A month before the 2008 presidential election, retired Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr. wrote a column for the Observer in which he explained why an America in economic peril needed Barack Obama’s leadership.
Then, last year, McColl – still on any A-list of North Carolina’s most influential leaders – agreed to serve as an honorary co-chair on a host committee that’s raising $37 million for the Democratic National Convention.
So why is McColl now listed as one of the co-chairs of a Charlotte fundraiser next week for Mitt Romney, Obama’s likely Republican opponent?
He’ll join fellow co-hosts C.D. Spangler and Johnny Harris – two other well-heeled Charlotteans with clout – at the April 18 event at Myers Park Country Club.
“Really, I’m supporting Mitt Romney in the Republican primary,” McColl told the Observer this week, before he learned that Rick Santorum had dropped out of the GOP race, paving the way for Romney’s eventual nomination. “I like Mitt Romney. I’m sure I will support him financially.”
As a registered Democrat, though, McColl can’t vote in North Carolina’s May 8 GOP primary.
But he can certainly vote for Romney over Obama in November. Will he?
“I haven’t made up my mind,” he said. “I think Mitt Romney as an alternative is good for the country. I think we should have a choice.”
So, what will McColl’s choice be?
“I’m not going to say,” he said. “Voting is a private matter.”
But, four years ago, he publicly endorsed Obama, saying his “sharp intellect, stiff spine and steady hand” made him best equipped to deal with an economy in disarray.
“I may (endorse) again,” he said. “But today, I’m not prepared to do that.”
Despite McColl’s answers, one thing seemed clear from the interview: Obama, a sometime critic of the country’s banks and a president still struggling with the economy, will not automatically get his vote this time.
BofA ‘unduly attacked’
McColl refused several times to spell out his current views on the president.
But he did say that he has not appreciated the denunciations of Bank of America in recent years – a chorus of criticism Obama has joined.
Last October, the president slammed the bank McColl built for its decision, since rescinded, to charge customers a $5 monthly fee for use of their debit cards.
“You don’t have some inherent right just to, you know, get a certain amount of profit, if your customers are being mistreated,” Obama told ABC News. “This is exactly the sort of stuff that folks are frustrated by.”
But it’s those kinds of comments that appear to frustrate McColl, who turned Bank of America into an international powerhouse before retiring in 2001.
“Clearly, I have felt like Bank of America has been unduly attacked by the press and the government. I’m not happy about that,” McColl said, then added: “You heard the word press, didn’t you?”
McColl also said going after banks is short-sighted.
“Whether you like banks or not, they are a mirror of our economy. If banks are doing poorly, then the economy is doing poorly. You should hope that banks are doing well; then the economy is doing well,” he said. “I see no reason to attack the banks. That’s a mistake. We need more credit, not less credit. And I think we need more risk-taking. The country is not going to get going without it.”
As for that still-fragile economy, McColl said the country continues to have problems centered on jobs and the deficit.
“None of them are easy. And no one person has answers to all these (problems), but it’s something we need to deal with,” McColl said. “Who can best deal with these problems? All of us will be thinking about that as we go to the polls.” The battle for N.C.
Though a life-long Democrat, McColl has supported both Democrats and Republicans for the White House. He backed both Bushes – Republican father and son – but he also endorsed Democrat Bill Clinton as well as Obama.
“I vote for who I think is the best man at the time,” said McColl, who actually contributed – along with his wife – a total of $4,200 to a woman, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, during her 2008 Democratic race with Obama.
Winning that public nod from McColl just after the economy tanked in 2008 helped Obama crack a banking industry that had long supported Republicans.
This year, Romney, a former CEO himself, has found support – financial and otherwise – from Charlotte’s banking community. Losing McColl, too, won’t make it any easier for Obama to carry North Carolina, a crucial swing state that he won by just 14,000 votes in 2008.
Before last year, relations between Obama and McColl seemed to be on course – at least publicly.
In March 2010, McColl accompanied Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx to a White House meeting about the needs of cities during the sour economy. A month later, during a trip to Charlotte, Obama singled out McColl.
“Hugh, it’s good to see you again,” the president said, thanking him for his 2008 endorsement.
Then, last year, Obama chose Charlotte as the site of the Democrats’ 2012 convention – an acknowledgement not only of North Carolina’s importance in the campaign’s electoral strategy, but also of McColl’s efforts over the years to turn uptown Charlotte into a shiny showplace.
The president will cap off convention week with an internationally televised acceptance speech in a stadium named for McColl’s bank. McColl is honorary co-chair (along with former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt) of the host committee’s steering group. The host committee, charged with preparing Charlotte for the convention and raising money to fund the actual convention, is officially non-partisan. Most of its members are Democrats, but it also includes a few local Republicans, including former Charlotte Richard Vinroot and city council member – and 9th District GOP congressional candidate – Andy Dulin.
Though McColl’s attendance at the Romney fundraiser suggests he may end up favoring Obama’s defeat in 2012, he seemed cheered that Charlotte had landed the Democratic convention.
“I think it’s great and appropriate: We are a major American city,” said McColl. “I’m pleased.”
Reached Wednesday, a host committee official said this about McColl’s support for both the Democratic convention in Charlotte and the Republican Romney campaign: “This is a great example of leaders in Charlotte recognizing that this convention is a tremendous opportunity for this city and the region – regard of personal politics.”
Still, McColl said he had no plans to personally raise money for the convention – or for the Romney campaign.
“I actually don’t raise money for anything but charity,” he said. “No, I’m not raising money for the convention or for politicians.” Spangler cites ‘experience’
Romney’s fundraiser – $1,000 per person or $2,500 for a picture with Romney – promises to be a lucrative one for his campaign. The invitation, which includes some of Charlotte’s most notable names, was circulated in hopes of swelling the ranks of donors.
Former UNC System President Spangler, a registered Democrat, was more forthright than McColl about his support for Romney.
“No question about that,” he said when asked if he’s for Romney, a former Massachusetts governor. “I met him many years ago. He’s a fine person and he has a great deal of experience.”
Another Republican co-host said Romney could take in $400,000 or more at the event.
Add that to what he raises at a Raleigh luncheon earlier in the day and his haul for one day in North Carolina could approach $1 million.
Staff writers Andrew Dunn and Kirsten Pittman contributed.
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