Never destined for the job, Dan Clodfelter was the mayor Charlotte needed at the lowest point in her politics. But an odd fit, and a boring figure, Clodfelter was ultimately not the mayor Charlotte wanted.
To his credit, Mayor Clodfelter restored confidence in city government after a petty crook used his office to accept cash bribes, and Clodfelter managed to keep Charlotte out of the national news throughout a racially charged crisis. But his ballsy and poorly executed decision to run for a full term, after promising to retire, paved the way for a primary pitting the incumbent against two council members and Jennifer Roberts, a neighbor two doors down.
Rusty and ill-prepared for the modern social media driven campaign, Clodfelter never connected the issues into a coherent electoral message, and though he did get better, kicking serious ass on the race's biggest night, and winning the neighborhood precinct over Jennifer Roberts, his defeat marked an unhappy ending to a distinguished career.
While the disconnect between the Rhodes Scholar and the Charlotte electorate is his fault as much as ours, the extinction of his dying breed would be a disservice to our politics. As we close out the year of Donald Trump in a scared, angry and divided America, Clodfelter's temperament and intellect are missing, and on the last day of three decades in public service a final conversation seemed appropriate.
Creative Loafing: Other than becoming mayor after an FBI sting, and losing an election to your neighbor, how were the last two years?
Dan Clodfelter: They’ve actually been a lot of fun. But I didn’t know what to expect. It took six months just to convince the community everything was alright.
I bet you have some TV shows to catch up on.
I wasn’t a big TV watcher before. But it did take up more of your time than the General Assembly. We weren’t on call after we adjourned in Raleigh.
Did you get any 3 a.m. phone calls as mayor?
We did, the PCB dumping, (when toxic chemicals were found at wastewater treatment plants) and then around the Kerrick trial. I was impressed with how well CMPD and the Community Relations Commission kept the temperature down and we ended up not having a major crisis. We did have a scare around the suspected Ebola patient at Carolinas Medical Center. I got that call during the middle of lunch. In regards to the hung jury, the real challenge isn’t what happens that night. It’s what we do in the aftermath.
What about the anti-discrimination vote?
I was really disappointed. We knew going into the meeting it wasn’t going to pass. We’d spent the entire day, and the weekend before, trying to persuade a majority of the council to support it. It just wasn’t going to happen.
Do you regret not saying more that night?
No. My position was clear and had been for decades. Saying more would not have made a difference, but it might have deepened the division. That night was a crisis, and I thought it was critically important that we be civil and civilized.
Is this the end of your public service career?
I have no idea. This experience has taught me you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Had you not run for mayor, and instead announced for U.S. Senate, you’d be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
That presumes I’d want to go to the senate.
You still have two weeks to change your mind. Where were you happiest in Raleigh or at the Government Center?
What made me really happy was getting a contentious group to sit down, work through an issue, and craft a plan that turned into concrete legislation. I was able to do that over and over again.
As mayor I was more interested in things like My Brother’s Keeper than what was on the city-council agenda. Programs like that are critically important because they give folks, who’ve been excluded and left out, a sense of accomplishment and a sense of hope.
If you could snap your fingers, how would you fix Charlotte’s lack of mobility?
By tackling reentry into the workforce by people coming out of incarceration, and by addressing the disconnect between the education experience and the needs of young African-American boys.
If I could stop in-school and out-of-school suspensions, get everyone reading on grade level, and figure out a way for those incarcerated to reenter the system, or divert them from the system in the first place, it would do more to fix inequality than anything in the world.
You were the sitting mayor and you lost in the primary. What happened?
I started a year behind.
She announced very early.
Within a week or two of my appointment.
Should you have started earlier?
That wouldn’t have been proper. It would have been unseemly to start running as soon as I was appointed. And to be honest, I didn’t know if I’d even like the job.
Did you notice a nationalization of the race regarding issues outside the city’s purview?
I noticed that a lot. And that’s a shame because it distracts us from discussing the things we can do, things that are in our power.
How have Charlotte’s politics changed?
It was fairly easy when I first started out to mobilize the community behind an initiative, not just a segment, but the entire community. That got harder.
You don’t seem to love politics.
The art and science of governing and the practice of politics have gotten estranged from one another. And that has changed since I first got involved.
Today’s candidates run against Washington, against people who dedicate their lives to public service. Lincoln, Kennedy, Truman, FDR were career politicians.
I consider it a very ignorant view. There are bad apples in business, bad apples in churches, and there are bad apples in government. But they don’t define government. Government is a way of doing things we can’t do on our own. We need to sit-down, take a deep breath, and listen to each other. But some people missed that lesson in kindergarten.
Were there nights where you came home feeling like you made a difference?
The day the death penalty moratorium came up for a vote. Going into the chamber, the votes were clearly against and I didn’t know how I was going to vote. As I started speaking, I convinced myself that a moratorium was the right thing, and by explaining the evolution of my own thinking, I was able to persuade enough others for it to pass.
You are the antithesis of what’s wrong with politics, the shiny objects, the partisan warfare, but you didn’t win. Does that make you sad?
All you can do is model good behavior and not surrender to trends.
What do you look forward to?
I’m still involved in statewide issues through the Reynolds Foundation. We have joined with the Duke endowment and the John Locke Foundation to convene a dialogue about how to change the tone of public discourse in North Carolina.
What do you do on Tuesday morning?
Sleep late….no I’m going to get up and go to work.