The damage was bigger than just Cannon's career, which he may have also ended last week when he announced he also wouldn't be running for City Council again this fall. Cannon's candidacy was perhaps the best shot the local Democratic Party has had to take out Mayor Pat McCrory in a decade, said party strategist Dan McCorkle. It was heartbreaking for many that racial politics in the party's African-American faction could have contributed to the downfall of one of the city's most promising politicians at a time when the mayor's office was within the party's grasp.
A decade ago, African-Americans made up a quarter of Charlotte's electorate. Today, they make up a third, a fact that should have put Cannon, a popular six-term City Council member who is African-American, within striking distance of the mayor's office if the black community unified around his candidacy and he raised enough money to run a credible campaign.
Instead, the opposite happened. Some members of the city's black leadership unified around Cannon, while others sat back, refusing to do anything that would either help or hurt his campaign. In off-the-record conversations with Creative Loafing, it became clear that some African-American leaders, though officially neutral, weren't exactly rooting for Cannon.
Meanwhile, some say the so-called uptown crowd was also gunning for Cannon. Many of the city's elite check writers had long believed he had helped mobilize the black community against the 2001 arena referendum, a charge he has always denied. The referendum went down in flames at the polls, causing no small amount of embarrassment to the city elites who backed it. All over town, checkbooks of prominent people on both sides of the aisle snapped shut when Cannon announced he was running for mayor.
The problems that would eventually hamstring Cannon's campaign started in 1999, when young African-American upstart Malcolm Graham won a district seat on City Council. Unlike Cannon, who had paid his dues and been pulled up through the ranks by the African-American community's old political guard, Graham won his seat by defeating a member of that old guard.Like Cannon, Graham had mayoral ambitions and might one day even like to take a crack at winning the congressional seat held by Mel Watt in largely African-American Congressional District 12. The two men were almost bound to clash, and quickly did.
The split between the old guard, which had always dictated its will through the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, and a newer guard, consisting largely of those who had crossed the old guard, was already in place when the feud between Graham and Cannon began. The battle between the two merely exacerbated the growing rift.
When Graham voted to abolish a contracting program that favored minorities — after the city attorney advised it was unconstitutional and could result in a costly court battle the city would ultimately lose — Cannon and other old guarders like City Councilman James Mitchell used the vote to isolate Graham, who spent months repairing the damage within the black community.
The animosity between the two eventually grew to the point that Graham and Cannon could no longer work together on council, say some who know or have worked with them. Graham decided to run for the state legislature last year, in part, sources say, to escape that tension, although Graham wouldn't comment on this when Creative Loafing asked him about it for this story.
Others say Graham left the council because the direct route to the mayor's office was blocked by Cannon, who had performed well in the 2003 at-large council race, coming in just two votes behind first-place winner and potential Republican mayoral candidate Pat Mumford.
Whatever the case, the gentlemanly thing to do would have been to let Graham step aside gracefully. Instead, Cannon, Mitchell and some other old guarders such as former Caucus chairman Eric Douglas worked against Graham in a move many saw as an attempt to finish off a political rival. It didn't help matters that Graham's opponent, longtime state legislator Fountain Odom, was white and that 60 percent of the voters in the primary were black. The county's African-American ministers, whose informal, behind-the-pulpit influence is often critical, backed Graham, who clobbered his opponent 63 percent to 37 percent in the newly created district. The Black Political Caucus, which once was dominated by the old guarders, also backed Graham. It was a stunning defeat for those who had worked to kill off Graham, and it caused bitter feelings that would come back to haunt Cannon in his short-lived mayoral run.