It is not abnormal for a student at UNC Charlotte to work full-time while pursuing their Bachelor’s degree. As a bartender who works night shifts, senior Gabe Cartagena is familiar with that struggle. What’s far less common — and in fact, unprecedented — is launching your own campaign for city council at the same time.
On May 24 Cartagena filed papers to officially run for the District 4 seat of Charlotte City Council, previously held by Democrat Greg Phipps. Since then, Cartagena has been outspoken about abortion, race relations, gun control, and immigration, largely taking to Twitter as his political platform. He has also called for an early voting site on the UNC Charlotte campus and holster monitors for CMPD officers.
News Editor Megan Bird sat down with Cartagena to discuss his background, life as a student, response to April 30 and visions for the future. If elected, Cartagena would be the youngest person and only Latino on the Council.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bird: Let’s start out with an introduction. Can you describe yourself and tell us a little about your interests besides politics?
Cartagena: I am 21 and a political science major. I work as a bartender full time as well as going to school full time. I don’t have a lot in the way of free time because I’m working nights and have class during the day. I guess my form of entertainment for myself is consuming food. The ‘what you do for fun’ question always gets me a little off guard because most of my life is spent doing some sort of community organizing; that’s what I do. I like to exist in my community. I like to be an active member of my community. So I guess what I find the most fulfilling in my life and therefore what I find fun is actively organizing and playing a part in the city.
Bird: Now that you’ve brought us to that topic, what has your involvement been in organizing within Charlotte?
Cartagena: So I started organizing here actually before I moved here. When I was a senior in high school I got involved with a presidential campaign that at the time was polling around four percent. I did what I could to volunteer, tabling at Food Truck Friday when I wasn’t even old enough to vote. But that presidential candidate ended up doing pretty well; his name was Bernie Sanders. I met with the state director and she gave me a chance to meet with and speak for Senator Sanders, and that’s where people in Charlotte came to actually know me. Later on, I did organizing work with the party. I was elected as the 3rd Vice Chair for the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party right after being elected to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. I’ve been in and out with other liberal and progressive groups in the city but haven’t been able to do very serious organizing work over the past year because I actually had to spend a lot of time working on my GPA. I had briefly considered running for City Council about a year ago actually before I really realized what my junior year was going to take out of me. But you know, then April 30 happened.
Bird: Just to backtrack a little bit, you mentioned that you moved to Charlotte. So where did you grow up and how long have you been living in Charlotte?
Cartagena: Whenever someone asks me where I grew up I say North Carolina because I have moved around North Carolina the vast majority of my life. I lived in Florida for some time and lived in Washington State, but within NC I lived in Stanly County, Burke County, Catawba County, Mecklenburg County and Gaston County. I went to high school in Gastonia, middle school in Stanly County and elementary school in Catawba County.
Bird: That’s quite a list.
Cartagena: Yeah I’m from North Carolina but I do consider myself to be a Charlottean. I’ve been here for four years now and I understand that’s not a very long time, but it’s four of my most important developmental years I’d like to say. And so who I am as a result is because of Charlotte.
Bird: So did you move here for school?
Cartagena: Yeah, I really chose UNC Charlotte because I wanted to live in Charlotte.
Bird: And why did you decide to run for City Council?
Cartagena: I care a lot about things like zoning, housing and attracting jobs to Charlotte and early childhood education. But on a more philosophical level, I’m really running because I’m disappointed in the condition of our government. The obsession over national level media and then the subsequent neglect of our local politics has led to people running for office and winning who either don’t actually represent the community well, aren’t prepared for office or aren’t in it for the right reasons. I’ll readily admit that I understand there’s a level of ego that goes into all politics, but especially in the city of Charlotte, it seems that all too often it’s all about ego. I’m not okay with that. I think that mindset has led to complacency and inaction and this collective mentality from legislators at all levels that you can do or not do whatever you would like because so long as you are registered for the correct party, there will be no repercussions for it. And now there’s an empty seat because the incumbent has retired, so really we have to ask ourselves the question “if not me, who?” and “if not now, when?” as much of a cliché as that is. I also want to represent the 29,000 students in the University area because the city looks at us as temporary residents and ignores us. No one has stepped up to actually be our voice.
Bird: So just to summarize, would you say your main reasons for running are the state of politics today, complacency and inaction?
Cartagena: Those would definitely be my main reasons. I could sit down and go on and on and on for hours about all of the reasons, but those are definitely my main ones.
Bird: You briefly mentioned before the events of April 30. Can you tell us about the organization that you formed in response? Was it your idea?
Cartagena: It was my idea. The idea of Real Change Now was a response to a quote from Susan Harden, District 5 Mecklenburg County Commissioner, from the Rally for Remembrance. Susan said that in order for us to actually effect change, we have to get out and vote. I was mad at that statement. I sat there and I looked at five people whom I had voted for sit there and tell me that in order to solve my problems I needed to vote. My response was, well I did vote and I voted for you so what are you going to do about it? So I tweeted at her and she responded asking for a list of wants, needs and demands which I didn’t think she actually expected to be done. So I tweeted back and I said, yeah, okay, I’m going to make you a list of wants, needs and demands and I’m going to give it to you at the next Commissioners meeting. She retweeted that and essentially said okay. And I was like well shit, I have to do this. And so I tweeted out a call for action and asked for people to come out and share their ideas for how we can actually stop this. I didn’t know what to expect, but on about 12 hours notice at 9 AM on the day after the Rally for Remembrance, there were about 12 people who showed up to the room and we all worked anywhere between 9 and 13 hours. Most of these people were people I’d never met before.
Bird: How many students do you have now?
Cartagena: I believe 60, but they’re not all students.
Bird: So it’s open to the community?
Cartagena: Yeah. So I actually have a few faculty and staff members from UNC Charlotte as well as a teacher from CMS.
Bird: What is the organization’s goal?
Cartagena: We have a broadly stated goal to combat gun violence in our community. So we look at violence as, generally speaking, a public policy issue. We are very concerned about the social situations that surround gun violence. So we want to actually come up with nuanced and tangible policy changes at every level of government to actually enact what we are dubbing “real change.” We get a lot of rhetoric from politicians who say either “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” or “it’s people that are using the guns to kill people.” It’s a circular debate about whether or not guns are a problem. And so we want to take a step back and think, yeah, okay. People kill people; that’s true. But people kill people with guns. So what can we do to stop people from killing people with guns? What can we realistically do at every level of government to stop this? The surrounding issues are things like economic anxiety, early childhood education and the ability for people to actually express their emotions and not use violence as a form of expression. So I think what the city can do, what the School Board can do, what the County Commission can do is circumvent the state because the state is not acting and the state probably won’t act. We want to work with smaller levels of government to enact real policies because we’re really tired of empty rhetoric.
Bird: So whether gun control is one of your main issues or not, what would you say are your three main issues concerning Charlotte?
Cartagena: This is gonna be one of the hardest questions for me to answer consistently because every day I want to talk about ten different things. What I’m really going to talk about in this campaign is affordable housing and everything that surrounds that: zoning, development, land use and cost of living. I think that our ability to exist in the city is inseparable from the affordability of our homes. When housing prices go up and wages don’t go up with that, we start to see more and more social anxiety and worse living conditions.
I also want to talk about transportation and connectivity. I think that part of having a healthy community and city is being able to commute reasonably quickly and affordably. So my most comprehensive plans will probably be about transportation. I want to drastically reduce the prices of weekly, monthly and annual passes for the light rail to as low of a cost as the city can afford. I have no issue with a premium for tourists or the rate for single day passes. But I think it is a little ridiculous that our weekly, monthly and annual passes don’t actually save you a lot of money. There’s no reason why a commuter in Charlotte should be paying more than $50 for transportation for a year because that’s essentially the same rate as before.
So the third issue is probably going to be job acquisition, so recruiting employers to Charlotte who are ready and willing to employ the workforce that exists here. That also means expanding the workforce that exists here by improving our education programs and making sure that if you were born here, you will receive an education that is competitive. Because if you live in Charlotte, if you’re born in Charlotte or if you’re educated in Charlotte and you would like to stay in Charlotte to work, then you should be able to work at the finance firms that exist here. If Amazon came, we should have a ready and available workforce for Amazon. We need to prepare them with the foundation that they need to actually step out into the competitive Charlotte economy. We have the fastest growing economies in the United States and we need to be ready for that.
Bird: I just have two more questions here before we finish up. You talk a lot about the issue of equity on your Twitter, and I saw one tweet in particular where you said, “I’m a gay brown man who grew up in the South.” How has your identity affected your decision to run and your policy choices now?
Cartagena: I was born in a multilingual household. My family has both been very, very poor and pretty well off. I don’t think at any point we’ve ever been particularly wealthy. Growing up, I’ve faced different types of adversity depending on where I was living. In Catawba County, I faced much more discrimination for being Latino then I ever did for being queer. When I moved to Stanly County, people would literally stop me and pray for me because I was gay. I experienced a lot of the general bullying both from my peers and from the adults around me. People literally looked at me and called me an abomination. So with how I’ve grown up, I think we should take seriously the claim that all of us are born equal, and we should take seriously the claim that all of us deserve the best that this society can give us. So whenever I talk about equity and whenever I talk about my vision for this city or the state or the country, I’m talking about a place where you can go to school and exist. You shouldn’t be singled out for something that you cannot control. Oftentimes what that translates into is that you’re paid less because you’re black; you’re paid less because you’re a woman. You’re looked at as lesser because how we’ve been trained our whole lives is that if you are not the caricature of a great white well-to-do guy, then somehow you don’t deserve the same amount. And that is wrong for me and that influences every decision that I make and intend to make.
Bird: Thank you for speaking about your experience with discrimination; I know that can be hard. So lastly, what would you say to someone who might tell you you are too young or inexperienced for the position?
Cartagena: I mean if people think I’m too young or inexperienced they’re probably not going to vote for me anyway. If my age is what makes me too inexperienced then that same argument can be applied to one of my opponents for being a woman, or one of my other opponents for being black. It’s the same argument and if someone in Charlotte actually tries that argument with me, I just don’t think it will go over well.
Cartagena will first face a primary on September 10, followed by a primary runoff on October 8 and finally the general election for mayor and all 11 seats on November 5.