Everywhere I go lately, people have had just one question for me: How on earth did Nick Mackey wind up sheriff?
It's all they want to talk about. The racial nastiness that has surrounded the sheriff's race has left folks of both races around here shell shocked and resentful. Including me.
Nothing about the contest to fill out the last three years of former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph's term was racial until some of the local African-American leadership called a press conference two weeks ago and made it so. At the time, Mackey's past and his law enforcement record was beginning to embarrass the Democratic Party. The African-American leaders demanded that inquiries into Mackey's past stop and implied that any attempt to find out more was racist.
According to a 2003 Charlotte Observer article, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Darrel Stephens had recommended firing Mackey, who is black, and another police sergeant. They'd been suspended without pay after being referred for termination and were accused of reporting more than $16,000 in time they never worked.
When the article turned up, reporters naturally began asking the kinds of difficult questions of Mackey that reporters always ask in cases like these. It didn't help Mackey's situation that Chipp Bailey, his opponent, had already made his law enforcement file public while Mackey refused to do so.
Reporters' and party leaders' questions were legitimate. How could a man who wouldn't qualify to be rehired as a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer be trusted to run the sheriff's office?
But rather than demand answers to those questions from Mackey, some -- but certainly not all -- of the county's normally level-headed black leadership turned on the community and screamed racism.
It was a slap in the face that the people of Charlotte-Mecklenburg simply didn't deserve.
"I've seen it happen over and over and over again," writer and activist John Minter told the Charlotte Observer. "Mr. Mackey is certainly not the first African-American who's stepped forward in a political race and had to undergo the kind of scrutiny and negative reporting that he's undergone. So many of us have felt that whip, if you will."
The whip? What whip? Would that be the same "whip" that propelled Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones, who is black, into the county's highest bureaucratic office? Or the "whip" that pushed now-retired African-American Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Jim Pughsley into office?
African-American Charlotte City Council member Anthony Foxx came in second in the at-large council race last month, beating two white candidates in the process, a feat he couldn't have pulled off without white votes. No whip there. Or how about now-retired African-American school board member Arthur Griffin? I don't recall there being a "whip" that stood in the way of his ascension to and retention of the school board chairman's seat. Black leadership in the city's highest leadership positions is simply old news.
This is the community that actively courted African-American Bobcats owner Bob Johnson and then welcomed him with open arms. This is the community that was named one of America's top 10 best cities for African-Americans by Black Enterprise. BET.com named it the best city in America for black families last year.
A Brookings Institute study found that Charlotte is now the No. 3 destination in the nation for African-Americans, after Atlanta and Dallas. More than 61,000 African-Americans have moved here since 1995 (census projections put the number closer to 100,000), an odd phenomenon for a place where some figurative whip is holding black people back.
In fact, the only African-American I see struggling to succeed around here is Mackey. I defy anyone to name one piece of information about his background that Mackey was asked for that Bailey wasn't. The painful truth is that most of the controversy surrounding Mackey could end tomorrow -- and could have ended weeks ago -- if Mackey simply turned over his police personnel record, as Bailey did promptly when asked.
The controversy here is not about race and never was. It's about Mackey and his record.
Some say this is part of a pattern of African-Americans being overly scrutinized when they seek leadership positions. They say that a lack of white voter support kept mayoral candidate Beverly Earle from winning the mayor's race. Keen political observers know better.
Mayor Pat McCrory was subjected to the same background check Earle was by the Charlotte Observer. And Earle ran a lackluster campaign, mostly within her comfort zone in the black community; a campaign that paled in comparison to the one run by Harvey Gantt, Charlotte's first black mayor. Two years ago, when Democrat Craig Madans, who is white, ran an equally lackluster campaign against McCrory's well-polished machine, the results were the same -- and hardly surprising.
I know from talking to them that some of the county's African-American leaders are deeply embarrassed by the Mackey debacle. But so far they have chosen to sit it out on the sidelines, hoping that it will all go away.
Using race to strong-arm your critics into silence isn't leadership. Neither is sitting by while someone else does it.