013 bribe, on the grounds that he represented Charlotte, and Charlotte was just better than that: “I certainly cannot have my reputation, my values and ethics put on the line … I’m not one of those Chicago or Detroit-type folk … New Orleans, Louisiana, whatever it is, I, I, that’s not how I flow.”
We know now that that’s exactly how Patrick Cannon flowed. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been making the call, and he wouldn’t have been begging for mercy in federal court Tuesday. But his concern over how accepting a bribe would make him and his city look, as opposed to the act itself, was pure Charlotte. It turns out, oddly, Cannon was right about that one thing, at least. Charlotte isn’t like Chicago or Detroit. One of the city’s main challenges in the years to come is to prevent that kind of transformation as the people, and the money, keep washing into town.
Greg Lacour is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C., and contributing editor and political blogger for Charlotte magazine. He worked as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for nearly 10 years.