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Princeton, Oxford, Goldman Sachs, Charlotte City Council

Economist-turned-politician Ed Driggs says ideas, not ideology, led him to the District 7 seat


Ed Driggs, recently elected to the District 7 seat on the Charlotte City Council. Photo by Tony Brown

CHARLOTTE – Judging from his curriculum vitae, Ed Driggs is one of the best-educated politicians in recent Charlotte history. We’ll start to find out Dec. 2 if he’s one of the smartest when it comes to construction, development and real estate.

That’s when Driggs will be sworn in as the representative of District 7 on the Charlotte City Council after only 11 years of residency in booming South Charlotte.

But with his Princeton and Oxford universities education, his European upbringing, his New York banking experience and his supersonic integration into the inner workings of the Queen City, Driggs already stands out as a politician intently interested in economic and real estate development.

He stood out last week, for example, at Providence Country Club, listening studiously as prominent developers and well-to-do neighbors discussed the $200 million Waverly mixed-used project under consideration for Providence and Ardrey Kell Roads, and he straightforwardly buttonholing important players afterward.

Driggs also stood out a few days later in the atrium of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, a silk pocket square in the breast pocket of his immaculately tailored suit. Sitting in the halls of Charlotte power, he gave on-point answers to On the Level’s questions, using complete sentences, metaphors and self-deprecating humor.

He gets contemporary culture references. He recognizes the historical significance of Charlotte’s two-year “Angels in America” drama even though it happened before he arrived on the scene. And he showed little compunction about criticizing some of his Republican Party colleagues.

Driggs was a geographical accident when he was born 64 years ago in Reno, Nev., as his parents were on their way from the Northeast to California. Raised in Palo Alto and in the capitals of Europe, he studied at eminent schools. He was in the ROTC, was commissioned in the Army and he left the Reserves as a captain. His 26-year New York financial career included a 17-year stint at Bankers Trust and another four at Goldman Sachs.

Here in Charlotte, he is on boards at public television station WTVI and Central Piedmont Community College, and he teaches and tutors as a volunteer at public schools. He and wife Caroline have a son, 23, who works at Microsoft, and a daughter, 21, who is a senior at Princeton with a job lined up at Morgan Stanley.

In addition to his views on real estate development, we wanted to know what a guy like him was doing in a place like the Government Center; why the relatively quiet newcomer tried (nearly successfully, to the surprise of many) to unseat Republican Bill James from the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners in a hotly contested 2012 Republican primary that drew national media attention; and what motivated him to (successfully) run against Republican Jay Privette to replace the departing Warren Cooksey on the City Council.

Driggs stepped up to the plate and delivered.

You did your economics studies at Princeton and Oxford, and he did his at Notre Dame and the London School of Economics, but your resume is a lot like President Josiah Bartlett’s. Ha. Except for his Nobel Prize. Don’t say that around my daughter; she will quote you whole scenes of dialogue from “The West Wing.” We used to gather as a family to watch the show. We all loved it. But you’re right, there are similarities. My wife once said, “You’re just like him: a nerd.”

Your first campaign, in 2012, was an attempt to unseat a long-lived Mecklenburg County commissioner, another Republican, and you dang near won. Bill James is a bit of a polarizing figure. A lot of people loved what he did. A lot of people hated what he did. A lot of what he said that was picked up by the national media was frankly embarrassing and not representative of Charlotte.

That’s why you got into politics? Not quite. And actually our relationship is quite cordial at the moment, so I hope you don’t make too much of all that. Like a lot of people, I always had an interest in politics and government. I retired from banking in the cold northeast – I can remember standing on a platform in sub-zero temperatures waiting for my train in to the city – my wife said, “Let’s go somewhere warm and friendly.” I retired to spend more time with my kids; I hardly knew them. But I had not reached retirement age. So I joined a bunch of nonprofit boards, got involved in the community, which welcomed me, an outsider, because that’s the kind of place Charlotte is. Through that, I got to learn how things worked, some of the government processes – and especially some of the spending policies. I complained so much and so often, people said, “Why don’t you run, then?” But yes, some of Bill’s more famous quotes, during the whole “Gang of Five” and “Angels in America” thing, gave me the idea to run last year against him. In the larger picture, it was the ongoing bitterness and partisanship I saw on some of the really important issues; I wanted to see if a more constructive approach would work better.

For example? There have been instances when spending decisions have been made too quickly and without enough research to see if there could be better solutions that spending more money, to lower costs to the taxpayers, to draw on my background of economy and finance.

I’ve seen you around a lot since the election, getting to know your job. Actually, I’ve been busy at that since before election – and this will be of particular interest to your readers – with a couple of zoning issues. The scheduling of these rezonings is such that they ultimately will be decided by the new council. Warren Cooksey referred people to me, and to my opponent. I’ve engaged with people on a couple of these where there seemed to be the most concern, where I felt a responsibility to hear what my constituents had to say. I didn’t – and still don’t – have a position on these; I want to be fair and to do my research, make sure everyone is heard.

What did you hear at the big Waverly community meeting the other night? I heard the same thing you heard, the description of the project, the mix of uses. It appeared that they had done their homework. Compared to some of the meetings I’ve attended, people were a lot less strident in stating their concerns; the opposition was not as strong.

I didn’t hear any opposition; just questions. Exactly. I’ve been to several far more strident meetings.

Tell. Well, there’s one project on Weddington Road, across from Socrates Academy, 70 affordable apartments proposed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership. It was ugly, a mob of four or five hundred, accusations of lying. This is workplace housing, not a public housing project, but subsidized living for working people. That has caused the biggest blacklash. That’s an area with real traffic problems, and with the school right across the road there are some concerns about the rationale of putting it right there. There’s no public transit, no shopping, and no jobs. Another contentious one is the Endhaven (Lane) project by developer Paul Trotter, near the Community House (Road) overpass (of Interstate 485), a five-story apartment complex, market-price, not subsidized.

It’s amusing that people who live in developments oppose other developments when they sure didn’t oppose their own development when it was up for approval. Ha. I’ve made that point to people, and more than once. A certain amount of growth is to be expected, and is healthy. You weigh that against the consequences, the burdens on traffic and schools and nearby neighborhoods. You can’t let things just grow randomly; it has to be well researched and thought out. But anyone who opposes development just because they don’t want change is not being realistic.

What needs to be done to make the government process better for developers? I honestly couldn’t say with any authority. I don’t know enough to be accurate on how we do it. I’ve talked to a lot of builders and developers who say the process and all the steps people have to go through is onerous. I read a study that says we are inefficient, that the process obstructs our progress toward the goals the regulations were supposed to promote.

Permitting is a Mecklenburg County thing, and it is something like 99 percent paperless, all online. Yes, permitting is the county. What I’m talking about is the coordination of all the steps – the back-and-forth between the city and county, all the departments involved – the developer needs to take to get the go-ahead on a project.

You’re very big on the “no new taxes” pledge. By growing the tax base through private-sector development, expanding the tax base instead of jacking up taxes, especially as in the 2014-18 capital investment plan.

How would you have made a difference there? They needed to do the kind of research that I like to do, backed up with real numbers. I would be shooting from the hip, but I can say in general that we need to live within our means, and we are not. As an economist, I see government as inimical to growth.

You’re one of those Grover Norquist shrink-government-until-I-can-drown-it-in-the-bathtub Republicans? I like to say I’m a Republican because I’m a fiscal conservative, not a fiscal conservative because I’m a Republican. I arrived at my views not because I am of one party or the other but because I do the research. I just want to protect us now and in the long term.

From what? Just for the sake of argument: As more people move here, in part for the lower taxes than many other places, the growth in population taxes the infrastructure, so taxes are needed to help implement the needed infrastructure. That’s the price of civilization. Just playing devil’s advocate. But don’t you see? That’s what can get municipal governments into trouble. In extreme cases, look at Detroit, or some of the cities in California. You go back 20-25 years or more and those were vibrant economies. But they didn’t have a long-term view on the consequences of long-term debt and unnecessary taxes, the effect they would have on growth. And it buried them, absolutely buried them. I’m not here with an agenda. I’m not here representing a particular ideology. I see my job as using the finance experience I have to guard against decisions that are taken too lightly that could affect us for a long time to come. The city’s capital improvements plan was too big, necessitating a 7.25 percent property tax increase. The way of doing business is, “When the belt gets too tight, you loosen it.” Was all that money really needed? We don’t know because a smaller capital improvement plan was never seen.

And now you’re on Charlotte City Council, where you can do something about it, after living here a little more than a decade. My son works for Microsoft, and before that he interned at Microsoft while he was at the University of North Carolina, and he met (Microsoft CEO) Steve Ballmer. He and another intern emailed Ballmer and said, “We are interns; we’d like to meet you,” and he emailed right back, “Come to my office.” Now they’re friends on Facebook.

Great story. I’m digressing.

Go ahead. It’s kind of a family joke: “You gotta ask.” You know, let’s find out if it’s possible, whatever it was. We were in Salzburg one time and went to a chamber music concert.

At the Schlosskirche Mirabell? It was at the Mirabell Palace, (but) in the Marble Hall. My daughter said, “I wonder what kind of violin that is?” And I said, “Let’s go backstage and find out.” She said, “You can’t do that.” And I said, “Sure, just act like you know what you’re doing.” So we just went back, passing a couple of official-looking people, and found the guy, the musican, and he said, “It’s a Stradivarius; you wanna see it?” And he got it out and let my daughter hold it and talked to us about his career. The violinist’s name was Luz Leskowitz.  I learned (years later) from a Google search that he plays the “Ex Prihoda” Stradivarius, made in 1707. That’s an illustration. I tried to convey to the kids that all kinds of things are possible. But you have to ask. If you had told me five years ago that I would be on the Charlotte City Council, I’d have said, “Come on!” But that’s the kind of town Charlotte is, where something like that is possible. I’ve been here all of 11 years. I don’t sound like I’m from Charlotte. But here I am. I joined some boards, did some work for the community and now I am on the council.

Nor do you particularly sound like a Charlotte city councilman, with all your academic bona fides. When I was campaigning, I would walk up to people with my little bio sheet and say, “I’m running for the Charlotte City Council,” and they would often say, “Why would a guy like you run for City Council?” I hope I set an example for other people to try. Uh, I have a meeting upstairs in a few minutes. Next time we’ll have to talk about everything we didn’t, the airport, for example.

Go ahead, give us a quick taste. What would you have done? I would have done what my Republican predecessors on the council did: They were loyal to the city, not the party. I would have opposed the transfer. The legislators, the Republicans in the legislature, had some good reasons to do it: Possible instability after Jerry Orr leaves, the annexation issue, the encroachment issue. But the way the legislature went about it was just awful: no study, nothing. It’s too bad it looks like it will be decided by the FAA or the courts. The courts and the FAA don’t want to decide it and keep kicking it back and forth to each other; nor should they decide it. The council and legislature should decide it, work something out. The issues are not legal or procedural; they are political, and that’s the business of the legislators and the council members.

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