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The Voice of the Black Community

Local & State

Politics of change, anger led to generational shift for City Council
Harlow and Winston lead youthful wave in Charlotte
Published Thursday, November 23, 2017 4:16 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

Charlotte City Council members-elect Braxton Winston, left, and Justin Harlow are among five newcomers to the board, which will undergoing a generational shift as younger representatives assume their seats on Dec. 4.

There is no prerequisite for politics.

Charlotte voters elected five new City Council members earlier this month, including two black men under 35: Democrats Braxton Winston at-large and Justin Harlow in District 2. They will be sworn in Dec. 4.

“There is no class, there is no course that can prepare you for being responsible, and getting things done as an elected official,” said at-large council member James Mitchell, who represented District 2 in 1999, and has served all but two years since then.

While Harlow and Winston’s election may not bear the significance of Fred Alexander’s 1965 victory as the first African American elected official in Charlotte, the city has an eye on the freshmen.

“Looking back now, when I came on as a young energized person who wanted to make a difference in 1999, having thick skin, enjoying the opportunity and focusing on all seven different revenue streams for the city are the things I would tell a younger version of me,” Mitchell said. “Justin is going to have a little leg up on Braxton from the standpoint that Justin has been involved in campaigns a little longer. He has not served, but he has been involved in campaign service, as my volunteer coordinator in 2015 when I ran at-large. He has a leg up on responding to the citizens, knowing how to be accountable, because he not only worked on my campaign, but he was the president of his neighborhood association. He got a little taste there.”

Called to serve

Harlow, who considers himself a “relative newcomer to Charlotte,” moved to the Biddleville neighborhood in 2014 with his wife Kiara, who he said liked the “craftsman style bungalow homes.” He wasted no time getting involved with the neighborhood association, and is in his second term as president.

“I really just got tapped in with other neighborhood leaders and community activists on the ground on the West Side/Northwest corridor, and had an opportunity to meet Mitchell,” Harlow said. “I was asked to work on his at-large campaign in 2015. I was his volunteer coordinator, and that kind of opened me up to the political scene of Charlotte.”

When Al Austin resigned the District 2 seat to take a position as Historically Black Colleges and Universities outreach director with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, some of Historic West End’s best-known residents asked Harlow to consider running.

“Longtime stalwarts of the community—Judge Shirley Fulton, Mattie Marshall of Washington Heights, Dorothy Counts Scoggins, the first black student to attend Harding High School, who is my neighbor in Biddleville—when you have those folks say ‘hey, you should run,’ I talked with my wife, prayed about it, and said ‘I live in this community, I’m a stakeholder here. I’m involved here, and on the West End advisory committee for Center City Partners.”

Harlow saw his relationships with people responsible for much of development in the Five Points area as well as his affiliation with the Democratic Party’s State Executive Committee as opportunities for change. While the timing clashed with the opening of a new dental practice and birth of his son, Harlow seized the opportunity.

“I don’t think timing is the best for anything,” Harlow said. “I feel a calling to public service. When other people are asking you to do it, that means they’ve bought into your vision. I didn’t want to let them down, and I think we can do some good.”

A key piece of advice he carries into his first term is a reminder that everyone has a first at some point.

“One of the biggest pieces of advice as a first-time councilmember is remembering that everyone had their first time somewhere,” Harlow said. “Everyone was elected for the first time at some point. LaWana Mayfield [District 3 representative] says that to me almost every day. She says, ‘it doesn’t make you any different. Everyone had to be a first time council member at some point.’”

New positions allow for a learning curve, but it extends but so far.

“I’m not naïve enough to say ‘oh, we’re just going to come in here and know everything about everything that’s happened,’” Harlow said. “There definitely will be an institutional knowledge gap for all five us who will be brand new on the council. At the same time, understanding that we can’t just spend our way out of our problems in Charlotte. A lot of times, people hear younger candidates or progressive candidates and think ‘oh, they’re just going to increase the budget, or start reckless spending.’ We can’t spend our way out of some of these problems.”

Charlotte’s rapid growth presents opportunities and obstacles. From transportation to job creation to affordable housing, how does the city grow without negatively impacting those who have called it home for generations?

“I’m from Atlanta, a city that has grown immensely over the past 20-30 years,” Harlow said. “I grew up there when it was going through that growth. We don’t want to be that. Charlotte wants to have its own identity. We want to be able to grow strategically and intentionally.”

Longtime residents of District 2 continue to feel gentrification’s ramifications. Combating the negative components is a first-term goal.

“In District 2, particularly when the West Side is starting to get all of this attention now around its commercial corridors—especially along the West Trade Street-Rozzelles Ferry Road corridor, Beatties Ford Road,” Harlow said. “We’re starting to see new residential housing coming up—gentrification. For me, the biggest thing is protecting the folks who have been there the longest—our senior citizens who are on fixed income, our working poor who before a lot of this growth happened were easily able to afford a lot of stuff on Charlotte’s West Side. How do we still make that livable for them, and still invite economic growth and newcomers to the West Side of town?”

Harlow’s concerns for District 2 resemble an echo heard across the city. He, like Winston, is a father with a college degree in anthropology. Harlow also majored in human biology at Emory University in Atlanta, and earned a degree from the UNC School of Dentistry. Winston’s time at Davidson College led him to become a stagehand. Perhaps you’ve seen him hoisting a video camera at Charlotte Hornets games at Spectrum Center.

“I’m a middle class father, husband, coach who is just trying to figure things out,” Winston said. “I have all the same issues and problems of so many people who are my peers. I live paycheck to paycheck. I’m just trying to make a life for my children and my family in general. I used to just work and come home and work and come home, and try to find ways to get opportunities to have fun, and provide the things that my children need and want. That’s what I’ve been. I’m a union stagehand.”

Image of rage

Winston quickly became the face of resistance in September 2016. A photograph of a shirtless Winston, fist raised against the night sky represented a pivotal turn in what started as a quiet drive home from coaching middle school football.

“My back was turned, so I don’t know when the photo was taken,” he said. “We were out there for hours.”

Thousands followed Winston’s chronicle of protests after Keith Lamont Scott was killed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Brently Vinson in University City.

“We were out there for hours,” Winston said. “Nobody intended for that night to happen. Everything was pretty reactionary to the situation. What I like people to take out of that picture is that I’m willing to stand up, and have the difficult conversations for everyone about anything. It was a chaotic scene. The people really needed to be heard. There was a strong display of First Amendment rights that night. It was a difficult balance on behalf of the government in terms of how to handle a situation that they had pretty much never had any experience with before. When people see that picture, I want them to know that there are people who are willing to stand up to do this.”

Most council candidates incorporated some sort of push for CMPD transparency during the campaign.

“We can start there, really,” Harlow said. “That’s common ground for almost everyone who ran for office this cycle. Doing the best things for the most people in Charlotte is what we have to do. All of us on this council, we talk almost daily now. A lot of us were friends before we got on council. We have the relationships already with each other. It’s a matter of saying we know this needs to be done, and we know that this didn’t work. Bringing a fresh set of eyes will help us do it a little bit differently and better.”

Said Winston: “I want to find more ways to bring people into the conversation, because really that’s what I was able to do over the past 14 months. It was about exposing people to the conversations, and bringing their voices and different voices to the proverbial table.”

Connecting change and maintenance

Charlotte needs to take more risks in order to develop a sustainable workforce—both blue and white collar.

“The dichotomy of trying to be an agent of change is that you have to keep certain things the same,” Winston said. “I have to learn how to run a city. So first and foremost, city council has to make sure that the municipal services are taken care of. We’ve got to make sure that the trash is picked up on time, and the water is running and the airport is accessible, fires are being put out. These are the tasks, and they’re monumental tasks. There are 8,000 employees who are serving under me to make sure that I’m as successful as possible. It’s my duty to learn how to be the best administrator of those municipal services.”

City council members serve two-year terms. Its weak mayor system places significant power with the city manager (Marcus Jones), who oversees daily operations.

“For us to always try to feel like we’re reinventing the wheel or starting over—Charlotteans do not have the luxury of time—nor should they,” Winston said. “I’m s student of culture and history. For an organization—any organization—to be successful, it must have strong foundations of values, and knowledge of its past to reach toward the future.”

Democrats hold a 9-2 majority on the council, including Mayor-elect Vi Lyles—the first black female to hold the office.

“New leaders with new ideas are most important in creating continuums of leadership for our constituents,” Winston said. “To know what has worked in the past and what hasn’t, and to build bridges from that past from the present toward the future—people like Mitchell, Vi, Ed Driggs [a Republican who represents District 7] provide value for us new folks, specifically when it comes to learning about running the city, but also the process of legislation. That’s so necessary, not only for [freshmen], but for our constituents.”

Said Harlow: “You have members who have been on the council working for and toward things, and then you have us freshmen coming in. Some of us have our own initiatives and agendas that we want to see through. They may not always align with what’s been going on. We’re not just going to come in here and flip all the tables over. We have a new voting majority on the council, but it doesn’t always mean we’re going to be in line with each other. Connectivity is our biggest thing, and making sure we support our growth. If we don’t figure out a way to make sure that people can get to places from anywhere that they live, if we don’t start building neighborhood centers on the north, west and east sides of town particularly, then we’re still going to have this tale of two Charlottes. You’re still going to have the crescent and the wedge.”



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