Politics & Government

Transportation chief Anthony Foxx presses hometown leaders to visit more often

DOT secretary Anthony Foxx reflects on former role as Charlotte mayor

Charlotte’s former mayor Anthony Foxx, now the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, has a new perspective on how his hometown can tackle infrastructure development to accommodate its growing urban population.
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Charlotte’s former mayor Anthony Foxx, now the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, has a new perspective on how his hometown can tackle infrastructure development to accommodate its growing urban population.

From where Anthony Foxx now sits at the top of the towering U.S. Department of Transportation’s headquarters, the former Charlotte, N.C., mayor has a new perspective on how his hometown can improve its lot. He feels city leaders could do more.

A lot of people from Los Angeles to Chicago have walked through his office the past two years asking for his help fixing roads and laying down train tracks. And he’s noticed how they adeptly navigate other federal agencies advocating for their needs. He thinks Charlotte should do the same.

“Charlotte could be a little more aggressive at coming up and reaching out in Washington and trying to advance their priorities,” Foxx said.

His words came as a little dose of tough love from one of Charlotte’s favored sons during an exclusive interview on the challenges he’s faced as a member of the Obama administration and his political future.

Plucked to fill a role some thought he was unqualified for, many say Foxx has largely lived up to the high expectations. But praise only goes so far in Washington.

He has traveled over 296,760 miles during his time as secretary and has visited 43 states and 127 cities.

If you ask him, leading 55,000 federal employees in a department whose budget is three times greater than that of North Carolina is not so much different than his work when he was leading city council meetings as a part-time mayor. The main difference, he jokes, is that you’re not approached by mothers in the grocery store complaining about trash not being picked up.

But he does see how other cities run their federal request programs, and he thinks the Queen City could get better.

Be aggressive

Charlotte could do more work with the White House, Foxx said, and pursue economic development opportunities and more federal assistance in housing.

“Even on the advancing of the transit strategy, I think the community needs to be a lot more aggressive,” he said.

Foxx said he’d give the same advice to any city, but he was talking to The Charlotte Observer about the one city he knows more intimately than any other.

David Howard, a member of the city council who ran for mayor this fall, said Charlotte seems to have lost its way a bit since Foxx left two years ago.

Since then, the city has had three different leaders at the helm. And one of them is former mayor Patrick Cannon, who is serving a 44-month prison sentence for accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents and a Charlotte strip club owner.

Washington is a place where presence matters.

Anthony Foxx, U.S. Transportation Secretary and former Charlotte mayor

Dan Clodfelter, the outgoing Charlotte mayor, said he’s not sure what impact the Cannon controversy had on federal lobbying efforts since he was in Raleigh as a member of the General Assembly for that drama. Nonetheless, he said he was surprised to hear of the secretary’s feelings. He said Foxx never shared those thoughts with him.

Clodfelter, who unsuccessfully ran for reelection this year, said the Charlotte-to-D.C. connection was strong. He rattled off a list of federal initiatives Charlotte has joined since he took over last year. They include the city’s involvement in Obama’s “My Brother's Keeper” program that helps boost opportunities for young minority boys. Charlotte also was the backdrop for Housing and Urban Development Secretary Raul Castro’s national announcement in April to help public housing authority residents increase their earned income. Foxx has been in Charlotte twice since the summer, including last month to announce a $25 million grant to move the Amtrak station to Uptown.

Clodfelter has traveled to Washington three times as mayor. He’s met with the congressional delegation, lobbied the Federal Aviation Administration for the airport tower, and discussed the streetcar with Foxx. But he doesn’t think the city has missed out on any opportunities because he hasn’t been to Washington more.

“We haven’t found that it’s always essential to get on a plane and go to D.C., because we’re getting an awful lot of folks wanting to come and visit and see firsthand what we’re doing here,” Clodfelter said.

Outsourcing the lobbying?

Charlotte pays the international law firm Holland & Knight $210,000 a year to help the city gain grants and funding, among other things, in the areas of transportation, economic development and housing. Aimee Steel, a spokeswoman for the firm, declined to discuss the contract and instead referred The Charlotte Observer to Dana Fenton, the city’s intergovernmental relations manager.

Fenton said Holland & Knight provides federal lobbying services for the city of Charlotte working with members of Congress, their staff and the different departments and agencies in the White House administration. He said the law firm understands the political climate and the federal process that Congress and the White House uses.

He credited Holland & Knight with helping Charlotte obtain Federal Aviation Administration funding for the new airport tower, $580 million for the Lynx Blue Line and $50 million in security funding for the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

“We have a very focused legislative agenda,” Fenton said. “It’s not as broad as a lot of other cities. We feel if we can focus on the most important priorities, we feel we’ll have a better chance of success.”

It’s not that Holland & Knight is doing a bad job, but the city shouldn’t be outsourcing its important relationships, Foxx said. Leaders need to make the time to develop them themselves, he said.

I will say that we have had to spend an awful lot of attention recently, not just on Washington, but also on playing defense in Raleigh.

Dan Clodfelter, Mayor of Charlotte

The incoming Charlotte mayor, Jennifer Roberts, will be sworn in in early December. When it comes to working with Washington, D.C, Foxx had simple and direct advice.

“Washington is a place where presence matters,” Foxx said. “The temptation in particularly cities in the South, I would say, is to have a team of lobbyists paid to do the work. And what I’ve found is that while that is probably helpful, it isn’t sufficient to get kind of priorities done that you need.”

In an interview, Roberts said she hasn’t been directly involved with the city leadership enough the past few years to say whether Charlotte should have been more active in Washington. But she said she will be.

“I do think it’s important to show up to keep those connections strong,” she said. “As mayor you are an advocate for your city.”

When she was the chairwoman of the county commission, Roberts said she traveled to Washington to talk about and seek federal grants for planning projects, the light rail and greenways.

On the job

Transportation secretary is not the most glamorous of cabinet positions. It doesn’t have the cache of Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. When transportation runs smoothly, hardly anyone pays any attention to the transportation leader.

It’s when there are problems that the spotlight turns to the person in charge. In Foxx’s short time in office, he has had to deal with oil train derailments, plane crashes and the near collapse of the highway trust fund that pays for the nation’s roads and bridges.

He’s been very open and aggressive reaching out to members of Congress. They all have big egos. They have to have their egos stroked. He understands that.

James Burnley, former Transportation Secretary under President Ronald Reagan

Many wondered whether Charlotte’s youngest mayor was up for the challenge. In a city like Washington, where political dysfunction is the norm, Foxx has done better than many at bridging the partisan divide

“I had my concerns about him coming to Washington,” said Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “He didn’t have an extensive transportation background. What I found out very quickly was being a big city mayor, he’s had to deal with all these bureaucratic red tape government programs.”

Foxx’s final year

It’s not often that Charlotte’s going to have a friend with so much influence Washington. Howard said the city should do more to take advantage of Foxx’s last year in office.

It’s not just about transportation issues, but Foxx could lend contacts and direction in lobbying other agencies, Howard said. The city should pursue energy grants for research and development at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and health and human services grants for Johnson C. Smith University, he said.

“I’m just not sure that we’ve put the word out that we’re as open for business as much as we should,” Howard said.

It’s not that leaders are not coming to Washington, Foxx said, but he felt the city could be more in tune with what’s going on in the nation’s capital.

He gives an example of how, as mayor, he led a group of business leaders to meet with senior members of the White House economic team. The meetings resulted in the workplace development grants and Packard Place technology incubator, which was built with help from federal stimulus funds.

“I just think there is a lot more openness to a fast growing community in helping to tackle those issues,” he said. “I would say that to any community.”