Catching up with Lynn Wheeler

Ron Stodghill

IPhone in one hand, ink pen in the other, Lynn Wheeler took nary a bite of her roasted turkey sandwich on Monday afternoon.  Sitting at a Dilworth lunch haunt, the former Charlotte city councilwoman and mayor pro tem was too busy jotting bits of pre-election intelligence – if there is such a thing – buzzing at her from all across town.

“I live for this stuff,” said Wheeler, a Republican, as she scribbled furiously into her notebook.

On Wheeler’s calendar, Election Day usually glows neon. This one, by her own admission, is barely worthy of a yellow highlighter.

“The truth is that nobody is stirred up,” she said. “There’s no reason for voters to go to the polls.”

That’s not good for Wheeler, who finds valuable currency within the fissures of Charlotte’s political divide. Sure, there’s ample community griping about the quality of Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools, fierce debate over the necessity of streetcars and high-speed rail, and always some good grumbling over Charlotte’s high unemployment rate.

But none of these issues, Wheeler says, is enough to energize Charlotte’s electorate – let alone spur them to the polls.

“I’d be dumbfounded if there is strong turnout,” she said, pushing around her fruit salad.

Wheeler should know what gets Charlotte voters’ juices up. She’ll forever be known as the city councilwoman who went rogue on the citizenry in 2001 to lead a successful effort to build an uptown arena, despite a voter referendum against it.  With the DNC convening at Time Warner Arena next year, Wheeler is feeling vindicated about the effort – even though it cost her seat of 14 years.

These days, she’s busy running a small PR and lobbying firm and has recast herself as queen of Charlotte’s chattering class. Wherever there’s a listening ear, from her own private dinner parties to local media appearances, there’s the bubbly Wheeler downloading a bounty of hard insider facts and eye-rolling gossip.

 In January, she plans to launch her own blog, “Lynn’s Word on the Street: Charlotte’s Latest Business and Political Scuttlebutt.” It’s a kind of aggregator of the various conversations and events to which she’s privy.

“I’ve heard from a lot of powerful people who say they’ll source me,” she said.

To be sure, Wheeler is still very much plugged in to Charlotte’s political machine – she counts among her “best friends” city manager Kurt Walton and Chamber czar Bob Morgan – and makes access to city powerbrokers her stock –in-trade.

“It’s kind of interesting that I’m in the middle of everything, but I’m a nobody,” she quipped, feigning modesty.

Growing on her list of affections: Mayor Anthony Foxx. His campaign recently hit her up for $500. Foxx, she said, likes to tease his Republican moderate pal to “be what you really are” and change party affiliations to Democrat.

What about her own party’s mayoral contender, Scott Stone?  Wheeler shakes her head desperately. “Scott Stone should not have run for mayor,” she said. “He should have run at-large. He would have been incredible.”

“I know Anthony personally and I really like him,” she says. “He’s done a really good job and so there’s no reason to throw him out.”

Rolling her eyes, she added: “But he really thinks he can beat Anthony (Foxx), and that’s ridiculous.”

She continued: “So I was on a conference call this morning with Mayor Foxx….”  During the brief Monday morning call with Foxx’s strongest supporters, one supporter asked Foxx what could possibly go wrong for him on Election Day.

Foxx’s response: bad weather, strong Republican turnout and Scott’s campaign issue of the DNC using union workers for convention having more traction than anyone imagined.

As she told Foxx:  “That’s just not a resonating issue for people at the polls.

Here’s what will matter most on Election Day, she said: that Foxx, according to Monday’s briefing, boasts $810,000 in the war chest, and that his campaign in recent days made 6,235 phone calls and connected with 3,175. The effort resulted in  1,125 donors.

“That’s a lot of money raised for getting out the vote,” she said. “How can Scott Stone compete with that?”

With that question, Wheeler took a small bite of her turkey sandwich, stood up and headed off to her next meeting.

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