Three years ago, six people lined up in front of Charlotte’s government center for a photo.
They were all under 40, five men and one woman, five Democrats and one Republican, from different backgrounds and different lines of work and supported by different-sized bank accounts. They were what one author who studies their generation says was “the first majority-millennial city council” in a major city in America.
Technically, one was born before 1981, but the point stands: In a single election in 2017, they’d lowered the average age on the 11-person council from 61 to 45.
They smiled and interviewed with everyone from local radio to the Wall Street Journal. They started a podcast, hosted by one Republican and one Democrat. They had visions for police reform and accountability. They demanded that council meetings be broadcast on Facebook live, to do the public’s work in public. They talked about tomorrow as if it were yesterday.
Charlotte, one of the youngest cities in America with a median age of 34 years old, was going to ride them into a future where public servants work through political differences and create a city with plans for mass transit lines and climate change and affordable housing everywhere.
Quietly, though — maybe subconsciously for some of them — the big question of their generation hung over them: How will I stand out?
Even while the photo was being set up — it was a Charlotte Business Journal image that the Wall Street Journal republished — they jockeyed for more prominent positions in the frame.
Two wore bowties and one wore a bright green dress. One had well-known dreadlocks and was The Activist. Another was The Republican. And one had a basic, regular haircut, which in its own way made him quite different.
“Agents of destruction,” the Journal said of them in a tweet.
Newly elected ‘agents of destruction’ lead a youthful makeover of city halls across the U.S. https://t.co/ppZDYqsADO
— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) March 11, 2018
Come forward three years, to last Monday night in Charlotte. Five of the freshmen six are still on council.
At 5:45 p.m., a 21-year-old man is shot and killed in north Charlotte. Thirty minutes later, a 58-year-old man is shot and killed in west Charlotte.
On the same night in the same city in the same hours in the same universe, this still-young city council, which oversees public safety, spends 57 minutes of a three-hour meeting arguing over whether members should be allowed to attend meetings virtually or in person. Worse, this argument is but a postscript to one from the previous Monday, when they sparred for 20 minutes on the same subject.
In short, as police collected evidence on homicides 92 and 93 in one of the deadliest years in the past quarter-century, this city council had a meeting for a discussion on meetings that was a carry-over from a previous meeting.
They slump in their seats, pull their masks over their faces in frustration, and ensure that the only people still watching from home are either really into local government or just really into pain.
“Y’all,” one Facebook commenter chimes in during the live feed, “are indefinitely weird to each other.”
The Charlotte you see today was built for millennials, but that doesn’t make them any more special than previous generations.
The city’s oldest generation of leadership — including former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, who’s now 85, and former Mayor Harvey Gantt, who’s 77 — instilled in the city’s DNA a belief that any great city attracts young professionals, and any city that doesn’t is dying.
So in the same way the Charlotte of today is a place for today’s coming-of-age professionals (breweries, rooftop pools), the Charlotte of the 2000s was that for the Xennial bridge generation (Philosopher’s Stone in the afternoon, Cosmos at night), and the Charlotte of the 1990s was a playground Generation Xers (Cajun Queen bar and Frozen Dog; at least that’s what I’ve heard from my friend Rick).
A few years ago I was digging through the Charlotte magazine archives and found the August 1998 cover. On it is a young woman talking on a cordless (!) phone and the headline: “Invasion of the 20-Somethings.”
It stands to reason, then, that this city council should be looking to build a city for Generation Z. Pay it forward, and all.
In some ways they are. They’ve approved the early steps of a future east-west Silver Line that would create a light rail from Matthews to the airport. It would be a fitting legacy to leave, considering millennials will be the last generation to remember what Charlotte was like before the Blue Line opened in 2007.
They’ve also made progress in setting the workforce up for the future, supporting new economic development in areas like healthcare and fintech. And their biggest splash of a victory was helping secure an MLS franchise in late 2019.
On housing, they and the mayor championed increasing the city’s affordable housing bond from $15 million to $50 million, but even that, they’ve learned, is but a log in the whitewater rapids of housing instability here. If voters approve the bond again this fall, which they likely will, it’ll be another nice log. But we’re a long way from a dam.
On policing, they worked with new chief Johnny Jennings to change policies this summer in the wake of protests for George Floyd, from banning use of force that restricts airflow to procedures on dispersal orders and riot control.
On the economy, Charlotte put $50 million of CARES Act money aside for small businesses, and the United Way and Foundation for the Carolinas have raised $19 million in private money in a Covid-19 Response Fund for area nonprofits.
For all the hardship caused by the pandemic, Charlotte’s fared better than other areas. And without question, this city council faced issues more serious and challenging than its predecessors.
But drama often overshadows that work, and the more it happens, the more the public’s trust in them slides.
Two weeks ago in a public meeting, mayor Vi Lyles said she recognized there were “two camps” on city council.
I was listening on my phone and it made me stop what I was doing and look closer. Here was the mayor who’s made bridge-building part of her brand, admitting that the council, which is 9-2 in favor of Democrats, is divided along some other line.
In the two weeks since, I’ve talked to several current and former council members and people who observe local politics. The two camps and their members emerged rather quickly: There’s an establishment camp filled with more experienced council members and the mayor, and a shake-things-up camp with several of the younger council members and the new ones voted in last year.
The conversations I had with them not only revealed who was where, but also something that’s more and more true of modern politics: Two groups can be part of the same conversation and come away with two different descriptions of how events took place, and who was at fault.
In this case, each camp believes that the other is working for future political gain, but neither camp admits to doing so themselves.
“Their ambitions are getting in the way of judgment; they’re looking into their own future and using city council as a steppingstone,” says longtime Democratic strategist Dan McCorkle. “It’s like everybody’s passing through now. It’s like a subway station.”
That’s an interesting statement from McCorkle — a strategist — who works closely with at least two council members. Several he doesn’t work with consider him part of the problem.
Individually, the council members criticized each other’s motivations and mistakes. Collectively, they praised the work they’ve done. One thing they could agree on is that it’s been a long year.
Consider that list of accomplishments above, and then consider these words from council:
From millennial Democrat Dimple Ajmera: “Council is more divided than ever before. … A lot of my colleagues will tell me that they don’t know if they want to do this anymore.”
From non-millennial Democrat Julie Eiselt, mayor pro tem: “I do care a lot about Charlotte, and I’m worried about it. We’re really not in a good place.”
From Republican almost-millennial Tariq Bokhari: “There’s something to be said about the mental health of our nation right now. I don’t feel great. But we signed up for it.”
From millennial Democrat Larken Egleston, who sides with the establishment more often than his peers: “During Covid, you don’t even get to do the ribbon cuttings. So you’re just working for minimum wage to fight with your colleagues. You don’t get to see the results of your accomplishments as much as a group.”
From millennial Democrat Braxton Winston, who made a name for himself as a protester during the 2016 Keith Scott demonstrations: “It’s unfortunate. There’s a difference between politics and governing. And the unfortunate part about the American political and governing spheres is that those Venn diagrams are on top of each other now. Politics is supposed to be what we do during the campaigns.”
Maybe the expectation was unrealistic. Take politics out of politics? What’s that even mean? And maybe it was unfair to heap that expectation on this generation, particularly.
After all, this is the generation that entered the workforce during the Great Recession and realized that personal brands could be a way to scratch a little cash together, the generation of selfies and influencers, the one that thinks about how it looks more than any before it. And politics is nothing if not a quest to haul in the most likes on Election Day.
But this isn’t a Blame Millennials story.
The young people in that picture just got caught up in the political system that was set up to snag them, snag everyone.
Go back to the beginning.
Days after the 2017 election — before they were sworn in — they were thrust into a controversy over mayor pro tem. The job usually goes to the at-large candidate who receives the most votes. That year the top vote-getter was Eiselt, a late-50s Democrat with a background in finance. But Eiselt had a falling out with the Black Political Caucus when she refused to endorse the caucus’s full list of candidates in the primary.
Now around Thanksgiving, the caucus quietly maneuvered to elevate James “Smuggie” Mitchell, a late-50s Black man who’d finished third in the voting, into the mayor pro tem slot.
Boring, insider stuff. But the point is, the standing tension among veteran political players exposed an early fault line in the freshman class that became the public pileup that now is each Monday night.
Some of the newcomers supported Eiselt; others, Mitchell. Some worried that not supporting Mitchell would mean not receiving an endorsement from the Black Political Caucus in the next election.
I’m about two years older than a millennial, and two years younger than being Generation X. They say I’m from the microgeneration called Xennial. In any case, the view from here is lovely. And as your objective, generation-less observer, I feel comfortable saying this about how those first weeks played out: It figures.
The newcomers were the generation that graduated college into an economy in shambles thanks to the greed of older generations in the housing market, and they’re the generation that’ll have to deal with climate change long after the generations that didn’t believe in it are gone.
And now they were on the receiving end of this local political baloney they didn’t create, all before their first day.
As the debate over mayor pro tem took off that fall, Winston sat down with me for an interview for a story I wrote for Politico about his uncommon path to office. When I asked him about the pro tem controversy, he shook his head and said he couldn’t get into it.
“Do you know how much there is to learn already in this job?” he said. “At this point I’m just trying to figure out how people’s trash gets picked up.”
But Winston didn’t stay out of the ring long. In his first meeting as a council member, he suggested that Charlotte’s city council get a raise to something more than the $30,000 or so they receive for salary and expenses. And he suggested four-year terms.
He had valid reasons for each — the salary presents a barrier for low-wage earners to run for public office, and many of our peer cities do have four-year terms.
Behind closed doors, most council members, young and old, agreed with him, at least on the four-year terms point. But the public huffed at the request — a first-term council member asking for more money and a longer contract on the first day?
The more experienced council members immediately were frustrated with him. Several wanted to carefully roll out a proposal to move to four-year terms to the public. Winston just … said it.
“And then it was like, Alright dude, I guess we can’t do that now,” Eiselt tells me.
But Winston, then 35, believed he’d been elected with a directive from voters to say what he believed.
“Mayberry might be set in North Carolina,” he responded, “but Charlotte is no Mayberry.”
In the same election that swept the millennials into office, Lyles, a 66-year-old grandmother, became the first Black woman elected Charlotte’s mayor.
Lyles vowed to work with the Republican-led legislature after her predecessor, Jennifer Roberts, spent much of her tenure tussling with them, including the Great Big Fight over HB2. But in Lyles’ first month on the job, many of her fellow Democrats believe she went too far.
That December, she brought up the possibility of bringing the Republican National Convention to Charlotte. Ten of the 11 council members agreed with looking into it. So she did.
As the months ticked away and summer settled in, though, it became clear that Charlotte wasn’t just the lead contender for the convention but one of the few who even entered. Donald Trump’s policies quickly alienated him from left-leaning cities around the country — or, some might say the left-leaning cities alienated themselves from Donald Trump. Either way Charlotte, the joke became, would sell its first-born for an economic impact bump.
That July, Winston again caused a wave. He took to Facebook to post a video statement that the public should have a say in whether the RNC receives an official invite.
Two weeks later, nearly 120 people lined up on an afternoon in city hall for a public comment and vote.
In polling of council, it was clear that they were deadlocked, 5-5, with one unknown: Egleston. Then 36, Egleston spoke through a shaky voice as he outlined all the reasons he didn’t support the president, but that he supported hosting the RNC.
While Egleston talked, Winston shook his head. Three of his fellow freshman class members — Justin Harlow, Dimple Ajmera, and Matt Newton — had joined him as no voters. Bokhari’s a Republican so Winston hadn’t counted on him. But in that moment, Egleston had sided with the establishment camp.
The RNC vote continued to define and confront this city council. Lyles publicly tried to present a unified front, but those who voted against it never budged.
A week after she voted against the RNC, Dimple Ajmera was at the dais trying to figure out what her colleagues knew that she didn’t.
The mayor had given her boyfriend the opportunity to speak at the lectern near the meeting’s end. He stood in front of the mic and asked her to marry him.
For a moment, there was a consensus on council — they would all abstain while she recorded the one yes vote.
Ajmera immigrated to the United States from India as a child. She spoke little to no English then. She went on to the University of Southern California and became a CPA. Her job took her to Charlotte around 2009. She was here in 2013, making a top-shelf salary for someone in her 20s, when she got news that her father, just 55, died suddenly. It altered her way of thinking, and made her consider public service, she says. Several years after that, unprompted and out of nowhere, she was one of the first people from Charlotte to offer condolences when my father died.
Lyles put Ajmera in charge of the council’s environmental committee. A few months after the RNC vote, in spring 2019, Lyles disbanded the environmental committee and merged it with others.
That meant that Ajmera led no committees, and WFAE reported that she was the “biggest loser under the re-organization.”
Environmentalists roared in opposition, but the decision stood. To this day, Ajmera and her supporters believe she was being punished for not joining the establishment in voting for the RNC.
It only strengthened her stance. To a fault, almost.
The next year, in spring 2020, Julie Eiselt couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
Eiselt sees one of her responsibilities as mayor pro tem to whip up support for initiatives and make sure there are enough votes.
In April this year, council had to vote to accept the $50 million in federal grant money for security costs to put on the RNC. Eiselt started making her calls and texts. By now the council had committed to the RNC, so the vote to formally receive the money seemed almost mundane to her.
To her colleagues who voted against the RNC the previous year, though, it was hardly a sure bet. They told her they would vote to turn down the grant.
“I told them, ‘Just so you know that doesn’t mean you can cancel the convention,’” she tells me now, looking back. “And they said, ‘It’s the principle of the matter.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not the principle, it’s $50 million.’”
Ajmera, for one, didn’t see it that way.
“We have to be consistent with our vote,” she says. “We said, ‘Well, if we’re opposed to the war we cannot accept the funding.’”
The vote passed, barely, 6-5, and the opponents were widely ridiculed for nearly costing the city millions.
On Memorial Day weekend, debate over whether the city would host the RNC was again at the top of the news thanks to a few tweets from Trump. But that week, George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minnesota.
During the protests that followed, Winston ventured out and joined the protesters and was even arrested one night. Meanwhile, his fellow council class member, Bokhari, ventured out to record footage from the police perspective.
In his live feeds, Bokhari is animated, blasting local media for showing the events more from the protesters’ perspective. He grew feverish in his posts over the next two weeks, as pressure mounted on CMPD to slow its use of force during protests.
Then, one Wednesday night during a front-porch conversation session with the community, Bokhari did something nobody expected: He dropped to a knee, crumpled over, and wept.
“I took no joy in being the lone dissenting voice in the city; I definitely didn’t want to be doing that, but I felt like I had to do that, even though I had other sides of me that agree with justice and equity,” he tells me. “But that’s when everything turned south for me. I got targets on every part of my body.”
Whether there’s any truth to the assertion that his support of CMPD during a movement for Black lives turned his colleagues against him or not, they did turn.
Earlier in the spring, they’d agreed to give Bokhari’s nonprofit, Carolina Fintech Hub, $1.5 million in CARES Act money for the hub’s job-creation program. CFH’s Workforce Investment Network is much like Red Ventures’ Road to Hire. It takes people who haven’t attended college or didn’t want to attend college and trains them as programmers and developers, then helps place them in high-paying jobs.
Council members agree that it’s a good program, but this summer, they raised concerns over whether it was a conflict of interest to send public dollars to an organization run by one of their own.
They voted to exclude Carolina Fintech Hub from the funding. The measure passed 9-1; the only person who stood by Bokhari was Winston.
After that, Bokhari’s feverish posts stopped. He deleted the Facebook and Twitter apps from his phones. And he looked into the private sector to fund WIN.
As crazy as this year’s been, no day exposed the mad and erratic nature of Charlotte’s elected city government more than October 5.
As the homicide rate kept rising and the homeless encampment outside of Uptown kept growing, they’d spent the last half of the summer lobbing ethics complaints back and forth like a badminton shuttlecock. The complaints were thin, but more importantly irrelevant to ordinary citizens facing real crisis. People in tent city don’t have time to worry about what politicians say about each other; all they see are cranes moving and empty buildings while they try to keep the rain from ruining what they have left of their belongings.
That morning two weeks ago, though, council was set to have an all-day strategy session in person. Many looked to it as a day when they might finally work through their differences.
But three days before the meeting, the president was diagnosed with Covid-19, and for a short (very short) window the country was as cautious about the virus as it had been since spring.
That Monday morning, when the meeting came to order at 8:30 a.m., one chair was empty. Winston had sent a message to Lyles that morning to ask to attend the strategy session by WebEx link.
In a livestream, Lyles brought up Winston’s absence. She was visibly frustrated by the late request, and tossed out the idea of voting on whether to allow Winston to participate via WebEx.
Eiselt was the first to raise her hand. “No. We all made a commitment to come in this morning. And if that was going to be discussed beforehand. It should’ve been discussed,” she said.
Then she mentioned that Winston had been out at protests livestreaming confrontations with police in August. “If you have somebody that’s going to activities and going to protests, then I don’t think it’s fair that you can decide at the last minute you want to stay home.”
That didn’t sit well with some council people in the room. In my conversations with them — which spanned about six hours total — we spent significant time talking about ways they might be able to come together. But on this matter, nobody backed down.
“It’s very personal when someone says you’re going to the protest and you don’t want to go to the meeting,” Ajmera says.
“It is completely foolish for us to be sitting in a windowless room with bad mask-wearing practices,” Winston says.
“We’re all a little apprehensive,” Eiselt says. “It’s just like, ‘C’mon. You’re out and you’re with other people you’re at protests. Why aren’t you here?’ I’m not saying it’s not fair to worry about your health. But from what I’ve seen and heard it hasn’t been as much about health before.”
In the room that day, Lyles tried to steer them to a vote. But still some wanted to make public statements. Matt Newton, one of the millennials, came to Winston’s defense and said everybody in the room is taking a risk by being there. Newton’s mask was hanging from his left ear while he talked.
“Especially when you don’t have your mask on,” Lyles shot back.
Newton put it halfway on then let it drop back down and started talking again.
“No, literally put on your mask,” Lyles said.
Finally, when they voted (it took two votes to get the count right) five people supported allowing the WebEx and five said no. Winston would’ve been the tiebreaking sixth, but of course he wasn’t there. Lyles eventually broke the tie with a no vote.
After that, the content of the all-day meeting was actually filled with substance and accomplishments. One point of pride: In spite of the pandemic and reduced revenue, staff had ensured that the city didn’t have a budget deficit for the fiscal year. In fact there was a surplus.
Another topic was the matter of four-year terms. A majority of council, or at least close to the majority, supports the idea privately. A committee of citizens has worked for the past several months to study the possibility of staggered terms. The argument for it has a lot to do with everything else in this story: One way to avoid having council members constantly campaigning, the theory goes, is to make elections less frequent than every two years.
Now it’s a matter of whether council makes the move itself, which would almost certainly come with great political backlash, or to put it on the ballot for voters, who historically reject four-year terms.
“Council will have to find political will to do it over the short-sighted objections of the community who might think it’s a power grab,” says Egleston. It’s a noteworthy comment from him because eight years ago, when the county commissioners put four-year terms on the ballot, he was a citizen who voted against them.
That night on October 5, Egleston arranged for council to meet at Hattie’s bar after the meeting. But even a social drink wasn’t without drama.
Four council members and the mayor showed up, along with staff. Also there, by coincidence, was Queen City Nerve publisher Justin LaFrancois. He posted a picture of the council and staff that sparked another forehead-slapping conversation about who was wearing masks and when.
The next day, there were only two stories from the all-day strategy session — the one from the morning on how council shut out Winston, and the one from the evening when they were out drinking beer.
“It’s an awful lot. We live in an attack environment. We do good work all the time,” Bokhari says. “But there’s some self-sabotage.”
So what now?
I called the one person from the freshman class of 2017 who was more free than anyone to say what he thinks. Justin Harlow — one of the bowties — served one term but decided not to run again in 2019 because he was opening a second dental office and having a third child.
He spoke as if still part of the team, and says he’s still friends with the people on council. But his words were like those of someone intervening to tell a family member to confront an addiction.
“They’re positioning themselves for what’s next rather than do what’s best for the community,” he said. “The expectation that we were going to be this activist council has not been met. We fell short of that.”
He said some things out loud that others would only whisper. And here’s the big one: Last weekend, the Joe Biden campaign released an advertisement calling on Black women to stand up and vote. Six Black women mayors were in the ad, including Lyles. It only fueled speculation that Lyles has a future in a potential Biden administration, should he win the presidency. There’s a precedent for that, in that former mayor Anthony Foxx became secretary of transportation after Charlotte hosted the DNC in 2012.
“If that happens, it creates a vacuum,” Harlow says. “You could have a situation where you have all four at-large members vying for the mayor’s office next year.”
Ajmera, though, tells me she’s absolutely not running for mayor. Winston is the most likely bet, in part because of how well he performs in primary elections. But he and others won’t speculate publicly.
“I’ve always approached life as a team sport; our season runs for two years,” Winston says. “If you govern politically, you put your pole in the ground and you push people away that don’t support you politically. That’s not the role.”
Whatever happens, Egleston says, “This will not be the makeup of council after the 2021 elections.”
Harlow, meanwhile, is light and happy. He’s home every night with his kids, and is thinking about ordinary things like whether it’s time to move into a bigger house to give them more room.
But even as he waxed on about the joys of being private citizen, Harlow, a successful dentist in his early 30s with a beautiful family, wondered if he could’ve helped heal some of the wounds of this year.
“I am thankful for having my evenings back with my family. My employees are thankful, too,” he said. “But watching all this happen with my colleagues, part of me is like, ‘If I could just be a voice in the room …’”
It is the same bell that rings in the minds of his fellow class of council members, and of his generation on the whole. He’s done his community service by being an elected official, and he’s done right by himself and his family when he stepped away, and maybe for ambitious and civic-minded people like him this life is just going to be about bouncing between the two instead of middle ground.
Featured image by Logan Cyrus.
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