Charlotte’s politically respectable residents greeted Larken Egleston’s electoral defeat last month with stunned dismay.
Larken, who has served on City Council since 2017 representing Plaza-Midwood, NoDa, Dilworth, and surrounding neighborhoods, finished fifth in this year’s six-way Democratic race to earn one of four at-large spots on the general-election ballot. While hoping to make the transition from district to citywide representative, he managed to beat only convicted felon and former mayor Patrick Cannon.
Incumbents Braxton Winston and Dimple Ajmera took the top two spots, while former district councilwoman LaWana Mayfield finished third and former at-large councilman James “Smuggie” Mitchell came in fourth.
The Charlotte Observer, which praised Larken’s “moderate, steady voice” and called for his election, couldn’t believe he fell short.
“Of all the results from the 2022 primary election in Mecklenburg County, Larken Egleston’s loss may stand as one of the most surprising,” the newspaper’s election post-mortem began.
Without any public polls to contradict the primary results — which, if such polling existed, could have provided our governing class and Charlotte’s political Twitter glitterati with some objective cause for their surprise — the newspaper cited a single criterion for its astonishment: money.
“He outraised every other at-large candidate by a significant margin,” wrote the Observer‘s Will Wright. “He reported pulling in more than $137,000 from January 2020 to May 2. The next-closest candidate, Dimple Ajmera, raised about $67,500.”
Wright pondered several possible explanations for Larken’s loss.
True, but neither did Ajmera, who finished second. And the BPC backed Cannon, who did even worse than Larken.
Or perhaps Mitchell is to blame.
He resigned from Council in January 2021 due to conflicts of interest between his continued public service and his newly acquired stake in a construction company with municipal contracts. His departure meant there would be an open at-large spot in that year’s election, and Larken announced that he intended to abandon his safe district seat to seek an at-large one. But then COVID delayed the election and Mitchell’s relationship with the construction firm soured when he defaulted on a loan, prompting him to file for the seat he had just given up.
Had Mitchell not entered the race, Larken would have finished fourth and earned a spot on the general-election ballot. (Democrats so dominate Charlotte politics that the primary victors will almost certainly win seats in the general election.)
Or maybe Pat McCrory is to blame.
Some moderate, white, unaffiliated voters who would have otherwise pulled a Democratic primary ballot to support Larken may have instead participated in the Republican primary to vote for McCrory in the GOP’s senate contest, siphoning some votes away from Larken — the only white candidate in this year’s Democratic at-large field.
This explanation possesses plausibility. Moderate independents could certainly support a white Democrat who oversaw the formulation of minimalist police “reform,” cast the deciding vote to bring Donald Trump’s 2020 coronation to Charlotte, and made a point of being chummy with corrupt Republican colleague Tariq Bokhari.
Whatever the explanation for Larken’s loss, it is perhaps most telling that some people feel a need to search for one.
When, by contrast, Mayfield unsuccessfully tried in 2019 to make the jump from a district seat to an at-large one — just like Larken this year, finishing fifth in a race for four spots — the Observer straightforwardly reported, “Four-term council member LaWana Mayfield lost her re-election bid in the Charlotte City Council at-large primary race Tuesday.” The paper did not characterize Mayfield’s loss as “surprising,” and her defeat did not call for analysis.
The parochialism of our political class may well explain the differential treatment.
Larken, he of the “moderate, steady voice,” presents as a respectable member of the governing class, a man who shares an attitude, outlook, and social position with those surprised by his defeat. “If we, the responsible citizens of Charlotte, support Larken,” these folks may well have thought during the campaign, “then surely others must, too.” For those who view our local politics from this insular perspective, Larken’s defeat could not help but stun. His loss therefore required more than mere notation; it demanded analysis guided by an unspoken question: “What went wrong?”
Not so Mayfield. The mouthiness of this big, brash gay Black woman meant her loss in 2019 counted as a thoroughly explicable victory for the powers of municipal respectability — including those people and institutions that decide which political outcomes deserve analysis because they count as surprises.
Of course, Larken’s backers won’t publicly say that his loss came as a surprise simply because he’s one of them and they don’t lose to people like Mayfield. So they lazily cite his campaign coffers and raise the clumsy question, “How could someone with so much support fall short?” Thusly does our governing class — the sort of people who attend Charlotte Squawks and pronounce it top-drawer — mistake their own surprise for the community’s.
But the premise of campaign cash as a proxy for popular support fails: When it comes to Larken’s financial haul, there was less there than our local analysts suggested.
While the Observer reported how much Larken took in and by how much he out-raised his nearest opponent, it said nothing about who donated to his campaign.
It turns out most of his supporters were not rank-and-file citizens using their checkbooks to express enthusiasm for his candidacy, but a relatively small group of builders, developers, and realtors — who, it should be remembered, very much would like the people of this city to sit down, shut up, and get out of the way.
Between January 2021, when he announced his at-large candidacy, and last month’s primary, Larken’s campaign took in about $122,000. This money came from a total of 239 donors — 216 of whom gave more than $50. (State law requires campaigns to report the names, addresses, occupations, and employers of those who give more than $50.)
Looking at these 216 named donors and excluding the relative handful of small contributors — the size of that universe of financial backers itself a sign that Larken’s support was concentrated in the governing class — at least 110 are, or are linked to, builders, developers, and realtors. That’s more than half of his campaign’s financial backers.
Those 110 contributors pumped $81,900 into Larken’s campaign — more than two-thirds of the total he raised between January 2021 and the May 2022 primary.
Notwithstanding the Observer‘s implicit suggestion of widespread popular support for Larken’s campaign, the people didn’t back him: Developers did — and not just from Charlotte, but from as far away as Brooklyn and Boston. (The North Carolina realtors PAC also chipped in and gave him $4,000, among the most generous contributions made to his campaign.)
Indeed, more than 75% of Larken’s fundraising came from three sources, none of which indicates broad popular support from the city’s citizens: the self-interested development crowd, donors from outside Charlotte, and political action committees.
Stated differently, less than a quarter of his campaign funds came from ordinary citizens who aren’t looking to monetize municipal governance.
It would claim too much to say Larken’s loss was predictable or inevitable. After all, he almost won. But it reflects a rather limited perspective — one that confuses special interests for the common good, one that mistakes the preferences of the governing class for those of the people themselves — to find his defeat surprising.