Tuesday, May 28, 2024

A Charlotte power couple cracks barriers

Smashing barriers in politics, commerce and outer space is the life story for an influential Charlotte couple.

He married an astronaut. She married a politician she calls “so likable” that even opposing candidates are fond of him. He started a drywall company in October. She works for a Fortune 100 company. He is well known in Charlotte as Smuggie. She is known globally, one of three Black female astronauts.

James Mitchell and Joan Higginbotham set goals and then accomplish them. They’ve broken through racial barriers, emerging as an enterprising power couple.

Mitchell was a Charlotte city councilor for 20 years, starting in 1999. He gained recognition as a conciliator who was in the middle of many key Charlotte development efforts, particularly downtown projects and affordable housing. He lost his 2013 run for the Democratic nomination for mayor to Patrick Cannon, who was arrested five months after the general election for wire-fraud charges that led to a 44-month prison sentence.
Higginbotham spent 13 days on a 2006 space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. She was a curious teenager, interested in math and science, who overcame lots of hurdles to become an astronaut.

When they make joint appearances, she speaks second after Mitchell says, “Let me introduce my queen. You are going to hear from someone who has been in space.” Mitchell’s aunt, retired Charlotte educator LaFredda Wallace, says Higginbotham is “a warm, wonderful person [who] can make anything pretty, and she has done the same for his life.”

Where they succeeded, success was not promised. “Black folks don’t go to space,” Mitchell says. “She ran into some of that.” He studied computer programming at N.C. Central University in Durham, graduating in 1985. “They ain’t going to hire no Negroes to run computers,” he recalls being told. Most of his friends majored in criminal justice, teaching and social work. But a teacher at West Charlotte High School told him computers were a growth sector, so he became a programmer. He’s now an N.C. Central trustee.

Last year, Higginbotham considered running for the Democratic nomination to succeed U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican who is retiring. She later nixed the idea. “I think I can affect change in other ways,” she says.

She works for Collins Aerospace, a Charlotte-based division of conglomerate Raytheon Technologies whose products include systems that provide oxygen and water to the space station. Higginbotham’s job is to sell the systems to Boeing and other companies that support space exploration.

For Mitchell, 2021 was more dramatic than expected. He stepped down from the City Council in January to lead a construction company started by his mentor, Ron Leeper, who became Charlotte’s third Black City Council member in 1979.

Leeper, who is in his mid-70s, was looking for an exit from the business and started with backing from banker Hugh McColl Jr. in 1997. Since retiring two years later, McColl has invested in private-equity and investment-banking companies. He and two local Black investors — Malcomb Coley, a regional leader for the EY accounting firm, and retired Duke Energy executive Lloyd Yates — formed Bright Hope Capital.

Last January, Bright Hope struck a $1.5 million deal to buy Leeper Construction, enabling its founder to retire. The firm also hired Mitchell as president and made him a 25% owner.
Six months later, in early July, Mitchell was fired in a move that surprised him and the local construction industry. (See adjoining story for more details.)

Mitchell’s response was to use his industry contacts to start a drywall company, 5-Star Supply. He also plans to run for an at-large City Council seat this year.

Ms. Astronaut, meet Mr. Charlotte

Higginbotham and Mitchell met in 2009 at a Congressional Black Caucus party in Washington, D.C. Then living in Houston, she was representing her employer, Marathon Oil. Both were divorced.

The party “was for young professionals under 35, although neither of us were,” she says. “I was there with friends — I wasn’t looking for love.”

Mitchell asked where she worked. She said Marathon after retiring from NASA. What did she do there? “She said, in a nonchalant way, ‘I was an astronaut,’ then she just kept talking,” Mitchell recalls. “She was so humble. I challenged her. I said only three Black females went into space.’ She said, ‘Name them.’ I said, ‘Sure. First there was Mae Jemison. Second was Stephanie Wilson. Third was Joan Higginbotham.’”

Joan Higginbotham astronaut
▲ Joan Higginbotham worked at NASA for 20 years.

He went speechless, realizing whom he was talking to. Mitchell knew the history. “You know how you follow something? I was intrigued with space, with how people train.”

Mitchell joked that he thought he matched up well. “She had played her big card, so I played mine,” he says. “I said I had been on the Charlotte City Council since 1999. And she looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘I can’t stand politicians.’ I thought I had struck out, and I said, ‘Can we dance some more?’”

Later, Higginbotham, now 56, said she had grown up in Chicago, where crooked politicians are a tradition. Says Mitchell, “I started out at a deficit. I had to work my way up.”
Despite the obvious impediment, Higginbotham found Mitchell to be “a quintessential Southern gentleman, personable and outgoing.”

Eventually, Higginbotham moved to Charlotte, where Mitchell had two daughters. They married in 2012.

Fascinated by wires

Higginbotham’s father was a dental technician. Her mother was a registered nurse who later earned a teaching degree. Her parents are her heroes, she says.

Early on, Higginbotham showed an aptitude for electronics. One night, when she was 10 or 11, she observed a wall outlet with colored wires at each of its four corners, and she came across a telephone with four loose wires in the same four corners. “I wired it one night and got a dial tone,” she says. Another time, she took apart her brother’s transistor radio. “I was fascinated by the circuit board and wires.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University in 1987. The placement office sent NASA her resume, prompting a recruitment call from an agency official.

Higginbotham had hoped to work for IBM, where she interned for two summers. But IBM wasn’t hiring engineers then, instead offering her a sales job. “I’m not a salesperson,” she says. She decided to work for NASA at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “I figured I would give it five years.”

Smuggie Mitchell City Council
▲ As a city councilor, MItchell earned a reputation as a dealmaker.

By 1994, she had worked as an engineer on about 50 missions. A supervisor suggested that Higginbotham apply to be an astronaut. About 6,000 applied, and she was among 120 chosen for interviews but didn’t make the final 15 cut.

So she ramped it up. “They were not happy with my first master’s in engineering management [from Florida Institute of Technology], so I went back and got a second one [also from FIT], and I was selected in 1996.” She entered an astronaut class of 44.

During a December 2006 mission, Higginbotham’s crew hauled about 6,000 pounds of equipment and rewired the space station. “As I was looking back on Earth, I saw that Earth is very fragile. I had an epiphany. I became more aware of that.”

In 2007, Higginbotham concluded 20 years at NASA and stayed in Houston to work at Marathon as a senior technical consultant. For two years, she ran a malaria prevention program in Equatorial Guinea in west Africa. In 2011, she moved to Charlotte to work in community relations for Lowe’s and be closer to Mitchell. She joined Collins Aerospace in 2018.

Smuggie with truck

Dealmaking, Charlotte style

Mitchell, 59, received his nickname early. “He always had a smudge on his face,” says his aunt LaFredda Wallace. “He loved peanut butter and jelly.”

After college, Mitchell programmed computers for General Electric in Canton, Ohio, and then for American Greetings in Cleveland. Tired of cold weather, he returned home in 1989.
At the time, “African American business in Charlotte was almost nonexistent,” defined largely by former Mayor Harvey Gantt’s architectural firm, McDonald’s Cafeteria, The Charlotte Post, The Excelsior Club and a couple of funeral homes.

He worked for several companies before setting up his own consulting company. Ron Leeper, among the city’s best-known Black politicians, discerned a future public official.
During his 20 years on the City Council, Mitchell spent three years on the board of the National League of Cities, serving as president in 2011. As a councilman, Mitchell was a negotiator in projects including stadium upgrades for the Carolina Panthers, venues for the city’s NBA and minor-league baseball teams, national conventions for Democrats in 2012 and Republicans in 2020, and construction of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Mitchell learned the intricacies of land development and subsequently worked on six public housing projects. He’s proud of helping pave the way for Northlake Mall, a $160 million regional shopping mall that opened in his diverse district in 2005. After its opening, he says, “I saw my public service career take off because I was seen as a dealmaker.”

Charlotte Republican John Lassiter, who served a combined two decades on the City Council and the school board, credits Mitchell’s “businesslike point of view. He understood the bid process and how to negotiate compromise, and when he gave his word, it was good. Trust is hard to find in a political space.”

The two backed a controversial center city public-private partnership that grouped three local museums on South Tryon Street with an office tower and condos planned by Wachovia Corp. It occurred just before the bank’s financial collapse in the 2007-09 recession. “Both Democrats and Republicans didn’t understand the project,” Lassiter says. “James hung in there and tried to make sure we had the votes. I thought it was going to leave a lasting impact on uptown [Charlotte] — which it did.”

For Mitchell, the 2013 mayoral primary versus fellow Councilman Cannon was a turning point. “I knew Patrick was not the right leader for the city, and I thought that with my local success and national profile, people would see great leadership. But when I got beat, I realized I needed to make some money.”

Leeper helped Mitchell land a sales job in Charlotte for Southfield, Mich.-based construction firm Barton Malow. Later, he moved to another contractor, Kansas City-based JE Dunn, attracted by annual compensation topping $200,000.

With Leeper eyeing retirement, McColl connected the two.

At his new firm, Mitchell wants to join the half-dozen Black-owned businesses in Charlotte with annual revenue topping $20 million. “The landscape has improved, but the size of most companies is too small,” he says. “I would love to be Atlanta.”

Leeper was surprised by Mitchell’s departure. “I had a great desire for James to be a continuing part of the company I started. That was my desire and his desire. But it seems clear to me that was not the path the Lord chose for him.

“He would have done well at R.J. Leeper, but sometimes it takes a while to figure out what the right path is.” ■

Related Articles