The 2008 Democratic presidential primaries took a crucial turn May 6 when North Carolina voters chose then-Sen. Barack Obama over then-Sen. Hillary Clinton by almost 15 percentage points, giving him an edge in a tightly contested campaign.
Obama would go on to win the election, edging out John McCain in North Carolina by a razor-thin 0.3 percent.
All of that has made North Carolina a political battleground for the next election and, undoubtedly, helped Charlotte land the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
“Once Obama won the primaries in North Carolina, he had his ground game set up to go here and he never left,” said Eric Heberling, associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Heberling said politics went hand in hand with plain old boosterism in helping Charlotte win the convention. The Obama administration, Heberling said, recognizes that Charlotte and North Carolina will be important in the next presidential campaign, both as a Democratic stronghold and to bolster its ability to mobilize other Southern states like Virginia.
Moreover, he said, Charlotte had demographic and image advantages over the other finalists that vied for the convention. St. Louis, for example, is seen by many as an older, declining city, while Charlotte is viewed as new and dynamic, Heberling said. Also, about 30 percent of North Carolina’s population is minority, and about 20 percent of that is black, he said. Missouri’s minority population is less than half of that, he said.
“Minorities are the most loyal Democratic constituencies,” he said, “so you start off with a much larger base to mobilize in North Carolina going into the fall election. But even with all of Charlotte’s attributes, if we didn’t have the ability to present the kind of platform the Democrats want to make the campaign about nationally in 2012, I don’t think we would have won it.”
City boosters said Charlotte has been gearing up for this moment for more than a decade, pointing to Time Warner Cable Arena, which opened in 2005, as a key investment that allowed the city to be a serious contender for the 2012 convention. The arena will be the main site of the convention, which will run the week of Sept. 3 and draw an estimated 35,000 delegates, along with national and international media.
The arena, which seats nearly 20,000, is home to the Charlotte Bobcats, the city’s NBA team, and is a big part of Charlotte’s ongoing efforts to turn uptown into a thriving and diverse destination, said Tim Newman, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which manages the arena and the Charlotte Convention Center, which was expanded last year to include an additional ballroom and is also connected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
It’s such venues, along with some 30,000 hotel rooms, an international airport and a host of cultural and entertainment amenities, that convinced the Democratic National Committee to choose Charlotte for the convention, which is likely to forever change the city by raising its profile, Newman said.
“This event is truly taking place on a worldwide stage,” he said.
While it remains to be seen just what impact the convention will have, it’s unquestionably a triumph for Charlotte, which beat out St. Louis, Cleveland and Minneapolis. Many involved in efforts to bring the convention here point to City Councilman Susan Burgess, who died of cancer in June at the age of 64, as setting the political wheels in motion.
Newman said Burgess approached him with the idea shortly after she returned from the DNC’s 2008 convention in Denver. He helped her put together a promotional package highlighting Charlotte’s attributes and why it was right for the DNC.
Newman said the highlights included the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which, while still being built at the time, would include studio space inside the NASCAR Plaza office tower, where media outlets could set up their studios during the convention.
“At a lot of the convention destinations they have to build a giant tent with all the media studios, but we don’t have to do that here. That definitely helped us with our bid,” he said.
Newman said Burgess traveled to Washington and presented the package to DNC Chairman Tim Kaine shortly after he took office in January 2009. Newman said Burgess continued to champion the cause until she died.
Newman said those early efforts gained momentum when Democrat Anthony Foxx was elected Charlotte mayor in November 2009 and Charlotte made its official bid for the convention in May.
“Foxx was the driving force behind everything,” said Will Miller, acting executive director of Charlotte In 2012, a nonprofit that led Charlotte’s bid to host the convention. “He worked his political connections and was our main salesperson. He was tenacious.”
Heberling said those connections included Obama, who Foxx visited in Washington, D.C., and often lobbied for Charlotte to host the convention. Foxx was “a good soldier for the White House” and helped promote Obama initiatives like the stimulus package, Heberling said, adding that Foxx also invited Obama to Charlotte to speak at corporate events.
“He kept us visible to the White House,” Heberling said, “and that allowed him to keep presenting Charlotte’s story to the president and why it would be a good fit with the message Democrats want to portray nationally in the 2012 election.”
While Foxx worked his political connections, he tapped Duke Energy Corp. CEO Jim Rogers in February 2010 to be his co-chairman on the Charlotte In 2012 organizing committee and oversee fundraising efforts, said Tom Williams, Duke’s director of external affairs.
To help further campaign efforts, Duke contributed a $100,000 grant to hire political consultants, such as Tom McMahon, a former DNC executive director, and Karen Finney, a former DNC spokeswoman, as well Charlotte marketing firm Luquire George Andrews, which designed a logo and launched the Charlotte In 2012 website, Williams said.
Rogers was also the main point man when a site-selection committee visited Charlotte in July, and he continues to work his corporate and political connections to help raise the estimated $45 million it will take to host the convention, Williams said.
To further move the campaign along, Foxx reached out Miller in June to serve as acting executive director of Charlotte In 2012, Miller said.
Miller said the toughest part of the past eight months was the final two months leading up to the DNC’s final decision.
“By that point we had basically done everything we could,” he said, “and that was a tough time because we kept thinking maybe we should have done more or should done things differently. So when we finally got the news that we won, it was a huge relief and a sense of accomplishment.”
Sam Boykin can be reached at [email protected].