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Exploiting the DNC 

Charlotte struts her stuff for a piece of the political pie

Next month, they'll be all over us. Political junkies, decked out in as much blue as their puny little bodies can stand, panting and salivating at the mere mention of Electoral College. They'll fawn over our charming homes and delicious food as their hands slowly make their way up our collective blouse. Just as we're starting to get used to their attention, they'll leave, jumping on airplanes so fast that we barely have enough time to scribble our number on a bar napkin. But don't think for a second they're the only ones walking away satisfied. From businesswomen to councilmen, some of us are using the convention to further our careers or push our agendas. Others are even using it as an excuse to take a vacation. Mostly, we're trying to suck as much cash out of those nerdy delegates as we can. Don't feel ashamed, Charlotte. A girl's gotta make a living somehow.

Two veteran activists — one on the inside, one on the outside — share perspectives

When a city councilman and a protester meet, they almost never hug each other hello. But for Occupy Charlotte member Laurel Green and Councilman John Autry, who represents District 5, that's how their one-on-one meeting begins at a Starbucks on East Boulevard. With less than three weeks to go before the Democratic National Convention, these two have a lot to talk about.

"What do you think of protesters setting up tents in [Eastland] mall during the DNC?" asks Green, 49, referring to the vacant space in Autry's district that the city council recently purchased for $13.2 million. She's only half-kidding, laughing after she makes the request.

"I'm all for it," Autry says with a small smile.

"Did you get that?" Green says, pointing to my notebook.

Back in the late 1990s, Green and Autry both worked at iXL, a technology development firm, in separate departments. Autry was director of creative services and Green the director of web development. Although Autry handled the group's business matters, he would often sneak outside to chat with Green and the other cigarette-smoking computer geeks, which she dubbed "the cool kids."

After Green and Autry left iXL in 2000, the two hardly kept in touch. But when Green joined Occupy Charlotte in November 2011, she began to see Autry at city council meetings. That same month, he was elected to his District 5 seat.

"I was trying to play it cool," says Green about their first meeting as Occupy member and councilman. "He says hey, leans out, shakes my hand, gives me a big hug. City council is looking at him. Occupiers are looking at me like, 'Traitor!'"

While Green and Autry are seemingly in two different camps, they may be working toward the same goals in September. Autry was elected as a congressional district-level delegate representing 10 counties between Charlotte and Fayetteville. He will be involved in state caucuses, which will review the proposed party platform. Green, an activist since she was 17, will take to the streets with the Occupy movement to protest corporate corruption and government bank bailouts. The kick-off protest march is set for Sunday, Sept. 2, and Green hopes her efforts will dovetail with the way Autry pushes similar social and economic causes inside Time Warner Cable Arena.

"What I expect John would probably be doing is working to push the agenda. I think of myself as the person on the outside making him look middle-of-the-road," Green says.

Green and her fellow Occupiers started to chant Autry's name in appreciation after he refused to vote with fellow council members on a camping ban on city property in January. Occupy had been camping out in front of Old City Hall since October 2011.

"There was heat from my colleagues going, 'See John, you can't reason with them. I said, 'It's not about reasoning.'"

Autry spent his younger years as an activist. In the early 1970s, the native North Carolinian marched in Fayetteville with actors Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda in an anti-Vietnam War political theater troupe. The group put on shows — called "Fuck the Army" — near U.S. military bases to encourage soldiers to voice their opposition to the war. They came to eastern North Carolina to reach out to men stationed at nearby Fort Bragg, a major military training camp. Autry went on to serve in the Navy from 1972 to 1976 and later promoted veteran's rights with Veterans for Peace.

Like Green, Autry still feels the yen to jump into a protest, but his roles as a councilman and convention delegate put him in a whole new ballgame. His focus is on the revitalization of east Charlotte, where Eastland Mall could become a movie and television studio in coming years. The best Autry says he can do for social causes like Occupy Charlotte is vote on the side of free speech at council meetings and, later at the DNC, elect President Obama as the Democratic candidate.

Green and Autry wrap up their coffee date with one last hug and a promise. Although at that moment Autry could not fulfill Green's request for city council to release an official welcome letter to support incoming protestors, they both agreed to have each other's backs during the DNC.

"Anything like Occupy or any other movement, there's this whole mechanism to discredit, to supplant, to make it seem unwarranted," Autry says. "Too much of that drowns out the message."

— Joanne Spataro

Krystal Harrell, spin doctor extraordinare, will use her skills to reelect President Obama. Lucky him.

Krystal Harrell is putting out the Sunday brunch spread to end all Sunday brunch spreads. Balancing heaping plates of French toast, eggs and strawberry yogurt, she makes her way to a table in her high-rise Uptown condo. The first bite reveals breakfast has turned cold. If she's disappointed, she doesn't show it.

"It's a bit chilled," she says.

On Monday, Aug. 13, the 24-year-old entrepreneur will use her power of persuasion to launch, an initiative to engage first- and second-time voters in President Obama's re-election campaign. On the website, voters 18 to 24 can submit their applications to be a campus ambassador at their universities. Those selected will spread awareness at their schools and in their neighborhoods about voter registration and campaign-related topics. They also will sell Obama T-shirts and other merch.

This isn't traditional phone banking or canvassing, where people volunteer without compensation. To give a little incentive to those college-aged voters, Harrell has designed a program in which students earn rewards, like gas gift cards, digital cameras and even a spring break vacation. She hopes the exchange will keep them interested in the political process.

"The biggest thing with that age group is to keep their attention," Harrell says. "It's about them being involved on a political level, but at the same time there's an exchange for their time."

Sixty-six percent of people 18 to 29 voted for Obama in 2008, according to a Pew Research Poll. Although that group still supports the president, it is not as energized as it was during his first campaign. In a December 2011 Harvard Institute of Politics survey, only 50 percent of people 18 to 24 said they would definitely vote blue in 2012.

"The hype isn't as big and strong as it was in 2008," Harrell says. "The interest is still there, but it's like that new pair of shoes you receive. You're thinking about them because you saw them in a magazine, and once you get them, they're on the shelf."

Harrell's initiative may also interest those who didn't sign up to volunteer for the Democratic National Convention. The DNC Committee ended its call for volunteers after exceeding 10,000. Darlene Murphy, 55, who has been phone-banking and knocking on doors for Obama as part of the DNC Committee, hopes Harrell's program will interest more young people in the voting process this year.

"Regardless of who you vote for, and I would love for you to vote for Barack Obama, exercise your right, because you didn't always have the right," Murphy says. "That is your voice."

Harrell anticipates young people will respond to her call. The founder and director of Create Exposure, a marketing and communications agency specializing in youth marketing, seems to know her niche — and how to put a spin on anything, even brunch. Her efforts to support Obama dovetail with both her political activism and her business's bottom line, since much of what the website collects will feed into her research. But as she persuasively argues, that's not her main motivation.

"It's not about the selling," Harrell says. "At the end of the day, it's about them being involved on a political level."

— J.S.

Aisha Thomas will bring her party know-how to the DNC

Aisha Thomas has built a business out of fun. The party planner single-handedly orchestrates everything from small weddings to non-profit celebrations, tasting every bite of food and situating tables so everyone has the best seat. If a party were a movie, she'd be the director.

On May 22, Thomas found out she had a chance at an Oscar.

It had been more than a year since Charlotte learned it would host the Democratic National Convention. While activists were struggling to secure protest permits and cops were scratching their heads at the prospect of protecting an entire city plus 35,000 journalists, delegates and protesters, local business owners were looking for ways to profit.

A friend persuaded Thomas to submit a bid to plan one of the DNC's 12 delegate parties. Hosting 400 out-of-town guests wouldn't be easy, especially for a one-woman business, but she had planned weddings of such magnitude.

"I was thinking, Do I have a chance at this? I'm not a 15- or 20-person business," she says on a hot day in July. "But then it was like, OK, I can do this. I'm resourceful."

As a teenager, Thomas knew what she wanted to be before she knew there was a name for it. The natural problem solver majored in accounting at UNC Charlotte, where she was always planning meetings and mixers. But she recalls a joke a professor made one day in class about the anti-social nature of accountants that convinced her she had chosen the wrong profession.

"I was like, that's not me," she says.

Thomas graduated with an accounting degree and started working for event planners around town. She started Event Fantasies in 2007 and focused mostly on planning events for non-profits. When the economy tanked, she had to refocus her goals. People still had to get married, so she started planning weddings.

The DNC has vowed to spend a third of its budget on minority-owned and woman-owned businesses, which Thomas says gives small companies like hers a leg up and validates the way she's always approached her business and whom she chooses to do business with, including caterers and DJs.

"Diversity is a part of my background, and it's always been a priority," she says.

Thomas will introduce New Jersey and Maryland delegates to Charlotte by incorporating local and southern elements into the food and activities at the Wadsworth Estate, the century-old venue that's regularly used for weddings and corporate events. Guests will play cornhole, a familiar game to any local bar-goers, in the backyard. They'll eat barbecue-flavored popcorn from a popcorn buffet, one of Thomas' more whimsical ideas.

Thomas hopes such a high-profile event will increase business, but mostly she is looking forward to participating in a once-in-a-lifetime — for Charlotte, anyway — opportunity.

She takes a moment to think about all the things that could go wrong. Catastrophe is just one absent DJ away.

"It's not that things don't happen correctly," she says. "It's how you're able to think on your feet and recover."

— Ana McKenzie

Not even Obama can part Charlotte's red sea

Just because Democrats will be gathering in huge numbers in Charlotte for their national convention doesn't mean Republicans are going into hiding. Far from it, if the past few conventions are any indication. Since the 1980s, each party has set up a "war room" in the host city of the opposing party's convention, dedicated to rebutting the convening party's charges.

In 2008, the GOP had a strong presence for the DNC in Denver, bringing in national political "stars" like Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani for proper Dem-slamming at daily press conferences. Much the same can be expected in Charlotte, with the likes of House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivering withering attacks on President Obama's record on national television.

But enough about the national politicos. What do regular, everyday Charlotte Republicans plan to do during the DNC? To answer that question, we went to a surefire Republican-riddled spot, Piper Glen Shopping Center in south Charlotte, and asked random GOP-looking people (madras, loafers without socks, driving a Jaguar, that kind of thing) about their plans.

Malcolm Bailey, a Quail Corners resident, smiled and said, "It won't affect us at all. We'll be on vacation at the beach, so we won't really be thinking about the DNC." Two other GOP supporters gave us similar answers, including a woman who wished to remain anonymous but told us, "Kiawah, Kiawah, Kiawah. The beach will be my hidey-hole, away from the big mess uptown."

Meanwhile, Amber Serenico, a "south Charlottean" who evidently really likes Trader Joe's frozen foods, will stay in town, but has "No special plans, really. Just regular life, you know. I'll just be glad when it's over with and the Obama people leave." She then actually shivered, but it wasn't clear whether it was a result of thinking about Obama or standing in the frozen-food section.

No one we spoke with planned to protest the DNC, and in fact, most made a "Huh?" face when we asked them of any protest plans. Ballantyne resident Conner "You don't need my last name" summed up his feelings this way: "They're not worth protesting, and I'll probably be busy anyway."

Some Republicans of the Tea Party stripe will stay busy promoting their agenda while listening to music at "Rock the Red 2012," a Sept. 5 concert in 11,000-seat Bojangles' Coliseum. The conservative festival, which organizers have said will lure many out-of-towners, is the brainchild of consultant Jason Lambert. He snagged funding from a SuperPAC to bring country-rock performers Travis Tritt, of "Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof" fame, and North Carolina-born Charlie Daniels ("I'm 76, dammit, when do I get to stop singing?"), along with South Carolina singer Lee Brice. The event also will feature conservative speakers, but they are unidentified as of this writing.

Another conservative group, "Charlotte 714," will squeeze into the DNC spotlight, too. Led by David and Jason Benham — sons of Flip Benham, the noted anti-abortion and anti-gay activist who leads Operation Save America, a nationwide ultra-right group now based in Concord — Charlotte 714 and its followers are ostensibly fasting for 40 days before the convention in order to repent for what they see as America's wicked ways. Their efforts will culminate with a Sept. 2 prayer and music event at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. The Benhams and their followers may not convince the Democrats to condemn homosexuality, but by God, they'll look nice and trim by the time the Verizon show cranks up.

— John Grooms

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