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More MS news articles for November 2003

Twists yield a mayor

Election is among unexpected turns in McAlister's life

Monday, November 10, 2003
Demorriss Lee
The News & Observer

Ernie McAlister was beaming Wednesday, and it wasn't because he had just been elected the mayor of the seventh-largest city in North Carolina.

"I just got a call from Senator Elizabeth Dole," McAlister said, getting out of his black sport utility vehicle in front of his townhouse in Cary's MacGregor Downs. "You've got to realize, I grew up in a modest family. And you can believe this, we were not getting calls from senators. To have someone of that level to have the interest to support and call me ... that means a lot."

McAlister, 46, has had a life filled with the unexpected. Tuesday, he defeated current council member Julie Robison to be Cary's next mayor, winning 54 percent of the vote. "It's just unbelievable," he said, flashing a broad smile.

The fourth-oldest in a family of six children, McAlister was the high school student everyone knew would succeed but didn't expect to go to college. He did graduate from college, but he wasn't exactly a bookworm. That didn't stop him from later excelling in his career as a banker.

While in his prime, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which forced him to retire with an uncertain future.

Then McAlister ran for mayor.

"Everyone in my family would be surprised that I'm doing community service that isn't of the court-order variety," McAlister said with a laugh.

Raised in Tampa, Fla., McAlister attributes his success to the work ethic instilled by his father, a high school shop teacher, and his mother, a church organist.

"As soon as he was able, age wise, he got out and got a job," said eldest sister Margaret McAlister, 51, during a phone call from Tampa. "He has worked since I can remember."

McAlister started working when he was in the seventh grade. He fried chicken at KFC, and later he worked at Verns Sunoco pumping gas. In college, he played the guitar in a restaurant.

But his 79-year-old mother, also named Margaret McAlister and living in Tampa, said her son has always been a free spirit.

"Ernie was our maverick," his mother said. "He would go off on his bicycle, and I'd say, 'Please be back by suppertime.' He usually managed to get back by the skin of his teeth. He pretty much had his own agenda."

Roads lead to Cary

Ernie McAlister first came through Cary in 1979 with all his belongings in a Volkswagen Bug, ready to take his first job as a management trainee with First Citizens Bank in Raleigh. He drove up U.S. 64 from Pfeiffer College in Misenheimer, where he graduated the same year. Shortly afterward, McAlister was sent back to Cary to repossess a car.

"I rode through Cary and said, 'This is a great place,' " McAlister said while looking at the golf course from his glass-enclosed porch.

McAlister's banking career with First Citizens took him to Greensboro, High Point and Thomasville. In 1988, he was named a city executive with the bank and moved to Cary, where he opened two branches -- one on Kildaire Farm Road and the other in Preston.

But in 1997, McAlister was offered an opportunity to help start a new bank. Contacted by James Beck, then chief executive officer of Capital Bank, McAlister took the opportunity and moved to Sanford, where two branches were opened. Six months later, McAlister returned to Cary as Capital's market CEO, where he opened the Harrison Avenue and the Kildare Farm branches. When McAlister left the bank, he had built the Cary branches to $50 million in assets.

"I was thrilled to get the job," McAlister said of the Capital Bank job. "I got a chance to work with a lot of different people in a lot of different areas. You are intimately involved in finances, planning and strategy."

An exit from banking

If his success was unexpected, his diagnosis of MS about five years ago was even more so. He told no one but his wife, Desi, whom he married in 1996, about his illness.

"I kept telling myself that I'm not going to let it get me. I'm not going to let this beat me," McAlister said. "But then I realized it was risky. To keep working those intense hours instead of putting yourself in a place where you can manage it a little better was risky."

McAlister has a mild case of what's called recurring-remitting MS, the most common form of an autoimmune illness that damages the central nervous system. His biggest symptom is fatigue. McAlister said as mayor, a part-time job that pays $12,995 a year plus a $9,000 car and travel stipend, he can manage his energy better.

So after 24 years in the banking world, McAlister retired in January. The first six weeks after retirement, the man who had worked since he was in the seventh grade was stranded. There were no loans to approve. No clients to woo at hockey games. No deal-making handshakes or smiles.

"That first month was brutal," McAlister said. "I didn't know what to do next, and I certainly didn't know it would be politics."

Arriving at politics

McAlister was adjusting to retirement when he was approached about running for mayor. After wrestling with the decision, he decided to give it a go. A newcomer to politics, McAlister will lead Cary as it searches for ways to stimulate its economy without returning to the days of rapid growth.

Koka Booth, a former Cary mayor and 20-year friend, said McAlister has what it takes to lead a town where the population has doubled from 49,369 in 1990 to the latest census estimate of 104,211.

"He's a businessman, and he understands finances," Booth said of the mayor-elect. "It's about how our money is spent and financial stability. It's all about leadership. If you are going to give your business to someone, wouldn't you want to give it to someone who is a proven businessman and a proven leader?"

Votes of confidence

Willie Pope, a vice president of the mortgage division at Capital Bank, said McAlister's strongest quality will be his ability to listen.

"If you ever went to him with a concern or needed assistance, he would always listen to what you had to say before he would interject or respond or anything," Pope said. "He's not an old politician and doesn't have preconceived ways of political life, and that will bring some new energy to Cary."

Laura Edwards, also of Capital Bank, said McAlister is willing to invest in young workers. Now the manger of the Harrison Avenue branch, she initially was hired by McAlister as a customer service representative.

"He's so charismatic, and he likes people to be happy with their life and wants people to succeed," Edwards said. "He goes out of his way and will do anything to help you. He's a good guy."

"He's always been a charmer," his sister Margaret said. "Growing up, he was always where the action was. He was always mixed up in something. I think it's a wonderful thing that he's going to be the mayor. I'm thrilled for him and for Cary."

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