Incumbency, once considered gold in North Carolina politics, has grown tarnished. Prior to being ousted by N.C. voters in the midst of a red wave in 2016, one-term Republican governor Pat McCrory managed to hold onto the Queen City’s mayoral seat for an unprecedented seven terms from 1995 to 2009.
Similarly, the city council seat for Charlotte’s District 1 was held by Democrat Patsy Kinsey for 14 years. But Kinsey’s incumbency mojo vanished when fellow Democrat Larken Egleston defeated her in 2017. Now, incumbent Egleston is in turn facing a challenge from within his party, fueled in part by a backlash against Egleston’s support for bringing the Republican National Convention to Charlotte.
Sean Smith, a 30-year old digital designer for Wells Fargo, is running for office for the first time, but he’s no newcomer to the city or to politics. The N.C. State University graduate moved to Charlotte in 1996 and currently resides in the Cherry neighborhood. In school, Smith interned with the U.S. Department of State and was stationed at the U.S. consulate in Italy.
“That’s where the political stuff started for me,” Smith says.
We spoke with the new candidate in the lead-up to the local primaries, early voting for which begins on Wednesday, Aug. 21.
Queen City Nerve: You say that neighborhoods need a stronger voice in the process of development and growth. How would that happen?
Sean Smith: When a proposal is made for a new development, it goes to the city, which makes sure that it meets the land use requirements. Then they send it to council for a vote on everything else. In my opinion, council is supposed to represent their district and the people in the community.
A lot of neighborhoods have their own plans for how the neighborhood should grow. I believe there should be an actual discussion where the neighborhood’s voice is listened to more than it is now. A lot of times a developer will only change one minor thing before presenting their “revised” plan to council. That’s frustrating. I think there needs to be more legitimate dialog back and forth. Developers need to be listening more to the people in those communities. Ultimately our council and representatives need to stand up and say no to some things.
How can we make sure that infrastructure keeps pace with growth? Who should foot the bill on infrastructure when developers come in?
The city needs to pass a new comprehensive plan to make sure that certain elements of a development proposal are not negotiable like they are now. For one thing, a developer should be accountable for any piece of land they’re developing. Right now, it’s easy for a developer to do nothing. They’ve built their building and that’s it. They don’t have to worry about if there’s storm-water runoff as a result of what they’ve done to the property.
If we’re going to okay a project, it should be in a place where we’ve already made infrastructure improvements. If not, we need to say no [to the development] and make [infrastructure] a priority. We keep approving buildings going up, but we’re not focused on infrastructure. Infrastructure is expensive and it’s not sexy. It’s not going to keep people in office because the public often doesn’t notice it, but they notice it when it’s not there.
When it comes to crime you’re focusing on economic mobility in the community. Can you talk about investment in small businesses and how that affects crime?
We need a proactive approach to handling crime. It’s hard to say definitively what’s causing violent crimes and the uptick in murders. But what we can do proactively as a community is speculate that some people may be committing crimes because they don’t have opportunities.
We have such a strong startup community in Charlotte, but it only serves a certain demographic. We need to connect that startup community to neighborhoods that don’t have much economic opportunity. Right now, startups in this city tend to be tech focused, but I’m talking about a hairdresser wanting to open their own studio. It shouldn’t be prohibitively difficult to do that.
The city needs to take a cue from the startup community, and also use that community, to make it possible for people to open and sustain a business. Maybe in a community where it’s hard for someone to open a business, we’ll have a startup incubator, a place where rent is extremely low. It would allow people to start collecting a clientele and start testing their business. After a certain amount of time, they will be able to spread their wings. Maybe they can move ahead when they can afford a regular brick-and-mortar spot in the neighborhood. We can even stipulate that only a Belmont resident can open a business in the Belmont incubator. It will encourage community representation for small businesses, and create opportunities for people.
You say that the city has to stand up to Raleigh. How so and why?
We have to stand up to Raleigh in order to regain autonomy in critical parts of our city. When I think of development it’s very frustrating. For example, when we require a developer to have a certain number of affordable housing units in their property, the state is interfering in our ability to keep the developer accountable. This is our city, and if we are tasked with managing the growth and development of this place, we shouldn’t have to do it with our arms tied behind our backs. I think it’s highly political on the part of Raleigh because Charlotte is a very blue city. We saw this with the bathroom bill.
Raleigh is antagonizing us. When I hear some council members talk about how they repaired the relationship with Raleigh, my mind is blown because all that means to me is that Raleigh has done something for them where they feel we’re all good. Truly repairing the relationship means that we have control over our own destiny. I believe that the overreach of Raleigh in Charlotte is in many cases unwarranted. In terms of an actual tactical approach, it can’t just be kicking and screaming and making a lot of noise, but that is exactly what I’m prepared to do when it’s appropriate. We have to be tactical and diplomatic, working with our state level representatives from this area who are all really awesome.
The business community may be squeamish because business likes stability. But if we continue to let Raleigh dictate how our city operates, grows and develops, we’ll have more instances where a company like PayPal wants to come here and they end up leaving because Raleigh does something stupid with a discrimination bill.
What are your thoughts on the city hosting the Republican National Convention?
I’m very much against the Republican National Convention coming here. It shouldn’t be confused with a regular partisan convention, because it’s not. It is fully devoted to reelecting Donald Trump. They made that very clear in their marketing materials when they said, “We’re so excited to work with Charlotte together to propel Trump to his second term.” I was so disgusted with that because Charlotte is not propelling Trump to a second term.
It’s easy to say in hindsight that I would not have voted for the RNC. I will give the council people credit here. I’m sure that based on their compass they thought that they were doing the right thing. But if that’s the case, we need people [on council] who would think doing the right thing is not bringing the RNC here. A lot of conversation has been around, “We had the DNC so it only makes sense that we have the RNC.” But these are apples and oranges. These are completely two different things. That [comparison] went out the window the minute Trump took office. President Trump is going to be one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States.
It killed me when council made the proclamation that we will not tolerate hate speech. That just lacks any kind of backbone. If that’s your decision-making process, if your conscience is saying to bring the RNC here, I have to stand up and represent the district. My conscience is hopefully more aligned with what the people here actually want.
Do you have security concerns?
In this case, we’ve missed a huge opportunity to be proactive about violent crime. Obviously we saw what went down in Charlottesville a couple miles up the road, with the hate groups and people driving cars through crowded pedestrian areas. We saw the hate that’s possible. Imagine now a conference that is solely focused on a hateful man, a man who spews hate and who is a lightning rod for hate and white supremacy.
Of course people say we’re prepared. I say, if you hadn’t brought it here we wouldn’t have to worry about it in the first place. There’s going to be tension and there’s going to be violence. That’s a huge safety concern, but also think about emotional safety and security. This is such a diverse district. There is a big LGBT population. There are a lot of African-American people here. I’m worried and I’m a white man. How are these people going to feel?
Looking back at our experience with the bathroom bill, is this going to further tarnish our city’s reputation, that as a business community we chose what no other city wanted? We chose to host this man? After the bathroom bill alone, many state governments issued travel warnings for Charlotte and they didn’t allow non-essential travel to Charlotte. What’s going to be the result of hosting the RNC? A disaster.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Smith and his opponent, Larken Egleston, both oppose the proposed sales tax increase. Egleston has stated that he is undecided on the sales tax until he gets more info.]