The morning after another rager of a Monday night in local government, Charlotte’s most controversial city council member tapped the top of his Corkcicle tumbler while his eyes welled up with tears.
“I’m depressed,” Tariq Bokhari was telling us now, sitting outside of a South End coffee shop and market. “I’m depressed. I feel like a loser.”
So goes the ride of the urban Republican. The 41-year-old is one of the last of his party elected to serve in a large American city, this one or any. The New York Times recently reported that the top 11 are all led by Democrats. Of the 100 largest, only 26 have Republican mayors; only two of the top 25 do.
It’s left Republicans with little say in the governing of the country’s economic and population hubs, even as they dominate in state legislatures such as North Carolina’s. And it’s enough to make even the cockiest and brashest among them crash from time to time.
Bokhari and Ed Driggs, a retired banker, are Charlotte’s only GOP reps on the 11-member council. Despite his youth and political affiliation, Bokhari had played lead role in 2021, luring new companies such as Robinhood here and helping to bolster Charlotte’s status as a tech city. There’ve been stretches where he’s dominated the news cycle for several days.
But the spring victories only gave way to larger losses in early summer.
On June 28, they voted to move this fall’s city council elections to next year. They did it because a delay in census data made it impossible to draw district boundaries. Bokhari understood that, but he couldn’t understand why the hell they’d wait to hold the four at-large contests and mayor’s race, all of which are voted on citywide.
Bokhari sees most political interactions as competitions — there’s the side he’s on, and the side for people who are wrong — so even something as procedural as sliding an election back a few months was crushing.
As the vote on the elections collapsed in front of him, he became rabid. He slouched in his chair and sat up straight. He accused his colleagues of pearl clutching, and of giving themselves contract extensions without the voters’ blessing. He let words fly, pointing directly at council member Malcolm Graham and saying Graham had no respect for anyone other than himself (interaction at 2:38).
That last thing prompted the mayor to shove her chair out from behind the table in frustration and call a recess.
As it happens, we’d scheduled our meeting with Bokhari for the next morning.
“I feel like I’ve let down everyone who gave me money to run,” he said of the back-to-back Monday night losses. “All the other little things day to day, get the potholes filled, anyone can do that. People trusted me to come here and deal with the big issues. And I failed. So I feel like sh-t.”
This is why, he says, “Nobody legit wants to do this.”
Why it matters: We wanted to talk with him in a casual setting to see if the millennial firebrand who’s a series of point-counterpoints — who’s become Charlotte Twitter’s most despised public figure, but who’s also helped make Charlotte a fintech capital and brought millions in new business to town … who’s created a jobs program that pulls people out of poverty, but who’s also made national news for suggesting it be illegal to give food to homeless people … who’s been the subject of ethics complaints and the tosser of ethics complaints … who’s defended police, and who’s wept at the center of a group of Black Lives Matter protesters, and accused colleagues of “pandering to the rioters” … who’s been labeled a racist but is also a first-generation Pakistani American who grew up being pelted by racist comments — wanted to clear anything up.
He does, he says, in that he wants people to know he stands by most of it, if not all.
He believes he’ll be proven right in the long run for his stance on the 2040 plan and elections. He thinks people are wrong in their perception of him. And he does believe he’s here to keep Charlotte from suffocating under all-Democrat rule.
In the course of our 90-minute recorded discussion, he offered insight into his life he hadn’t shared at length before — including the father who left his family, and a diagnosis with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But every time a lump formed, he swallowed it quickly and went back to pressing harder against his critics.
First, a simple one. Of ParkMobile, the city’s parking app, Bokhari says: “It’s f–king terrible.”
Of Malcolm Graham, whom Bokhari accused of disrespect 12 hours earlier, Bokhari said he was a “hack,” and called him “Malcolm ‘Political Hack’ Graham” multiple times.
- We asked Graham to respond. He said, “I don’t have time to go back and forth with him. That’s part of why the council is so dysfunctional. … To get respect you have to give it, and that’s something you learn in third grade.”
Of Mayor Vi Lyles, Bokhari said she’s “incredibly partisan” behind the scenes, despite “playing a kindly grandma on TV.”
- Lyles responded with a statement to say she’s proud of the city’s accomplishments during her time as mayor. “My motivation will always be to serve the people of Charlotte today, as well as generations to come.”
Of city planner Taiwo Jaiyeoba, the main architect of the 2040 Plan, Bokhari said, “F–k that guy.” The full quote came after Bokhari said he believed Jaiyeoba should be fired for what he believes are “ethical failures.”
- “I actually used to really like him, before all this went down,” Bokhari said. “He snuck up to me one day in the hallway after I had defended the police, and said, ‘Tariq, you’re doing a good job. That’s from one Republican to another.’ And I was like, ‘Thanks, man.’ (Editor’s note: Here, Danielle said, “What?”) Exactly. F–k that guy. He probably thought it was secret when he told me back then. Not no more.”
- Jaiyeoba confirmed the exchange with us but said it was over text, in February 2019, and sent from his personal phone as a private citizen. “I can’t even trust to talk to him privately about things,” he said.
- Jaiyeoba was a registered Republican but he’s now unaffiliated after the Jan. 6 insurrection, he says. “I don’t like my political preferences to be used as a tool when what we’re talking about is actually about policy and making life better for people,” Jaiyeoba said.
One that might surprise people: Of Braxton Winston, the protester-turned-politician who’s among the most liberal members of council, Bokhari says, “I love Braxton. … We have a basic understanding of each other, that we can debate, we will debate hard, and then we will hug it out directly afterwards.”
- (Winston declined an interview request for this story.)
Bokhari’s a lot to unpack.
He’s at once a soundbite machine and someone with a backstory full of depth and context. He’s someone who says he doesn’t care what people think, then blocks his detractors on Twitter.
But a summary of our interview transcript packages him up neatly: The top three keywords he used over the course of 90 minutes were “people,” “Charlotte” and “f–king.”
He used that word 27 times, including once to say, “I feel like I’m going to f–king hate this article.”
Finally, when we asked him where he goes from here, he said he has a motto. It refers to the legend that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés burned his ships in 1519 after arriving in the New World (though in reality, he sank the ships rather than burning them).
“Burn the ships,” Bokhari says.
“I’m not f–king going back.”
“When you ask, ‘How did you get that way?’” he tells us, “it is f–king imprinted in my DNA from the first 18 years of my life.”
Bokhari grew up poor in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. His father emigrated from Pakistan before he was born and met Tariq’s mom in Scranton, Pennsylvania. They moved to the town of Staunton, population 20,000, about 90 miles north of Roanoke.
His dad left them when Tariq was three.
He recalls waiting in line for the soup kitchen, and the different colored coupons that the kids on free lunch receive for the cafeteria. He knows, he says, the ping of shame that comes with seeing a classmate in the store while your mom is paying with food stamps, or when a friend wants to come over but there’s no electricity.
“All I had was this year-long, deep tan and a foreign name, and we were just the rock bottom poorest people you could ever imagine,” he says.
His stepfather was abusive. Tariq fought back as he grew older. His grandparents took him in for long stretches. When he was 16, his family found a room for him in the upstairs of a preacher’s house. He’d live there during his senior year.
He spent most nights alone, and that’s when he decided he wanted more.
“I just sat and stared at that ceiling and said, ‘This is not for me,’” he said. “I am going to never look back on living like this.”
Bokhari worked several jobs to put himself through Radford University, which he describes as a school for people with “unfulfilled talent.” He went a little wild there, got cited for drinking underage and noise violations, according to a background check, but slowly straightened out, he says. After graduation, he moved to Charlotte, where he worked his way up in financial services, before launching his own nonprofit, Carolina Fintech Hub.
He understands what racial attacks feel like. When he was running for office in 2017, he had to answer questions about his name, which comes from his dad. He was frequently asked whether he believes in Sharia Law, the Charlotte Observer reported at the time.
But in that election, Bokhari defeated the CEO of a construction company who outraised him about three-to-one in the Republican primary.
In the general, he was among six millennials who swept into office and garnered national attention. They were known as the first “majority-millennial” city council in America. The Wall Street Journal profiled them.
Bokhari was the lone Republican, but part of their tribe. He launched a podcast with fellow council member Larken Egleston. He joined Winston to call for more transparency in meetings. They — the millennials — were the future of politics, a force that would tear down old party walls.
It sounded nice, at least.
One night this past April, in the downstairs of Dilworth Neighborhood Grille, surrounded by big-screen televisions filled with Tucker Carlson’s face, Bokhari told a group of Young Republicans that he was creating the framework for a nondiscrimination ordinance aimed at protecting LGBTQ rights, written by Republicans.
It would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago, when the GOP-led legislature passed HB2, which struck down an NDO drawn up by Charlotte Democrats.
“We’re about to go on a complete road show for all of our side of the aisle, and say not only do we want to support a … nondiscrimination ordinance, which the liberals have completely controlled, we want to take it a couple steps further,” he said. “But we’re gonna base it on our conservative principles.”
The proposal has received a cool response from Democrats. Bokhari believes it’s because their party only rolls out NDOs in election years. (“They don’t actually care when they’re not pandering during an election cycle,” he says.)
But it’s also true that the politician whose mantra is “burn the ships” has already burned plenty of lines to people who were once allies.
The millennial council’s fractures began to show the summer after that 2017 election, during the contentious debate over whether to invite the Republican National Convention to Charlotte. Democrat-led cities across the country had shunned Donald Trump’s renomination convention. Pressure turned up on Charlotte’s council to do the same in July 2018.
Bokhari was among those who saw a convention as a chance to show his deep blue city and the Republican Party he loves could still dance together.
It was a stretch: As a 2020 Charlotte magazine autopsy of the local Republican Party pointed out, Democrats have held a 9-2 majority on city council since 2011, through five election cycles. The county board of commissioners, which last had a Republican majority in 2004, went all-Democrat in 2018 for the first time in 54 years. The county’s legislative delegation consists of 17 people; 16 are Democrats.
Bokhari embraces the role of the guy holding the Republican flag against urban winds of Hurricane Democrat. “We’re on this path, and we’re gonna win at all costs,” he says. “Because I know I am on what I believe to be a righteous path of helping other people.”
Others in the GOP aren’t as hopeful.
John Lassiter served as a Republican on council and ran for mayor before being president and CEO of the RNC Host Committee. He told us that unless there’s a major event that changes political perspectives quickly, a war or something huge, the political trends aren’t likely to shift.
“Look at the 14 (major metro areas) in front of us, and the 4 or 5 behind,” Lassiter says, “and find one that has a Republican-elected mayor, or Republican-majority council.”
Bokhari doesn’t see things like others, though. He doesn’t fit the GOP’s urban stereotype of white-haired retiree, he’s not the small-town lawyer or businessperson like many Republicans who fill the legislature, and he’s certainly not the blue-collar rural Republican that propelled Trump to victory in N.C. in 2016 and 2020.
No, Bokhari is a Republican who keeps an office in South End, one of the youngest and fastest-growing neighborhoods in the South. He’s a tech bro who raises his kids near SouthPark, a high end neighborhood and shopping district. And he believes his party has a place here, despite the numbers.
But in his attempts to make Republicans palatable, Bokhari still struggles with decorum.
For decades, Republicans such as former mayor Richard Vinroot welcomed more liberal business leaders such as Bank of America president and CEO Hugh McColl, who built much of the city. Vinroot and McColl, both revered for their leadership to this day, remain close friends. That was the old way in Charlotte.
The new way looked more like this: In the fall of 2019, McColl threw his support and money behind a county-wide referendum that would have raised the sales tax to increase arts funding. Bokhari and a bipartisan group opposed it. And on election night, it turns out that voters opposed it, too.
As Republicans celebrated at Selwyn Pub that night, Bokhari, who also was re-elected in the same evening, went around smiling and shaking hands, asking if anyone wanted to call McColl. In the scope of Charlotte’s history, few things would be more blasphemous.
In late June, Bokhari drove across the state to Greenville to speak at the statewide GOP convention, the night before Donald Trump addressed the crowd from the same stage. Bokhari took a deep breath and let out a dramatic sigh:
“Hello, my name is Tariq Bokhari, and I’m a Republican from Charlotte.” People whooped and cheered. “This is like a self-help group,” he joked. “Hello, my name is Tariq Bokhari, and I’m from the Great State of Mecklenburg.” (It’s a derogatory term people all over the state use for Charlotte.)
Bokhari played into the disdain, blasting Democrat-run cities like Charlotte as “authoritarian laboratories.” He called movements to eliminate single-family-only zoning and “disarm” the police “race-based Marxist principles.”
Red-meat, rural Republican stuff. But then he urged the people in the room not to give up on his city, or any big city.
“The top 20 cities in America are the front lines of an ideological war that’s happening right now,” he said.
He also got personal, telling his own story of climbing out of poverty to running Carolina Fintech Hub, which pays him a reported $200,000 a year.
“And the beauty of that: I lived in the United States of America,” Bokhari said to thunderous applause, “the one place on the face of the history of the earth where that is teed up for success.”
Equity of opportunity — that’s the principle Bokhari wants Republicans to own, he said in the interview. Not equity of outcome, which he describes as socialism.
“Now, immediately, everyone’s gonna pile on and be like, ‘Oh, there he is, playing into the Republican narrative of painting us as socialists.’ But I mean, that is truly what it is.”
Of course, in the point-counterpoint worldview of Tariq Bokhari, those same liberal policies he rails against create an opportunity for Republicans in Charlotte. He says Democrats here have overplayed their hand. Republicans could take back the council in a low-turnout spring election, he believes.
Because that’s also part of the ride of the urban Republican — at least this one. In the fall of 2020, during interviews for a story about the millennial council, Bokhari said he didn’t know how much longer he could do this. Then in the start of 2021, he was reinvigorated with the new job leading the workforce development committee — given to him by the very mayor he now criticizes.
Over the course of our conversations with him for several years now, he’s down and up, down and up.
But he returns to the “burn the ships” mantra. On the stage in Greenville, he said he wasn’t going to give up, and he told the statewide party that they should never surrender the city.
“There is no off ramp for us,” he said. “This is our country. Victory is the only outcome that we can accept. We must be prepared to fight. Are you prepared to fight?”