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Wheeler Goes Down

Now, the rest of the story

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When voters finally dropkicked City Council's most obnoxious member last week, they thought they were ousting Lynn Wheeler, city council member at-large.

What they didn't understand was that for all practical purposes, what they actually did was vote out the mayor of Charlotte. Sure, Pat McCrory, the guy who technically holds that title, did just fine in that election. But McCrory hasn't been a serious player, much less a leader, in city government in a long time. McCrory ceded that headache to Wheeler years ago. Or maybe she snatched it from him because she was better at it.

Either way, the fact that McCrory doesn't run city government and has very little influence on what it does is one of the best-kept secrets in local politics. McCrory is little more than a ceremonial figurehead who isn't involved enough with City Council to significantly influence it. At this point, I doubt the man could assemble six votes on a controversial issue if his life depended on it.

But Wheeler could and did. Her secret was pretty simple. While McCrory sashayed from photo-op to photo-op, Wheeler worked the phones, brokering deals between warring factions that at times included city staff, influential developers and business people, activists and council members too busy making a living to listen to the whining of those listed above on an hourly basis.

Because Wheeler was usually responsible for it, she knew better than anyone else what was happening in city government, and what was about to happen. Wheeler used that information to gain sway with the media, rewarding media outlets and reporters who gave her good press with tips and ready-made news stories. Being cut off by Wheeler for "bad behavior" -- usually a story that Wheeler considered unflattering to her -- could really throw a wrench in a daily news organization's local coverage. Flattering stories, on the other hand, would earn you news tips galore. (Creative Loafing is proud of the fact that we've maintained cut-off status with Wheeler for years.)

In the end, though, Wheeler's growing inability to distinguish between flattering and unflattering publicity did her in.

After years of doing the mayor's job and getting no public credit for it, Wheeler, who is terminally self-absorbed, went a little nuts. For her, finally, it wasn't good enough that reporters and the city's power brokers knew how much power she wielded, that they called McCrory for ribbon cuttings but called her when they needed something substantive done. Wheeler wanted to cut the ribbons, too. She was better than McCrory, she was smarter than McCrory, but dammit, people just couldn't see it.

Wheeler desperately needed the recognition that the title of "mayor" would have given her, and because she didn't get it, she self-destructed. To those who know the dos and don'ts of local politics, Wheeler's blow-by-blow analysis of her role in putting together the arena deal on WBT radio must have seemed bizarre. WBT's listeners are the same conservative voters who took down the arena referendum. Why remind them over and over of your part in it? Why talk about the arena every time someone sticks a mike in your face?

To me, Wheeler's increasingly frequent stream of consciousness rants on television and radio always made perfect sense. She was dropping the big names that had always impressed her. She was running in important circles. CEOs, millionaires and billionaires dropped what they were doing to take her phone calls. Wheeler had long ago eclipsed McCrory, and in her mind, she'd arrived. She couldn't help but let people know about it.

In the old money, debutante world in which Wheeler was raised, social connections are everything, the measure of a person's worth and of their success. But in your average voter's world, where people actually have to work for a living, one's ability to ingratiate oneself with big names at the expense of the average guy -- and in defiance of how he voted in the arena referendum -- is just evidence of corruption.

That's why Wheeler and McCrory worked so well as a two-headed mayor, at least as far as the business community was concerned. Those who listened to one of Wheeler's on-air arena babblings over the last year heard all they needed to hear to understand why the city's heavy hitters keep McCrory around. Unlike Wheeler, McCrory is the kind of slick politician you stick out front in a bond or mass transit campaign. He's the guy you send to Washington when you want to create a world-class impression. He's the only one among his peers, at least at the moment, with the kind of political social skills it takes to function on the national stage.

Unlike Wheeler, McCrory has proven, with only one notable exception, that he has a keen sense for when to keep his mouth shut in a city where subtlety is a virtue.

That's valuable, but it's not enough to fill the void Wheeler left. But then, maybe a little chaos at City Hall is preferable to what the voters got under the Wheeler regime -- a big fat bill for someone else's good time.

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

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