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Is This The Best We Can Do? 

A look at the mayor's race

In one corner, you've got a political candidate whose platform is vague and whose understanding of how the city is run is sketchy at best. In the other corner you've got a guy whose list of accomplishments has grown stale while he's spent his time selling himself for higher office. And the best candidate for the job? He or she isn't running. Throw in token Libertarian candidate Carleton Harvey, who at a recent debate faulted the sitting mayor for rising crime when crime in Charlotte has actually decreased, and you've got the ongoing circus formally referred to as the mayor's race.

Though current mayor Pat McCrory is a Republican and challenger Craig Madans a Democrat, it's hard to characterize this as a partisan race. McCrory is a moderate whose politics could fit in either party. Madans takes the liberal view on issues like domestic partner benefits and a living wage for city employees, both of which he supports and McCrory opposes. Madans also takes the more Republican position on the multi-million dollar uptown arena -- that it should have been built with private funds -- and calls himself a fiscal conservative. But in the next breath, Madans says people get too uptight about tax increases.

Madans has spent most of the race berating McCrory, who has had his eye on higher office for years, for his unwillingness to commit to serving out the full two-year term if re-elected; he accused McCrory of being more interested in his own ambition than the citizens of Charlotte, an accusation for which a good argument can be made. He's also reminded voters repeatedly that McCrory ignored the outcome of the arena referendum two years ago.

But what Madans hasn't done in detail is describe how he'd have done it better and what he plans to do if elected. While Madans may have legitimate gripes about McCrory's performance, his explanation of how he would have brought the arena, a baseball stadium and an aquarium to town using only private, corporate dollars is sketchy at best.

He also says he's going to change the way the program that decides where roads are going to go is designed. Madans may find this difficult since the city has no formal road-building program and is not building major new roads at this time. When asked what changes he'll make to the "program," Madans admits he's not familiar with it and that he'll have to first "examine the way the roads are put in and the way they are maintained."

Since light rail is going to be expensive, Madans says he'd charge some kind of user fee or tack $150 onto the fee Charlotteans pay for "auto licenses." Madans has no explanation for why the extra money is needed or what it would pay for. Programs he's proposing to support and help recruit business sound suspiciously like programs the city or its satellite agencies already have in place.

Many successful city council candidates build their resumes by serving on the planning commission or other city committees that teach them the ropes of how the city is run, a complicated process that can take at least six months to master. Madans, a businessman, has been conspicuously absent from the city scene since he lost to Republican Mayor Sue Myrick in a race so nasty it attracted national attention.

Dr. Susan Roberts, an associate political science professor at Davidson College, says that Madans will have to do better than that if he wants to be an effective mayor.

"You can't just say I have to sit and think about it for six months or I haven't had time to study it yet, on some of these issues, on the kinds of plans that are in the hopper, the ones that he is going to have to pick up, roll with and understand," said Roberts.

McCrory, on the other hand, may know the lay of the land well, but he hasn't done much with that knowledge of late. In fact, his biggest accomplishment over the last two terms could be backing the winning candidate in the Republican primaries for the US presidency and US Senate and in the process racking up a list of IOUs from Pres. George W. Bush and Sen. Elizabeth Dole that may serve him, and ultimately Charlotte, well in Washington.

McCrory recently was appointed to Tom Ridge's Homeland Security Advisory Committee, a testament to the mayor's political savvy. But the real test of his alleged lobbying prowess in Washington will be whether the transit funds Charlotte needs to build the first leg of the mass transit plan along South Boulevard actually materialize after a number of setbacks in that department. But then it could be argued that McCrory at least has connections in Washington, while Madans does not.

While McCrory's success outside city limits is noteworthy, what he has accomplished inside of late isn't. In fact, if his record is any indication, his mayoral career peaked in the mid-to-late 1990s and has gone nowhere fast ever since. There's no major accomplishment that sticks out over his last term except the passage of the arena deal, which he played a supportive but low-level role in and doesn't list as an accomplishment on his website. The passage of the half-cent sales tax for mass transit, arguably his greatest accomplishment so far, was five years ago.

The rest of the McCrory campaign's list of accomplishments is equally stale. Most of the programs he takes credit for initiating have been around for years, like the Tolerate No Truancy program, the Mayor's Mentoring Alliance and the Parole Accountability Committee.

Thanks to McCrory's efforts at ensuring public safety, Charlotte's crime rate is at its lowest in 22 years, McCrory's campaign literature says. This is true, but it likely has less to do with McCrory than with national trends. According to the 2002 National Crime Victimization Survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent and property crime are at their lowest point since 1973.

While McCrory is usually well-versed on most issues at council meetings and argues for his opinions, he couldn't really be described as "leading" the council. While that challenge is compounded by the fact that the majority of its members are Democrats and McCrory is a Republican, McCrory doesn't appear to have made much of a publicly discernable effort in the leadership department where the day-to-day running of the city is concerned.

But each candidate comes with advantages, too.

"McCrory is charismatic, telegenic," said Roberts, who thinks McCrory's blatant ambition for higher office might be a positive thing for Charlotte. "People that are ambitious know that if they don't do a good job in their present position, they will hurt their chances to go even higher. People without ambition are far more complacent," she said.

Though Madans is untested, slightly abrasive and sometimes seems to shoot from the hip without doing his research first, as a successful business owner, Madans is beholden to no one and seems enthusiastic about a more Charlotte-centered mayoralty.

Despite McCrory's faults and drawbacks, the consensus seems to be that it isn't likely that the voters will throw him out.

McCrory has been at least $200,000 ahead of Madans in fundraising for most of the race, and has dominated the television and airways due to well, just being the mayor. While Madans is preparing for a last-minute blitz down the home stretch in the last two weeks before the November 4 election, it probably won't do much good, UNCC political science professor Schely Lyons said.

"Madans really hasn't given voters a reason to toss McCrory out," said Lyons. Lyons said that unlike the crew of angry Republican primary voters who threw at-large Republican Lynn Wheeler out over the arena issue, general election voters are much more moderate and much less likely to galvanize around that issue. "I'm not familiar with Madans' agenda beyond that McCrory has higher aspirations and perhaps hasn't been giving his full attention to the city of Charlotte," Roberts said. "I think Madans is far more optimistic about his chances than anyone else."

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com.

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