At a May 2010 dinner meeting of the Charlotte City Council, District 3 representative Warren Turner needed to talk. The once popular Democratic councilman, known for changing a blighted district into an area of economic growth, wasn't fighting for new sidewalks this time — he was fighting for his reputation. A recent report had alleged sexual misconduct, and Turner's colleagues were considering a censure.
"I will say now as I have said before and as I will continue to say," Turner told the Council. "At no time have I ever made any sexually explicit comments, any subtle sexual comments, any sexual gestures, or any sexual contact or any physical contact with any of these employees."
The names of employees interviewed in the report have never been released publicly, which means neither the media nor Turner nor members of the City Council have been able to question them. Calls to councilmembers Michael Barnes and Nancy Carter, who voted for Turner's censure, were not returned by press time.
The censure failed in a 6-3 vote, but Turner's defense fell on deaf ears. Despite his continued objections over the way the mayor, city manager and city attorney handled the investigation into rumors of his sexual harassment, Charlotte voters ousted Turner a year and four months later. On Sept. 13, 2011, he lost his seat to political newcomer LaWana Mayfield.
Turner had always fared well in primaries, either running unopposed or defeating his opponent by a double-digit margin. But things were different this year. Voters ignored his past accomplishments, which included bringing light rail to South End, establishing a prostitution-free zone on Wilkinson Boulevard, keeping the youth violence-prevention program Gang of One funded and establishing a transit center in his district.
Within a mere 18 months, Turner's legacy changed from that of a popular man of action to a blackballed politician embroiled in controversy. If you Google his name today, numerous links about sexual harassment pop up — few about his political victories.
Turner's troubles began in March 2010, two months before his public statement, when Mayor Anthony Foxx sent an e-mail to Council, warning members not to harass city employees. A few days later, every male on the board denied the e-mail was about him. City Council member Patrick Cannon said in a March 22, 2010, meeting that the mayor's e-mail cast suspicion over many people on the dais. Within weeks, although no formal complaint was ever filed by anyone, Turner was linked to the sexual harassment rumors.
The city then hired an outside attorney to investigate the claims and file a report. It characterized Turner as a man who made inappropriate comments to five female city employees identified only as "Employee A," "Employee B," etc. The report was a searing indictment that began to overshadow Turner's previous eight years on the Council.
"It breaks your heart when the citizens that you represent are either not involved or they take everything else for granted," says Turner, who chose to speak in depth with Creative Loafing for the first time since he lost the election. "If you lived in District 3 in the last 12 years, you should know that Councilman Turner accomplished more than any other elected official had ever been able to accomplish."
Public service has been a big part of Turner's life: he's served as a Scoutmaster, become a life member of the Second Ward High School Alumni Board and is a deacon at Silver Mount Baptist Church. In 2005, he was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame at Fayetteville State University, where he'd earned a degree in political science.
From the beginning, voters saw Turner as a champion for his district. He had stepped into an area of the city in the early 2000s that was plagued by a high crime rate, crumbling businesses and issues with transportation. He won the District 3 seat in 2003 after defeating primary opponent J.W. Walton.
"I took the worst district, at the time, and made it the best district in the city of Charlotte," Turner says. "I created housing opportunities that we've never had. I put in sidewalks, infrastructure that we never had." When construction of the transit center began, Turner fought to make sure people who lived in the area were employed on the project. "I've had people come up to me and thank me for what I've done," he says.
Former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory says Turner played a major role in getting light rail into South End. "He was always fighting for transportation," says McCrory. "He was actually one of the main leaders of the light rail line that goes through the middle of his district. People forget that. I relied on him to work with Wilmore and the other neighborhoods to get the light rail through."
McCrory says Turner also was helpful outside of Charlotte. "He was very supportive of me in Raleigh and Washington, in not just getting funds for the light rail but getting a good bus system in Charlotte," McCrory says.