Harry Taylor is all about standing up, particularly when there's a need. That's one reason why the longtime activist and former Democratic nominee for Congress is vying for an at-large seat on the Board of County Commissioners.
Taylor says the commission's reputation for personal attacks and general dysfunction has disillusioned many citizens rather than inviting their involvement. He fears that Mecklenburg County's status as "a favored place to live, raise children, visit, work and do business" is at risk and that it will take concerted action by a unified team to get the county back on track.
Taylor and I sat in his office recently about six feet away from a banjo — he's former head of the Charlotte Folk Society — and talked about the commission. "The job isn't about having vendettas; it's about serving the interests of the people who put you in office," Taylor said. "We have to be sure that all citizens feel involved, that they know they have a voice that's being heard."
This is by no means the first time Taylor has stood up. In April 2006, in an open-forum meeting with President George W. Bush at Central Piedmont Community College, Taylor ignited a national stir when he calmly gave the president a piece of his mind. Clad in his usual preppy khakis and sweater, Taylor stood, met Bush's gaze and spoke the phrase that was repeated on news reports for weeks: "In my lifetime, I have never felt more ashamed of, nor more frightened by, my leadership in Washington."
"I was, frankly, scared," Taylor said. "I knew it would probably hurt my business, but this is a democracy; it doesn't work if people don't stand up and have their say."
After national media reported the meeting, public response, in the form of tens of thousands of e-mails and calls from all over the U.S., overwhelmed the thoughtful Charlotte commercial real estate broker. Most importantly (ahem), Taylor won Creative Loafing's Best Local Hero in the Best of Charlotte awards. "It felt like being in a whirlwind," he said.
Two years later, in 2008, he was aghast to hear that the local Democratic party didn't plan to run anyone against Rep. Sue Myrick in the fall because she was in a "safe" district, i.e., one that was gerrymandered to strongly favor one party's candidate. In Myrick's case, that party was the GOP. Taylor stood up, again, running a hard-charging, seat-of-the-pants campaign that lost but nonetheless opened some eyes by garnering more votes than any other opponent Myrick had ever faced in her congressional career.
The campaign left Taylor tired and his business frazzled. At the time, he thought he probably wouldn't run for office again. I'm glad he has changed his mind.
It's no secret that I consider the current commission a sad collection of two or three dedicated public servants, gripers, reactionaries and some who make me wonder why in hell they're still in government. With Jennifer Roberts and Jim Pendergraph leaving to run for Congress, and Harold Cogdell hitting the exit a step ahead of being denied re-election, the at-large race is wide open. Will the new commissioners be able to craft agreements that will benefit anyone besides themselves? God knows this county needs commissioners who can actually discuss issues intelligently, calmly and rationally, without infuriating everyone around them. Taylor has a long history of showing those particular qualities, from his business as a broker to his more recent behind-the-scenes talks with members of Occupy Charlotte, whom he urged to expand their movement's base by reaching out to the city. Taylor's sensibleness and calm demeanor could be his ace in the hole in the commission race — that and his ready-made following.
"Lots and lots of people in this community wanted me to run. That's not necessarily a good enough reason to do it," he said with a chuckle, "but it certainly helps when you feel that support."
Besides environmental protections and the civil-justice system (he is adamantly opposed to private prisons), Taylor says his top priority is education. "Nothing is more important," he said. "You know, a lot of municipalities figure out what their needs for prison space will be in the future by looking at today's 3rd grade test scores. So, if you can determine future crime rates by how kids are doing by 3rd grade, wouldn't it make sense to say, 'Gee, maybe we should pay more attention to how well-educated our kids are by the time they get to 3rd grade'? This is what used to be called common sense."
Sing it, brother Harry, sing it.