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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Isabella Cannon, Spring 1993. Interview G-0188. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The first woman mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina

Cannon describes her decision to run for mayor in 1977 and outlines her successful campaign. Earlier in the interview, Cannon explained how she had become frustrated with the city council, which she believed did not adequately represent the citizenry of Raleigh. Cannon was 73 years old when she made the decision to run for mayor and she used "the little old lady in tennis shoes" as her tagline and campaigned with the promise to work for the common good of Raleigh. According to Cannon, her campaign was grassroots in nature and her dark horse victory, resulting in the election of Raleigh's first woman mayor, received national and global media attention.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Isabella Cannon, Spring 1993. Interview G-0188. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Finally, I decided I was going to run for a seat on the City Council. The night before the deadline to file for office, I had a call from Betty Ann Knudsen who was a tremendous organizer and had real political power. She said, "Isabella, have you thought about running for Mayor?" No, I had not thought about that, but I was excited about her asking. At that moment the doorbell rang, and it was a young man there saying, "Can I take you out to Betty Ann's and let you talk to her?" I said "Yes." She had pulled together a group, including Mike Boyd, a group of community leaders, and we sat there and talked till midnight about me running for Mayor. I was unknown to the biggest segment of the population, certainly to the wealthy segment, and to the big business and developers. I was known to ordinary people. I had no money, I had no organization, but I said, "Ok, let's go for it. I threw myself into it, fully expecting to win. I was always surprised when someone would say to me, "Aren't you surprised that you won?" I replied, "I went in there to win-I didn't go in to lose." The next morning after the meeting at Betty Ann's, Mike Boyd took me in his big elegant automobile to all the radio stations, newspapers and TV stations with a statement that I was a candidate for Mayor. It was my opening statement that kicked off my campaign to the complete surprise of all the politicians in Raleigh. My campaign was the most fun, the most exciting campaign that anyone ever ran. It started out with my newspaper boy bringing me one dollar. I wish I had kept that dollar, but that's the sort of support I had-$10 here, $25 here, a very, very, rare $100 that I received as a contribution. Volunteers came from everywhere. My campaign manager, Earle Beasley, who was actually a professional, came willing to help me. I would go to the grocery store and come home with my handbag full of little slips of paper with names of people saying, "I want to help." The telephone would ring, "We want to help." It was a people's movement and was exciting. I made speeches all over, anywhere. I was going from eight o'clock in the morning to midnight making speeches. I went anywhere and everywhere, and I had fun doing it. Earle was taking care of the mechanics of it. My first shock, however, was when he came to me and said "Isabella, I need $3,000." It hadn't occurred to me that I was going to have to pay for the privilege of running for Mayor, and that I had to find money to do so. Of course the reality soon came home to me. I ran as "The little old lady in tennis shoes" for a special reason. I live near NC State University and near Fred Olds School. At that time, it was the most derogatory thing you could say about anybody, "Oh, she dresses like a little old lady in tennis shoes," or "She thinks like a little old lady in tennis shoes." It made me angry because I saw all these young people walking by my door and what did they have on their feet? Sneakers, tennis shoes. It is no longer a derogatory comment, and perhaps I helped to change it. Mr. Coggins really suffered by having a female run as his opponent. He was shocked. I had filed one hour before the deadline, and no one had thought that there was going to be a competition or that anybody else was going to file. He thought he was going to breeze in without any difficulty. For him, a very macho person, to have a woman to run against him-especially a 73-year old woman-he really suffered. He came out with wisecracks like, "How can you campaign against anybody old enough to be your mother?" I did a little figuring, and since he was in his late fifties and I was 73, I commented that I would have had to start mighty early to have been his mother. He said, "She can't even drive." I've been driving since I was sixteen and still am driving, but my policy was that if somebody would drive me to a speech, and I didn't have to worry about parking, I'd get them to do it. He identified me with the Raleigh Coalition, a very active political group. The Raleigh Coalition had been so upset with how the city was being governed, and he equated this, almost, to Communists. Well, I had lived through the McCarthy Era in Washington, and I kept comparing his attitude toward the Raleigh Coalition to the McCarthy Era. He was so down on that group, so strong in his ideas and criticism, so unwilling to let citizens be fully represented. I kept an incredible campaign schedule, and I loved it. It was great. Finally, of course, came the election. It was total shock to the big business people and the developers. My campaign had been a joke to them, and I think the idea of "the little old lady in tennis shoes" perhaps added to them thinking of me as a joke. The business community had not taken me seriously. And Mr. Coggins himself really did not think I was going to win. He never conceded my election, never once admitted that I had won. Immediately following the election that night, there was an explosion of media. I had telephone calls from Scotland, from the newspapers there, and from all over the United States. It was featured in newspapers from Tehran to Tokyo. The Stars and Stripes featured it in Japan. Reuters, the international news agency, picked it up, and it went all over the world since I had lived in Africa and The Middle East. I had fan clubs in Germany. There were people who wrote me from Australia, from Canada, from Korea. It was a real media explosion. Not only that, but in the United States, I have a list here of some of the major newspapers that featured me. Every major newspaper all over the United States featured me. Seventy-two major newspapers and magazines from all over the world, 16 major magazines.