Democratic National Convention puts Charlotte, South in spotlight

Jim Morrill

The Charlotte Observer

Feb 2, 2011

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx tour Time Warner Cable Arena on Wednesday 2/2. The facility will host the 2012 Democratic Convention Charlotte, NC.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx tour Time Warner Cable Arena on Wednesday 2/2. The facility will host the 2012 Democratic Convention Charlotte, NC.

Charlotte's selection on Tuesday as the site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention not only marks a triumph for organizers but signals President Barack Obama's intent to build on the Southern inroads he made in 2008.

"We wanted to show we were playing in a very aggressive way going to the South," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine.

2/1/11 - Jim Rogers (left), CEO of Duke Energy, and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx celebrate Charlotte being named the site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday afternoon.

2/1/11 - Jim Rogers (left), CEO of Duke Energy, and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx celebrate Charlotte being named the site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday afternoon.

Charlotte, once considered a dark horse by some, beat out Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Louis and will host the party's first Southern convention since 1988.

"We have an unmatched opportunity to show the world what a beautiful, energetic, innovative and diverse city we are building," Mayor Anthony Foxx told a packed news conference.

The Charlotte skyline

Or, as Democratic fundraiser Cameron Harris gushed in opening the event, "Hot damn! Wasn't that good news!"

One organizer said the city's demonstrated ability to raise the needed private money - at least $53 million - may have given it an edge.

The convention that starts on Labor Day 2012 is expected to generate more than $150 million in economic benefits. It will bring in more than 35,000 delegates and visitors as well as international attention to a city that has long aspired to be "world-class."

"This is the culmination of decades of city-building," said Foxx as he recounted the mushrooming growth that brought NBA and NFL franchises.

It also affirms the once-lonely dream of the late city council member Susan Burgess, who pushed for the convention years ago when few thought it possible.

"It was such a lofty vision no one thought it could happen," said her son Jason, who was named to her council seat after she died last year.

First lady Michelle Obama was among those who broke the news in an e-mail to supporters.

"Charlotte," she wrote, "is a city marked by its Southern charm, warm hospitality and an 'up by the bootstraps' mentality that has propelled the city forward as one of the fastest-growing in the South."

The convention will bring President Obama to a county that helped him become the first Democratic presidential candidate in 32 years to carry North Carolina and drive a wedge into the traditionally solidly red South.

His 100,000-vote margin in Mecklenburg County helped him carry North Carolina by a scant 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million. It was his narrowest margin of victory in any state.

"This selection should put to rest any notion that the presidential map in 2012 is going to shrink," said a senior party official who asked not to be identified.

"President Obama will be very active in North Carolina and ... despite what some have speculated, we are going to go as big in 2012 as we did in 2008 - and that means fighting hard for North Carolina, Virginia and all the states and more that helped elect President Obama in the first place."

A poll last month found Obama's popularity rebounding in North Carolina.

For the first time in more than a year, more North Carolinians approved of his job performance than disapproved, according to Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling. Obama also led each of his four most prominent Republican rivals.

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. John Spratt of York County said a Charlotte convention can help Democrats in the South.

"It's an astute choice," said Spratt, who lost his seat in November. "It's an indication Democrats are not giving up on the South and are serious about trying to strengthen their foothold here."

A tough U.S. Senate race in Missouri also may have affected the choice.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill told the White House a St. Louis convention that could attract protesters and compete for fundraising might complicate her re-election bid. Obama narrowly lost Missouri in 2008.

But Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Charlotte made the most political sense of the four finalists.

"We don't know where the economy is going to be but if it's much better, Obama has at least a shot in North Carolina, he has a much better shot in Virginia," Sabato said.

"All you can do with a convention is send a message. And the message of choosing North Carolina is that Obama is going to fight for every state he won in 2008."

Big fund drive ahead

Organizers will have to raise more than $50 million in direct and in-kind contributions. Some of the money would go toward major upfits of Time Warner Cable Arena.

Denver organizers raised $60 million for the 2008 convention - more than the $40 million it originally promised. The 2004 Boston host committee raised $57 million. Much of the money came from labor unions and corporations.

"Boston went into it with no money. Denver went into it with $1 million. We're much beyond that," said Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, co-chair of Charlotte's convention effort.

Rogers declined to say how much has been raised or pledged. "The fact that we demonstrated we can raise money was one of the edges we had," he said.

This wasn't the first time Charlotte tried to lure a national political party convention.

In mid-1997, a group called Carolinas 2000 sought to interest both parties in choosing the city. Charlotte failed to make the cut with Democrats but did make the short list of nine cities in the running for the GOP convention, which ultimately went to Philadelphia.

Republicans announced last May that their convention would be in Tampa the week before Democrats convene in Charlotte.

Gov. Bev Perdue called the decision "fantastic news for North Carolina regardless of your political party. A national political convention is a keystone event that will boost North Carolina's economy, while showcasing Charlotte and our state to the nation and the world."

Rogers said the selection "clearly elevates our city to a new level in national and world stature.

"Only a few singular events in the U.S. rival the domestic and worldwide media exposure of a major political convention: a presidential inauguration, a royal wedding, the Super Bowl and the Olympics. The economic and reputational significance of being chosen for this honor cannot be overstated."

In her e-mail to supporters, Michelle Obama called Charlotte "vibrant, diverse, and full of opportunity."

"The Queen City," she said, "is home to innovative, hardworking folks with big hearts and open minds. And of course, great barbecue."

Staff writer Steve Harrison, The New York Times and Matt Garfield of The (Rock Hill) Herald contributed.

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