The downfall of Charlotte mayor Patrick Cannon is hitting home with those who preceded him in the office.
Pat McCrory, who served seven terms as the city's mayor before becoming North Carolina's governor, vowed Thursday to take an active role in winning back voters' trust in the mayor's office. Another ex-mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt, served from 1983 to 1987.
WFAE's Mark Rumsey spoke with Gantt about Cannon's arrest on federal corruption charges, and the role of mayor under Charlotte's "Council/Manager" form of government.
Gantt: First of all, the individuals involved ... I feel sorry for the mayor, and sorry that he made such a serious misstep – and it’s very serious. I feel sorry for his family, and then I feel bad for my city. Once a mayor, you always think of the city as yours, and I just think that we had built such a sterling reputation for integrity in government – there’s a long legacy of leadership that’s been hurt a little bit by this act of one individual.
Rumsey: You were mayor from ’83 to ’87. Did you encounter pressures or opportunities during your tenure in that office for corruption – anything along these lines?
Gantt: Not a single day. I’ve just not seen that happen at all. One of the things that was a hallmark of Charlotte city government was how clean it was. And that I have had business people come to me after the fact, after they have built a subdivision or built an office building or developed a shopping center that would say, ‘Mayor, I really like this city because from the day I came in for a zoning permit or the day I sought to talk to the zoning officials to the completion of the project and you being here for the ribbon cutting, we never had anyone come to us seeking a bribe or anything of that nature.'
Rumsey: So how do you reckon that now – is it just a different day and time, or is there more involved?
Gantt: Oh no, corruption goes on forever and it happened fifty years ago and it’s going to happen today. I think a lot of it has to do with the perception that people have of the powers of the mayor. The mayor is a ‘weak’ mayor, and I often recall saying that and people saying, ‘what do you mean you’re a weak mayor’ and I said, ‘I am a weak mayor.' We don’t have patronage, I don’t hire the police chief, I don’t hire the secretary down the hall – I don’t have the power of patronage.
I don’t have the power to influence any of the people who are professionals in any of the various city departments. But what I do have is I have the bully pulpit and I have sway with council members depending on my standing – and that standing really depended on how much they trusted me. So that was the extent of it.
Perhaps if you give a different impression, if the public gives a different impression, if the press gives an impression of the mayor being more powerful than he is, then of course the mayor becomes prey for lots of people who want to do business or to get ahead or to get an edge, and sometimes the mayor himself forgets that he’s not a ‘strong’ mayor, in the sense of having the powers that he thinks he has.
Rumsey: You suggested several ‘suspects’ there in terms of where this perception might be built up. Where do you think most recently it’s been augmented?
Gantt: We do pay a lot of attention – we’ve always paid a lot of attention to the mayor’s race in this town. The press has always given the mayor far more attention than they would a council member or even the chairman of the county commission.
And that’s normal because the mayor is the ‘face of the city.’ So for a lot of people coming in to our city or not being familiar with how the city operates, they could come in believing that there is an opportunity here, if I get to know the mayor real well, because he probably seems to be a very powerful and influential person. The difference though is, the mayor who’s elected knows his limitations, but may want to give off the impression that he has more power than he does have.
Rumsey: Should Charlotte have a different form of government in terms of the mayor’s structure and power?
Gantt: I should think that we should continue to keep a ‘weak mayor’ system. I think we should be much more diligent in making sure the public understands the level of power that a mayor actually has.