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Former city council rep James Mitchell focuses on business interest
Stepped aside to lead RJ Leeper Construction
Published Wednesday, January 13, 2021 8:00 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

Former Charlotte City Council representative James Mitchell found balancing a political career and business career as president of RJ Leeper Construction more taxing than expected. "I realized after the first week on the job that I could not do both, even though I've been the Energizer bunny for a long period of time," he said. "Being president of a great company and being a city councilman was for more than one person."

James Mitchell said goodbye to Charlotte City Council.

The 20-year representative, who was most recently an at-large city member, announced his resignation Monday at the panel’s annual retreat. Mitchell’s departure comes on the heels of his new role as minority owner and president of R.J. Leeper Construction, which poses a conflict of interest. North Carolina statute 14-234 states a government official may not be involved in a contract on behalf of a public agency that he or she may derive a direct benefit from. Mitchell owns 25% of the company—the limit is 10%.

Mitchell said he realized after his first week on the job that trying to balance the roles proved too much, and while he prides himself on his energy, it was draining.

“I realized after the first week on the job that I could not do both, even though I’ve been the Energizer bunny for a long period of time,” Mitchell said. “Being president of a great company and being a city councilman was for more than one person.”

Mitchell’s role with R.J. Leeper Construction will still include significant public-private collaboration. The company is working with Holder Construction and Edison Foard on renovating the Charlotte Convention Center and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. While Mitchell is well-connected to council, he does not believe R.J. Leeper will receive preferential treatment.

“I think they are going to look at R.J. Leeper like they have been looking at R.J. Leeper—one of the largest minority owned firms doing great work in the city of Charlotte,” he said.

Mecklenburg County and city of Charlotte projects account for around 60% of R.J. Leeper’s work. The remainder is private projects. Mitchell said he would like to flip that ratio, but also acknowledged the benefit of working with the city and the county is that they look for minority-owned businesses.

“Sometimes on the private sector [minority-owned businesses] are not looked upon as an advantage,” Mitchell said. “That is why you see a lot of minority firms like R.J. Leeper…we do well when the public sector says, ‘we need minority participation.’”

Ron Leeper, Mitchell’s mentor, founded R.J. Leeper in 1993, three years after discussing the lack of Black representation in the construction industry with then-Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl. R.J. Leeper Construction focuses on commercial construction projects, and is licensed in North and South Carolina. Leeper will retire, and remain involved with the organization as a consultant for Bright Hope Capital LLC, the newly formed firm focusing on acquiring and bolstering minority-owned businesses.

Key Bright Hope Capital investors are EY Charlotte managing partner Malcomb Coley, McColl and Duke Energy Executive Lloyd Yates.

“The partners of Bright Hope Capital could not think of anyone more qualified to lead R.J. Leeper Construction to its next level of success than James Mitchell,” Coley said in a statement. “James has the right experience, leadership and integrity to continue R.J. Leeper’s trajectory as a premier construction company in the Carolinas and beyond.”

Whether this is Mitchell’s last connection with politics remains yet to be seen. A U.S. Senate seat becomes available in 2022, but when asked if he would run to replace incumbent Republican Richard Burr, Mitchell said: “No, ma’am.”

Mitchell’s council replacement will be appointed by his former colleagues, who are responsible establishing and executing the process. The statutory provision is 160A-63, which gives the panel authority to fill the seat. A city spokesperson said the council must replace Mitchell with a registered Democrat due to partisan elections. Mitchell has a list of five candidates he would like to see fill the role, three of whom are African American women. The last Black woman to hold an at-large seat was Vi Lyles from 2013-17. Lyles is now mayor.

Mitchell, a Charlotte native, graduated West Charlotte High School and North Carolina Central University, and went on to serve three terms as an at-large council member after voters returned him to office in 2015 following a failed mayoral bid. Before that, he represented District 2 from 1999-2013.

Mitchell served as chair of city council’s economic development committee. He considers two of his biggest accomplishments developing Northlake Mall and naming Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard and securing the CIAA basketball tournament to Charlotte. He also championed paving the way for Truist Field, redevelopment of the former Eastland Mall site and bringing Major League Soccer to Charlotte.

Yet he also has moments he would have handled differently, such as the Keith Lamont Scott shooting in 2016 and the CIAA tournament leaving Charlotte.

“The first that comes to my mind is the Keith Lamont Scott shooting,” Mitchell said. “As a leader, I did not handle that very well. I remember when we were running for re-election, I actually apologized to the citizens, and said, ‘give me another opportunity. If we have a shooting like that, I will be a stronger advocate for community relations with [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department].”

The CIAA was in Charlotte for 15 years, providing over $600 million in local economic impact.

“I took that [loss] personal,” Mitchell said. “CIAA put Charlotte on the map. Through the CIAA, we got the Democratic National Convention. We got more ACC championship football games.”

However, Mitchell has unfinished business. He intends to address the city’s Corridors of Opportunity program through his work on the private side, helping communities build better infrastructure for their residents.

“I want to earmark $1 million for those six corridors from a job creation [standpoint],” Mitchell said. “If there is a business in one of those corridors, and they wanted to hire locally, we would pull the money to allow them to—we are talking about West Boulevard, West Trade Street, Beatties Ford Road, Graham Street [and] Central Avenue. Those corridors still need funding to give their citizens an opportunity to work live and play in their own neighborhoods.”

He also intends to create internship opportunities at R.J. Leeper for West Charlotte High students. Another focal will be helping the formerly incarcerated find stable employment.
Mitchell will continue to serve as the President of Next Level Leadership Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to training Charlotte’s next Black leaders. Other community involvement roles over the years include serving as president of Focus on Leadership.  


Congratulations and best wishes to Councilman James Mitchell on his promotion and exemplary service to the citizens of Charlotte.
Posted on January 14, 2021

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