James “Smuggie” Mitchell’s complicated road back to political office

James “Smuggie” Mitchell’s complicated road back to political office

Photo courtesy of James "Smuggie" Mitchell/North Carolina Central University

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James “Smuggie” Mitchell says he has unfinished business as a public servant, but the road leading back to Charlotte City Council is paved with questions. 

What’s happening: Mitchell spent two decades on city council, mostly as an at-large representative, before taking roles as president and part owner of R.J. Leeper Construction in January 2021. That created a potential conflict of interest, since the company does business with the city, so Mitchell resigned from his elected office.

  • Then, just six months later, R.J. Leeper’s leadership fired him as president, in what Mitchell says  came down to “a difference of philosophy of how to run a company.”
  • And now he’s back on the ballot running for an at-large seat.

The intrigue: There are conflicting stories about whether Mitchell still has an ownership stake in R.J. Leeper. Mitchell tells Axios he still owns 25% of the company, and if elected he would consider selling 16% of his stake to meet the state’s mandate.

  •  “A lot of African Americans, we don’t get a chance to create wealth,” said Mitchell, a Charlotte native and West Charlotte High School graduate. “So I’m proud to own 25% of a great company. But I’ll do what’s necessary so that there’s no conflict.”
  • Yes, but: Malcomb Coley, co-founder of Bright Hope Capital which acquired R.J. Leeper Construction in January 2021, along with R.J. Leeper COO Lorie Spratley, told Axios via email: “Mr. Mitchell has no ownership or connection with Leeper.”
  • Fellow Bright Hope Capital founder and former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl told Charlotte Business Journal Mitchell doesn’t own any of R.J. Leeper Construction.

Why it matters: Mitchell, a longtime local leader, is one of six Democratic candidates running for a Charlotte City Council at-large seat, one of the most watched races heading in the July 26 general election.

Be smart: North Carolina statute 14-234 allows a government official to own up to 10% of a company that has government contracts. Said official may not be involved in a contract on behalf of a public agency he or she may derive a direct benefit from, per the state statute.

  • Mitchell told Axios’ Danielle Chemtob there is an operating agreement stating he owns 25%.
  • “The operating agreement has not been amended,” Mitchell said. “It’s still in place.”
  • He also said he thinks there is some concern about him running for office when it comes to contracts R.J. Leeper Construction has with the city, such as projects at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
  • “I do think that there is some, with me running for office, that there is some uneasy feeling that if I win, you know they got to make a determination if they’re going to do city work or not,” Mitchell said.

Zoom out: Nearly every candidate has had some brush with controversy.

  • The Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg endorsed Cannon, who went to prison for taking bribes while serving as Charlotte mayor.
  • The BPC also endorsed Mitchell, Winston and former council member Mayfield for at-large seats. Mayfield made controversial comments about 9/11 and the police.

Unfinished business: Mitchell said when he got fired from Leeper, he took it as an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive.

  • He was encouraged to “go back and serve the community,” which he’s doing with the blessing of his wife,  former astronaut Joan Higginbotham.
  • If reelected, he wants to focus on helping startups and small businesses, addressing affordable housing in Charlotte and supporting economic development.
  • “My pastor told me, he said ‘you just have a serving heart and you really like serving people,'” Mitchell said. “I’d never heard it in those terms.”
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