Patrick Cannon’s Campaign for Redemption
The former Charlotte mayor was the youngest person ever elected to the city council but went to prison for taking bribes. Queen City voters are wrestling with whether to give him another chance. // Photos by Cornell Watson
The Sunday after Easter, Patrick Cannon stood behind the lectern at one of the city’s most prominent Black churches.
Dressed in a gray suit with a red bow tie, the 55-year-old Cannon started his pitch sounding more preacher than politician. The organist and worshipers occasionally chimed in as he recounted how God had rescued him from his descent into corruption.
“Can I tell you ... that God is good?” he said, pausing for effect. “And I don’t say that lightly.”
“Yes, sir!” came a response from the pews.
“There was a time in my life where it was dark,” Cannon said as the organist tapped dramatically on the keys. “And I didn’t know if I could face tomorrow.”
“But God,” he continued, “allowed me the opportunity to have a moment to rededicate my life.”
For some in the church, the last time they saw Cannon was eight years ago on local TV news, as he was headed to prison for taking more than $50,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents.
He’s been a free man since September 2016, after serving 22 months of a 44-month sentence. And this year, in a move that has spurred heated debate around town, Cannon filed to run for an at-large seat on the Charlotte City Council—the place where he began his political career nearly 30 years ago. He is one of six candidates running in the Democratic primary on May 17 for four seats.
Cannon, who was Charlotte’s third Black mayor, is campaigning not just for a seat—but for a second chance.
Will it convince Charlotte voters?
“A redemption message plays well, not only in the Black church, but in the South,” said Kerry Haynie, who teaches African-American studies and state politics at Duke University. “Folks are willing to give people a second chance if they’re genuine. And, often, voters will know someone who’s cleaned up their act and is now walking the straight and narrow.”
Plus, Haynie added, Black voters’ suspicion of law enforcement has made it “not unusual” for Black politicians to stage comebacks after time behind bars.
Perhaps the most prominent was former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who served six months in prison on a drug conviction in the early 1990s, and later returned to the District council and eventually the mayor’s office.
Cannon is getting some encouragement: Charlotte’s Black Political Caucus included him on the list of endorsements the group distributes outside key polling places. That’s worth some votes in a city where typically more than half of the Democratic voters are African-American.
“He did his time and I still believe in second chances,” said Caucus member Aisha Dew, a former head of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party.
But not everybody is on the Cannon comeback train. He failed to win the endorsement of The Charlotte Post, a 144-year-old weekly that calls itself “The Voice of the Black Community.”
If Cannon makes it past the primary, Republicans are likely to target the former mayor in hopes of securing at least one of the at-large seats in the July 26 general election. They have plenty of material at their disposal, including FBI footage of him trying to figure out how to get a briefcase containing $20,000 in cash out of the mayor’s office in 2014.
“I believe in redemption,” said Tariq Bokhari, one of two Republicans on the Charlotte City Council. “But if you rob a bank, that doesn’t mean you get to be the teller again.”
When Cannon was elected Charlotte’s top executive in November 2013, jubilant supporters crowded into a hotel ballroom, chanting “Pat-rick! Pat-rick!”
“I am so ready to lead,” Cannon told the crowd, flashing a broad smile as he savored his victory with 53 percent of the vote. Then raising a fist, he added, “Let’s go, Charlotte!’
Brushed aside for the night were doubts that even some Democrats had about Cannon, stoked during the campaign when his Republican opponent questioned his fitness to be mayor.
Patrick Cannon campaigns outside an early voting location in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
The accusation came after news reports revealed Cannon had not told the truth when he said he never attended closed city council meetings about the city possibly offering financial help to the Carolina Panthers—a client of a downtown parking business Cannon had started in the 1990s.
But media coverage of Cannon’s win focused on the Charlotte native’s rise from a childhood in public housing to successful careers in business and politics.
His father had been murdered when Cannon was just 5 years old. His single mother raised her only son in Fairview Homes and Pine Valley public housing projects.
In 1978, the Big Brother program matched Cannon, then 11, with Phil McCrory, a businessman whose younger brother, Pat McCrory, also befriended young Cannon and would go on to serve multiple terms as mayor of Charlotte and later governor of North Carolina.
Cannon started his political career in 1993 when he attended a meeting of his Pine Valley neighborhood association. A few months later, Cannon, then 26, ran for the Charlotte City Council and won handily, becoming the youngest person to ever serve on the council.
Though a bit green and “very serious for his age,” as former Mayor Harvey Gantt put it, Cannon quickly ascended the ranks of local politics. In 2001, he was elected to an at-large seat on the council and, by 2005, he was mayor pro tem.
It looked like he’d run for mayor that year, challenging his old friend Pat McCrory. But Cannon abruptly pulled out of the race, citing the recent deaths of two relatives and a desire to focus more on his family. By then, he was married with two children and living near the affluent Ballantyne community.
But in 2009, when Cannon filed to run again for council after a four-year absence, The Charlotte Observer’s standard background check of candidates’ civil and criminal records turned up another reason Cannon had pulled out of the 2005 mayor’s race: tax troubles with the Internal Revenue Service.
Between 2003 and 2008, the newspaper reported, the IRS filed a total of $193,553 in liens related to his business, E-Z Parking. Cannon settled them all, but he’d kept it from the public. “I felt like it was a personal matter,” he told The Observer at the time.
Over his years in politics, Cannon fended off other accusations—that he had cut ethical corners, that he had been too focused in advocating for campaign contributors, including a strip-club owner. Cannon also had rocky relations with some of his fellow council members, who were put off by his personal ambition and smooth-talking style.
In an interview with The Assembly, Cannon defended his time on the council. “We got things done,” he said. “At the end of the day, I could count to six,” which gave him the council majority he needed.
Patrick Cannon meets a potential voter outside an early voting location in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
While some considered Cannon self-serving, he also garnered a reputation for diving into policy and working hard for those who didn’t feel like they had a voice in the halls of government.
He led the move to create a Citizens Review Board to hear the public’s complaints about police misconduct. He also pushed for investment and affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods.
“He was a substantive councilman, whether you agreed or disagreed with him,” Michael Barnes, who served on the city council from 2005 to 2015, told The Assembly. “He was really serious about policy, economic development, public safety.”
Cannon also seemed just as comfortable with the business executives in uptown Charlotte’s gleaming skyscrapers as with his low-income constituents.
But by the time Cannon ran for mayor in 2013, the FBI had been investigating him for three years, following up on a tip that he was taking bribes.
Cannon was sworn in as Charlotte’s 56th mayor in December 2013. His rocket-like success story came to a catastrophic end just 115 days later.
In a living room somewhere in comfortable south Charlotte, two men are hunched over a coffee table.
One of them, in a crisp white dress shirt and dark suit pants, sits on a pillowy sofa, looking over papers. The other man occupies a chair.
“Well, tell me what I need to do,” says the man on the couch. “It’s moving forward.”
“You already did it,” the other man says with a laugh.
But there’s one more matter. The man in the chair unzips a small pouch, withdraws a wad of cash, and places two stacks of bills on the coffee table.
The man on the couch picks up one of the stacks and fans the bills next to his right ear.
“Thank you,” he says as they shake.
“Thank you,” says the man in the chair.
The scene was recorded on a hidden camera in January 2013. The man who paid the money was an FBI agent masquerading as a commercial real estate developer; a dark circle obscures his face in the video.
But the man on the couch who took the $12,500 in bribes was clearly then-Charlotte City Council member Patrick Cannon.
There were more videos, including footage from February 2014, when then-Mayor Cannon schemed with an FBI agent posing as an out-of-town businessman about how to get a briefcase filled with $20,000 in cash out of the 15th floor of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.
Cannon was arrested and resigned the same day in March 2014.
“For nearly half my life, I have had the honor of serving the people of Charlotte,” Cannon, flanked by his lawyers, said outside the federal courthouse on the day he pleaded guilty to one count of fraud. “Much has been given to me in the way of the public’s trust. I regret having acted in ways that broke that trust. For that, I am deeply sorry.”
Patrick Cannon visits a restaurant, Buzz City Bar and Grill, located near an early voting site in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
Patrick Cannon watches as the owner of Buzz City Bar and Grill places a campaign sign outside the restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
After Cannon was arrested, Parks Helms, a Democratic leader and former Mecklenburg County commissioner and state legislator, told The Observer: “I’ve always had a sense of concern about Patrick. He came so far so fast. I always wondered if he had the depth of character, the depth of commitment to the city of Charlotte as opposed to the depth of commitment to Patrick Cannon.”
The incriminating videos weren’t released to the public until early 2016, after The Charlotte Observer and other media groups filed Freedom of Information Act requests.
By then, the former mayor of Charlotte was Inmate 29396-058 at a minimum security federal prison in Morgantown, West Virginia.
The West Boulevard Library wasn’t yet open when Cannon arrived on the second day of early voting last month. So his morning interview with The Assembly was held in his campaign manager’s charcoal gray GMC Terrain.
The close quarters seemed to bring out the storyteller in Cannon, and he wasn’t shy about casting himself as the hero of most of them. Some of the stories were old chestnuts he’d been telling reporters for decades.
When he was 2, he said he happened upon a pin cushion and swallowed 10 straight pins. He was taken to the hospital, but they couldn’t do much. So they sent him home, advising his mother to keep him calm.
“Days later,” he said, “each one of those pins passed through my system without puncturing any organs or causing any harm to me.” Moral of the story, Cannon said: “I’ve been defying odds all my life.”
He told the same story, with the same moral, to The Observer decades ago for one of its profiles of him.
Later in the interview, he recounted another story, this one from a barber shop. An elderly man called over to him.
“I walked over to him and he whispered in my ear, ‘Son, you inspire me,’” Cannon said. “Here’s someone in his 80s talking about me being an inspiration to him. If anything, it should be flipped.”
A few times during the interview, Cannon called a timeout, piled out of the GMC Terrain, and walked over to greet voters and other candidates who had shown up at the library, one of the early voting sites in Charlotte’s Black community.
Patrick Cannon on the campaign trail. (Photo by Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
He passed out his campaign cards—“SERVICE-DRIVEN, RESULT-ORIENTED”—and sometimes offered a facemask with his campaign branding.
Now that he’s back on the trail, meeting people, detailing the things he would get done in office, Cannon said he’s determined to not let his past “mistake” keep him from what he considers his calling.
He tells another childhood story.
“I would listen to people suggest that, because my father was not around, that I would never go anywhere, do anything, or become anybody,” Cannon said. “So I had to work against those odds and the idea that people—some people—felt that because I grew up in public housing that somehow that would make a difference in my ability to succeed.”
That, too, is a story Cannon has told for years, and was reflected in a 2013 radio ad for his mayoral campaign.
“Patrick Cannon fought against the odds, making it without a father because someone would take his father’s life. The odds of growing up in public housing communities,” said the ad. “The odds of coming from a single-parent home and the odds of some saying he would never go anywhere, do anything, or become anybody ... He would defy those odds.”
So part of Cannon’s script today, as he tries for a comeback, is a golden oldie—a part of his past he embraces.
“I know what it is to be steadfast,” he said. “I know what it is to have to continue to work, to take hits and still keep your head high, to see things through. And to finish the race.”
“Cannon — The People’s Choice,” read one of the colorful signs at Charlotte polling places as early voting got underway late last month. But at the library on Beatties Ford Road, in the heart of Charlotte’s Black community, voters seemed split about Cannon.
Devondia Roseborough, 50, who works at UNC-Charlotte, smiled at the mention of Cannon’s name and said she planned to vote for him.
“Redemption is true and necessary,” she said. “We all make mistakes. I’m willing to give him a second chance. I know he loves the community.”
Patrick Cannon places campaigns signs outside an early voting location in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
But Monique Goodwin, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mom, was startled to see Cannon’s name on the ballot. Somehow she’d missed all the news coverage about his filing, but was well aware of his past crime.
“I saw his name and thought, ‘Wait! Is this the same Patrick Cannon?!’ My eyes were wide,” she said.
Cannon didn’t get Goodwin’s vote: “I don’t know if I want to put him in the position to make the same mistake. If a dog bites you once, it’s the dog’s fault. Twice, and it’s your fault. And we know what kind of dog he was.”
Edward Barkley, a 64-year-old white Republican, seemed out of place at the library, where most of the early voters were Black and Democratic. But Barkley, wearing a Carolina Panthers shirt, sounded a bit like a Patrick Cannon fan, too.
“I think he did a great job” during his years on the city council, said Barkley. “Yes, he also did a crime. But he paid the price. To me, it’s all square. Any man can make a mistake. I believe in forgiveness.”
Other Republicans are hoping Cannon makes it to the general election for a very different reason: They say he’d be a perfect target as the GOP tries to win an at-large seat on the Charlotte City Council for the first time since 2009.
Local Republicans are officially hoping to win all four, having fielded a full slate for the first time in years. But Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two-to-one in Charlotte—so their best bet may be to attract enough unaffiliated voters, as well as any Democrats who can’t bring themselves to vote for Cannon.
“Even die-hard liberals are cringing” about Cannon as a candidate, said GOP council member Bokhari.
What the local Republicans don’t have right now is much money. They’d need a lot of it to run TV or radio ads, or even send out mailers reminding voters of those images on the FBI videos. That’s where the state GOP could come in.
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley of Gaston County told The Assembly he wants to wait until after the primary to decide how Republicans around the state might be able to help.
“We want to play in every county and every city,” Whatley said. “We can’t win if we write off Charlotte or Raleigh or Wilmington or Asheville.”
And he’s gunning for Cannon: “Anytime you have a candidate as flawed as Patrick Cannon, who could be on the general election ballot, absolutely you’re going to want to talk about his record.”
The five other Democrats vying with Cannon to fill the four at-large seats have been mostly mum about his criminal record, using a similar script in their responses to The Assembly.
“I have no opinion” on Cannon’s decision to run, said LaWana Slack-Mayfield, another former city council member who is trying for a comeback. “We’re a democracy. It’s up to the community to educate themselves. I’m running my campaign.”
Braxton Winston, an incumbent running for re-election, has also waved away any opportunity to attack Cannon. “I’m just going to run my race ... Our job is to bring leadership, not play those kind of clown games of personal attacks.”
Cannon has taken plenty of fire from editorialists, columnists, even a cartoonist.
Robert Morris, editor of the Charlotte Business Journal, worried in a recent column that a Cannon win would again soil the city’s image.
“One issue that has plagued many growing metropolitan areas has not surfaced in Charlotte: public corruption. With one exception,” he wrote. “Perception matters. It’s not difficult to surmise the national perception if a man caught on video accepting a bag of cash from undercover FBI agents is elected to return to City Council.”
In its non-endorsement, The Charlotte Observer said Cannon “has not done enough since (his time in office) to regain voters’ trust.”
And The Observer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Kevin Siers, greeted Cannon’s reentry into local politics by drawing him raising his right hand—buried in a cookie jar—and saying, “All I’m asking for is a second chance…”
But it’s Cannon’s standing in the Black community that may well decide his electoral fate, at least in the May 17 primary.
The most coveted endorsement there comes from the Black Political Caucus. Founded in 1965, it has more than 300 members who each pay $30 a year to join. More than 200 participated in the endorsement vote this year.
Cannon got 100 votes. That put him behind three candidates, who are Black, and just two votes ahead of another candidate, who is white. But that was enough to get him one of the Caucus’ four endorsements—and all that comes with such an imprimatur, including the support of U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat from Charlotte.
Cannon’s most stalwart supporter may be the Rev. Dwayne Walker, pastor of Little Rock AME Zion, where the candidate spoke on the Sunday after Easter.
Walker, whose church has hosted NAACP and Black Political Caucus meetings, was one of the first local leaders to encourage Cannon to run. And after he spoke at the church, the pastor posted a photo of the two of them on Facebook.
“We were honored to have my friend and brother, Mr. Patrick D. Cannon, in the house today,” he wrote. “He is a good man and I wish him nothing but success in all his endeavors!”
In an interview with The Assembly, Walker made the case for second chances—especially for a candidate, he said, who has passion for Charlotte and experience in helping those residents most in need of a champion.
“People are more than their mistakes,” he said about Cannon. “And I would be less of a pastor if I didn’t encourage people to get up again.”
Patrick Cannon stands for a portrait in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
Back in the SUV, the conversation shifts to Cannon’s darker past. He said he’s never watched the FBI tapes.
“I have no interest in rehashing in my mind the past because I’m so focused on the now,” he said. “What’s important is the people of the city of Charlotte. And my renewed focus and energy on myself.”
He said that taking the undercover bribes was “uncharacteristic of me. And that, if given an opportunity at redemption, that I’d never ever make that mistake again.”
Cannon can seem full of contradictions. He was a religious man well before his imprisonment. He’s a longtime member of The Park Church, a megachurch in Charlotte, and has sturdy ties to other churches and pastors. He even studied to be a minister himself.
But he was also a politician who tried to help “Slim” Baucom, a strip-club owner in uptown Charlotte who was generous to Cannon and told The Observer in 2014 that the former mayor was a “good friend.”
Cannon said his story is “about how you continue to put God first. That whatever the outcome is, it’s for the glory of the Kingdom. Maybe I needed that time to go away (to prison), to reflect.”
And where was God in those rooms when he took the money?
“The devil shows up in many ways,” Cannon said. “And tempts us, as anyone can see. When those tests come, as they sometimes will, we’re all either in a storm, coming out of one or heading into another.”
Then he exited the SUV. With eyeglasses and his head shaved, the Cannon of 2022 looks older than the young man who scaled the heights of Charlotte politics, only to fall further than any elected official in the city’s history. He immediately ran into one voter, then another, as he continued his quest for renewal, seeking fists to bump and souls to persuade.
Tim Funk covered politics and religion for The Charlotte Observer for 35 years. He now co-hosts the podcast "Inside Politics: Election 2022" for Charlotte's WFAE