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Closing Ranks?

Why Are Big Names Backing McCrory so early?

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Political Analysis

There's a book's worth of subtle, unwritten rules in politics that the average person wouldn't pick up on. Most people wouldn't see anything special about the reception invitation bearing Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory's name that seemed to hit the mailboxes of every Republican in Charlotte who had ever made a campaign donation to a politician, no matter how small. But to the politically attuned, McCrory's invitation bore a message about as subtle as a two-by-four between the eyes. Seventy-one names graced the invitation, which invited the holder to participate in an April 13 reception for McCrory at the Charlotte City Club at a minimum going rate of $250 per person. Listed among them were the names of just about every powerbroker in Charlotte. Since many of these well-heeled elites, particularly those who work in the real estate and development sectors, tend to write checks to politicians on both sides of the aisle, even when they're running against each other, the fact that they chose to write checks to McCrory for $1,000 to $2,000 wasn't that unusual. He is, after all, the mayor, and odds are if he sticks around he could be useful to these people.

What was unusual was that many of these people allowed their names to be listed on the invitation as hosts and co-hosts of the reception which, politically speaking, is pretty darn close to a declaration of sole support for a candidate. It's a political subtlety, but it isn't a small one.

The overall impression this creates isn't so subtle either. McCrory hasn't even announced whether he's officially running for mayor yet, and already the city's elites appear to be closing ranks around him by hosting a fundraiser that will bring in more than $100,000. For over a dozen real estate gurus like Allen Tate, Jr. of Allen Tate realtors, and H.C. "Smoky Bissell," founder of Bissell Cos., to start hosting political events like this at such an early date in what could turn out to be competitive race for mayor is unprecedented.

The fact that Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis and Wachovia CEO Ken Thompson are sponsoring the event is not insignificant, of course, but the two have amassed records of support for Republicans lately, so it's not that surprising. That Catherine Bessant's name is also listed is. Bessant, a registered Democrat, is more than just BofA Corp.'s chief marketing officer and the chairperson of the Charlotte Chamber. She's also the heir apparent to former bank Vice Chairman Jim Hance, who was viewed by many as the "civic face" of the bank. Whether it's intentional or not, and it likely is intentional, her name on any list conveys bank approval to many. For what it's worth, Hance was also listed as a host on the invitation.

All of which has even Republicans a bit flummoxed. Are the uptown players locking ranks against Democratic mayoral candidate Patrick Cannon already? Is that even possible?

Even Republican strategist Brian Francis, who believes a race between McCrory and Cannon would be competitive, isn't exactly sure what to make of it.

He sees two possibilities.

"One possibility is corporate folks are famous for hedging their bets," Francis said. If the tide turns, it's possible you could see the same names on Cannon's finance report. The other possibility is that corporate Charlotte likes moderate government. Basically since the Arts & Science Council flap, they've tried to hedge their bets toward moderate Republicans and Democrats. If I were sitting in corporate America, I would worry that the pendulum has swung too far to the left in Mecklenburg County in last year's elections."

And they might worry about something else, too. Competitive races usually produce moderate winners. But that requires both political parties to be healthy. Given the results of local 2004 elections, the Republicans appear to be on the ropes. "If we lose the mayor's race, we'll be knocked down and I don't know if we can get back up," said Francis of the local Republican Party.

UNCC Political Science Professor Ted Arrington largely agrees.

"It looks like these people are saying early they are not backing Cannon," said Arrington. "If in November we look and find out they contributed $500 to Cannon too, I wouldn't be shocked, but it is unusual to sponsor an event. I'm very disappointed in the elites. They used to be more independent, but have become more Republican in the last decade or so. The business community is not as non-partisan as it used to be."

Cannon says he's not worried, and expects that before the race is over he will have received checks from some of the same people on McCrory's invitation. The Democrats have a stronger grassroots presence than the Republicans, reducing their need for money to mail voters and run ads. And although Cannon says he only has a few thousand dollars in the bank, he has fundraisers planned in the upcoming months.

While off-the-record Democratic sources agree that Cannon needs to get a move on with the fundraising — Cannon himself says he needs to raise at least $300,000 — they also say there are enough high-level Democrats with deep pockets locally, nationally and statewide to fill Cannon's campaign coffers as well. Only time will tell.

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

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