CHARLOTTE – Two years ago, Charlotte was one of four cities vying to capture the 2012 Democratic National Convention (DNC). When the news hit home, locals began putting their dreams and hopes into plan. For many, hosting the national political event would be a defining moment for Charlotte, a city that had been hit hard by the uncertainty caused by the financial and economic collapse in 2008.
The excitement poured into rallying around Charlotte and its DNC bid finally paid off. Last February, convention organizers announced that the Queen City had won out over other host city finalists, Minneapolis, Cleveland and St. Louis.
Tracy Russ and Scott Bishop, two openly gay men long involved in local civic and LGBT community affairs ,both had a gut feeling Charlotte would get the prize.
“I believed we’d get it as soon as I heard we were a finalist,” Russ says. “It’s been so much like Charlotte to either compete for opportunities or to seek opportunities and get them.”
The men now work for the Charlotte in 2012 host committee, the local, non-partisan group charged with raising more than $37 million to support the convention and its activities.
For Bishop, the decision to bring the DNC here was a two-fold blessing. Originally from Boston, he’s lived in Charlotte for 17 years and says he’s thrilled his new hometown will be at the center of the nation’s and world’s attention in September.
The convention also gave him a job.
“I had just recently been laid off at Bank of America three months before that [announcement],” Bishop says. “I wasn’t working at the time and I said to [my partner] Ron that very day that somehow I wanted to be involved with that and hopefully it will be a paying position.”
Bishop got his resume together and began networking. Months later, he landed in his current role as a project manager for the committee and says the group is as prepared as ever to host the largest and most attention-grabbing event the city has seen.
“There’s a lot left to do, but I feel confident we all have our arms around everything,” he says. “There’s nothing in that list that would keep me up at night.”
Russ’ and Bishop’s presence on the local DNC host committee is indicative of a greater purpose convention organizers set out to accomplish once they landed on Charlotte as their pick for host city. Diversity has been at the top of their agenda, ranging from supplier needs and contracts to outreach and engagement.
“I think that one of the great stories we have to tell about Charlotte and really about the entire state is that this is a very diverse community,” says Russ. “It’s a place that welcomes everyone. That really has been a part of our history and its definitely not just important to our future but it’s critical.”
Russ says convention delegates, media and guests will get a crash course in what it means to be a Charlottean and North Carolinian.
“When people come, many of them will not know what to expect,” he says. “Charlotte is a relatively unknown city for most of the media and for many of the delegates and I think they are going to be very pleasantly surprised and they’ll find that there is a rich culture here that reflects the diversity of the population.”
As chief marketing officer, Russ has been the go-to man for telling Charlotte’s stories. He managed the “Carolina Stories” video series on the Charlotte in 2012 committee’s website and says they were designed to give people an “appetizer” before they head down south.
“The intent is to show in bite-sized pieces the aspects of the community through real people, real places and real efforts — what this community is all about and to focus on aspects that are the most surprising,” Russ says. “You’ll see a lot of diversity and a lot of culture that really is beyond what the stereotypes are of what a southern city is all about.”
Dan Murray, a straight ally, local surgeon, business leader and former at-large Mecklenburg County commissioner, says the convention will allow Charlotte and its people to showcase who they are.
“For a while, Charlotte has sort of been a teenager trying to figure out what it wants to be,” says Murray, who now serves as CEO of the local DNC host committee. “I think we’re really coming into adulthood and defining ourselves.”
The Queen City has often been compared to Atlanta or other cities across the South. Murray says he hears little of that now.
“Charlotte is getting its own identity,” he says. “While it is a large, progressive southern city that’s attractive to outsiders just like Atlanta is, the feel here is very different. When people come down here to live or to work they find that it is a very different place.”
The city’s civic pride helps to set it apart.
“This is a community where people are used to being involved and getting connected to any kind of major effort,” Russ says. “Part of the success in our volunteer effort has been a drive by the community wanting to get involved. People are very proud to live here and so many newcomers want to tell others about this great place to live and the opportunities that are here and their way of doing that is by getting directly involved.”
The local LGBT community has also stepped up. Bishop, Russ and Murray all agree that the state’s recent approval of an anti-gay marriage amendment was important, but they say it hasn’t overshadowed anticipation and potential for the future.
“I definitely saw an uptick immediately after the vote,” Russ says, noting a common response from friends and acquaintances: “My resolve has been strengthened.”
Murray says he was proud of the stance Charlotte voters took. Mecklenburg County was just one of a handful of mostly urban counties to vote against the discriminatory proposal.
“As an individual, I did my part to try to get the word out about what the issues were,” Murray says. “We have an opportunity to show people when they come that the South is just as diverse and heterogeneous as the rest of the country is.”
That diversity will be on full display as the city prepares to welcome thousands. One week before the convention, community members will present their annual Pride Charlotte Festival. The very next week, the community will hold a special welcome party for LGBT convention delegates and guests.
Russ says the energy behind the local gay community is a mainstay of the city.
“To me, it’s reflective of what Charlotte is all about,” he says. “The LGBT community is pulling together the way Charlotteans do. We’ve hosted large LGBT events before and we will again.”
Russ adds, “We’re not manufacturing an LGBT community or presence here that wasn’t already here. People are doing what they do and have done and will do in the future. The real story is we’re here, we have been and we will be and this community is proud of us being here and it will continue to be that way.” : :
[Ed. Note — The version of this story published in our Aug. 18 print edition inadvertently omitted Dan Murray’s job title and position at the Charlotte in 2012 host committee, where he serves as CEO. This online version of the story has been updated. A correction will run in our Sept. 1 print edition. We regret the error.]