CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For native Charlottean Al Austin, his election to help lead his hometown on City Council is the realization of a dream two decades in the making.
“I had worked on a couple of campaigns — Patrick Cannon, James Mitchell, George Dunlap,” Austin told qnotes, sitting in his 15th floor government center office overlooking the Uptown skyline. “I realized it’s a great way to serve the community.”
But, first, Austin said he focused on his career. After more than a decade with the YMCA, most recently as executive director at the McCrorey YMCA, he said “everything kind of fell into place,” and he threw his hat into the ring.
Austin, who works as the major gifts officer at Johnson C. Smith University and lives in Third Ward, had to wade through a challenging primary. He did so successfully, winning a later run-off and the election in November to represent District 2, and now wants to work with his past primary opponents to better the community he’ll represent among his City Council colleagues.
“District 2 is very diverse,” Austin said. “We have some really, really nice communities and then we have some that need help. I want to focus on those.”
Austin is a part of his community’s history; he was raised in the Lincoln Heights Community near Lasalle and Erie Sts.
He’s also among Charlotte’s rich diversity, making history by becoming the third openly gay or lesbian person to serve in public office in the city, following District 3’s Councilmember LaWana Mayfield and the temporary service in District 1 by businessman Billy Maddalon.
But, Austin’s sexuality was never an issue in his campaign this fall.
“I look at this way, and my sister put it best — I don’t run away from it, but I don’t put it on a billboard, either,” Austin said. “I think one of the things we are understanding is that people are people, and at the end of the day, people want an elected official who will listen to them, try to address many of their problems and hopefully they can share in the prosperity of Charlotte.”
Austin, who spoke with qnotes on the record for the first time about his sexual orientation, said his desire to run for office was informed by a chance to serve and represent all people. He said he focused on important issues needing solutions. “I focused on the issues,” he said. “Public safety was an issue, affordable housing was an issue, the LYNX Gold Line and its ability to transform our community was an issue. We stayed on message and on focus.”
The result was that most voters cared more about Austin’s solutions than his personal identity.
“Many people in the community were aware of my sexuality, but it really wasn’t a big thing to them,” Austin said.
And, ultimately, that’s a good sign for progress in Charlotte, Austin said.
The community is moving forward on a wide range of issues, including LGBT acceptance. Austin wants the city to move forward in building community and growth, particularly for portions of West Charlotte he now represents.
He’s especially fond of the Gold Line, a new streetcar line planned to run from East Charlotte, through Uptown and into West Charlotte.
“[It] could be very transformative for the West side,” Austin said. “Nothing has really changed or transformed that northwest corridor in many, many years. We now see Johnson C. Smith and other businesses along there working to help revive it, to transform it.”
That corridor, said Austin, is one of “the main arteries into the city once you come off I-85.”
Austin added, “It should reflect a very prideful community that is an African-American community. Many of those residents fought in the community through the Civil Rights era.”
From the time he was young, growing up in Charlotte in the 1970s, Austin said he has seen the city change for the better. He wants that change to come to West Charlotte.
“We are becoming a melting pot and I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “We are seeing communities now that in District 2 have historically been African-American and now we are having more Caucasians move into those communities and more Hispanics. We have a great diversity of people along Beatties Ford, and I don’t think people have realized that.”
In order to really affect change, Austin wants to see new corporations and businesses invest in the West. To do that, he’ll first focus on public safety and other important, immediate needs.
While he works, he’ll be constantly reminding people to unite and pull together to make Charlotte a better place for all.
“I do think people need to overcome some perceptions,” Austin said. “Right or wrong, there are perceptions about the West side. It’s a great place. We’ve got communities of retired teachers and professionals.”
Austin added, “There have been some not-so-great things that may have happened in the area, but don’t paint the whole community as being bad.” : :