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Will anyone challenge Charlotte’s mayor? Why Vi Lyles is in a strong position in 2019.

Although candidates have already started rolling out 2020 campaigns for offices like the U.S. Senate, North Carolina governor and lieutenant governor, one significant race that’s this year isn’t attracting much attention: The contest for Charlotte mayor.

Incumbent Vi Lyles is gearing up for her reelection bid. Despite opposition from some of her fellow Democrats over the city’s decision to pursue and host the 2020 Republican National Convention, political insiders say they don’t see a serious challenger emerging for Lyles in the Democratic primary.

“I hope people see how committed I am to this work and will continue to support me,” said Lyles.

Democrats have handily won the last five mayoral races in Charlotte, despite the arrest and imprisonment of former Mayor Patrick Cannon, the sometimes-violent protests that roiled the city after the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by police and the firestorm following the city’s LGBT non-discrimination ordinance and the state’s House Bill 2 law. Given that track record, there doesn’t appear to be much appetite among Republicans to take on Lyles this year.

“Vi is in a solid position. I don’t see any serious opposition on the Democratic side,” said Dan McCorkle, a Democratic political consultant. “And I think she would win a general election in a landslide.”

To be sure, prospective candidates still have months to file. The primary will be held in September, with a runoff in October if needed, and a general election in November. But possible candidates on either side of the aisle don’t appear to be assembling early support or lining up fundraisers for a bid.

“I’ve not heard of anyone who’s expressed interest to run for mayor,” said Arthur Griffin, chairman of the influential Black Political Caucus.

“I’ve not heard anyone who’s thinking about running for mayor,” said former state Rep. Scott Stone, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2013.

“I have not heard anybody make any type of move for that race,” said John Powell, a Republican running for the Mecklenburg GOP chairmanship.

“I’m not hearing anything on the ground,” said City Council member LaWana Mayfield, a Democrat who represents District 3. She’s planning to run for one of the council’s four at-large seats this year, setting up a more competitive at-large race and drawing in candidates to replace her in the district.

Mayfield said that after a stretch of rapid turnover in the mayor’s office, including several interim mayors, people are ready for some stability.

“She’s had a pretty solid first term,” said Mayfield. “I think the community deserves some continuity. We’ve had six mayors in seven years.”

Still, Mayfield said she expects Lyles to face some opposition, and pointed out that the primary is more than seven months away.

“There’s always going to be a challenger,” she said.

Lyles won a five-way Democratic primary handily in 2017, racking up 46 percent of the vote. She beat incumbent Mayor Jennifer Roberts by 10 percentage points.

This year, at least one person appears to be jumping into the Democratic primary. Lucille Puckett, a former housing commissioner who has run for office several times, has told the mayor she plans to run again, a representative of Lyles’ campaign confirmed. Puckett, who garnered less than 1 percent of votes cast in the September 2017 primary, could not be reached for comment.

Another person some observers view as a possible challenger is Braxton Winston, the first-term, at-large council member who came to prominence after his role in the 2016 Scott shooting. Winston declined to comment on his plans.

“I will make all of my announcements when the time is right,” Winston said.

Lyles is riding several waves that could help her this year. After two years of turbulence punctuated by the Scott shooting and HB2 controversy, she’s avoided major controversies or public unrest. There has also been major job announcements in Charlotte, including the relocation of Honeywell, a Fortune 100 manufacturer.

And Mecklenburg’s demographics continue to trend more blue, with Democrats making up 44 percent of voters. That’s twice as many as Republicans, who account for 23 percent of registered voters. The balance are mostly unaffiliated voters. Fifteen years ago, registered Democrats and Republicans made up a more even proportion of voters in the county: 43 percent and 36 percent.

In November, a blue wave swept all three incumbent Republicans off the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, giving Democrats a 9-0 majority. And out of the 17 state senators and representatives from Mecklenburg, only one is a Republican, following the defeat of several well-known Republican incumbents.

Republican Kenny Smith, who raised about $600,000 for his mayoral bid against Lyles, said that even though the numbers look intimidating, he hopes Republicans step forward to run.

“I would hope that the outcome of my race wouldn’t discourage a quality candidate that wants to serve the city,” he said. Smith said he hasn’t heard from any Republican candidates interested in running this year, however.

The city’s successful RNC bid, while provoking some backlash from the left, has also brought Lyles recognition from national Republican officials that isn’t common for a Democratic mayor of a predominantly Democratic city. She has shared the stage with Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, and Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, discussing convention-related events.

“I love that it’s the Queen City and we have Mayor Vi Lyles — you are a queen,” McDaniel told Lyles in Austin, Texas. “We look forward to Charlotte being center stage when the Republican Party nominates Donald Trump and Mike Pence for a second term.”

That would put a Republican challenging Lyles in the awkward position of running against the mayor who led the effort to bring the biggest Republican event to Charlotte.

Although five Democrats on the City Council voted against the RNC plan, Griffin, the Black Political Caucus chairman, said he doesn’t know of any organized opposition that’s resulted. The RNC, he pointed out, won’t actually take place until almost a year after the mayoral election.

“That appears to have died down,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any significant events related to that.”

But if history is any guide, the unexpected can always happen. In April 1987, The Charlotte Observer ran a story about then-Mayor Harvey Gantt’s expected cakewalk to reelection.

“Gantt faces no GOP rival,” the headline said. The story went on to note that the Mecklenburg GOP was having trouble recruiting anyone to run against Gantt, seen as the “Teflon Mayor.”

“If there was going to be any serious opposition it seems to me that person would be visible by now,” Gantt said. Local Republicans despaired about the demographic trends arrayed against them, the stretch of prosperity Gantt could point to (including the expected addition of the city’s first NBA team, the Charlotte Hornets) and Gantt’s unassailable strength in the black community.

Challenger Sue Myrick went on to upset Gantt that year in a narrow election, ushering in 22 years of Republicans holding the mayor’s chair in Charlotte.

Democrats 5-0 since 2009

Republicans held the mayor’s office in Charlotte for more than two decades, from 1987 to 2009. Pat McCrory served seven terms, making him the city’s longest-tenured mayor. But since then, Democrats have won every mayoral race. Here are the outcomes of the last five.

2009: Anthony Foxx defeats John Lassiter, 52 to 48 percent.

2011: Anthony Foxx defeats Scott Stone, 68 to 32 percent.

2013: Patrick Cannon defeats Edwin Peacock III, 53 to 47 percent.

2015: Jennifer Roberts defeats Peacock, 52 to 48 percent.

2017: Lyles defeats Kenny Smith, 59 to 41 percent.

Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.
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