In an unusual challenge for an elected mayor, two high-profile Democrats have said they are considering opposing Jennifer Roberts in next fall’s primary – a race that will likely be decided by two main issues.
Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and State Sen. Joel Ford have formed exploratory committees, and both agree that House Bill 2 and the city’s response to the Keith Lamont Scott shooting will be crucial in the race.
On the Republican side, City Council member Kenny Smith has said he is “seriously considering” a run for mayor.
Historically, elected mayors don’t receive strong challenges during the primary.
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No Democrat ran against Anthony Foxx in 2011. Pat McCrory often had one Republican primary opponent, but they weren’t well funded and he won easily.
But Lyles and Ford are convinced that Roberts is vulnerable because of HB2 and the city’s response to the Sept. 20 fatal police shooting of Scott and the protests that rocked the city afterward. Roberts, elected in November 2015, said there are other issues to consider, including her crafting of a plan to help parents of middle school children find the right after-school program.
Here is how the three likely Democratic candidates and Smith stand on the two issues that will likely shape the campaign:
House Bill 2
▪ Roberts was one of the city’s biggest supporters of expanding its nondiscrimination ordinance to include legal protections for the LGBT community. That included allowing transgender people in places of public accommodation to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.
Roberts campaigned on passing the ordinance and never wavered on whether to move forward – even when Gov. Pat McCrory warned the city that the Republican legislature would respond by nullifying all or part of the ordinance.
After the General Assembly passed House Bill 2, City Council considered a symbolic vote to repeal its ordinance with the hopes that legislators would make changes to HB2. Roberts did not support that.
During the months-long controversy, she has worked closely with the Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign on keeping a united front in supporting the ordinance.
“The message you send in going back (with a repeal) is that somehow you aren’t valuing equality,” Roberts said. “If we are going to be a competitive 21st-century city we need to be moving forward. We weren’t out on a limb. We were following the lead of many other cities.”
▪ Lyles, first elected to City Council in 2013, also supports the city’s entire nondiscrimination ordinance, including the bathroom provision, but she has been more flexible than Roberts.
Two years ago, she proposed council members pass the ordinance without the bathroom provision when it was clear there wasn’t support for the entire ordinance. That failed.
In February she voted for the entire ordinance, and it passed.
But after HB2 was passed a month later, she was one of four council members to meet with legislative leaders about a symbolic repeal of the ordinance. Some colleagues believed she was open to that compromise, but she ended up siding with Roberts and other council members in rejecting it.
“I really can’t look back at (the vote),” Lyles said. “I did support (the full ordinance). We have to look at (what’s happening) now. The first thing we thought we were doing was creating a more welcoming city to everyone, but a consequence is that our city and state has been known as being not welcoming. Our intent was appropriate. But I think the consequence of what the state did – not what the city did – changed that.”
▪ Ford was in the state Senate when HB2 was passed. All Democratic senators walked out of the chamber and did not vote on HB2, though Ford wasn’t able to attend the one-day special session. He has said he opposed the bill.
Ford, elected in November to a third Senate term, said Roberts made a mistake by passing the ordinance when state Republicans warned the city there would be consequences.
“It’s a failure of her leadership to push the city of Charlotte into an ordinance in isolation, that forced the overreach of the General Assembly,” he said. “The solution is leadership that’s more collaborative. But I guess we will never know with Mayor Roberts because she never collaborated. She never reached out.”
Ford said he would have consulted with legislators before adopting the ordinance. Republicans, including Gov. Pat McCrory, warned of legislative reaction.
Ford supports what he calls a “reset,” in which legislators would have repealed HB2 if the city rescinded the ordinance that prompted it.
▪ Smith, first elected in 2013, was one of two Republicans on City Council when the ordinance was passed. He voted against it, both in 2015 when it failed and earlier this year when it passed.
Smith has opposed the entire ordinance – with or without the bathroom provision. During the 2015 debate over the ordinance, Smith said it was left-wing “social engineering.”
After House Bill 2 passed in March, Smith worked with Lyles and two other council members – Ed Driggs and James Mitchell – to create the possible compromise with legislative leaders.
When it was clear there wasn’t support among council members for the symbolic repeal, or “reset,” Smith asked for a vote anyway. It lost.
“I am the only candidate who voted for the compromise,” Smith said.
Shooting and protests
▪ During the protests, Roberts was often the face of the city during news conferences and television interviews.
She supported police Chief Kerr Putney’s decision not to immediately release the body camera and dash camera footage from the shooting. But facing enormous criticism from the national media and local activists, Roberts wrote an op-ed piece six days after the shooting in which she said the city needed to be more transparent – a reference to the need to release body and dash camera footage sooner.
“I have a willingness to challenge the status quo when I said we need to be more transparent,” Roberts said.
Her op-ed upset some council members, including Lyles. They believe the mayor should have consulted them first, and issued a statement that reflected their views as well as hers.
“I think the mayor does need to have the mayor’s voice,” she said. “Ninety percent of the time (the mayor and council) are in agreement on policy issues. But, yes, there are times when you need to stand up and speak truth to power. “
In an interview nearly two weeks after the shooting, Roberts said she felt law enforcement struck “the right balance” between law and order and allowing protesters freedom to express themselves. She also said she supported Putney.
McCrory’s office said the governor offered the National Guard more than 12 hours before the city accepted it, and that guardsmen could have been in uptown Charlotte during the second night of protests when several police officers were injured, a protester was shot and killed and at least two bystanders were attacked and seriously injured.
The decision of when to declare a state of emergency was made jointly by Putney, Roberts and interim city manager Ron Kimble.
▪ Lyles, along with other council members, was upset by Roberts’ op-ed piece in which she called for more transparency. Lyles believes the mayor should be a spokesperson for all city elected officials, and that Roberts crossed a line by criticizing Putney.
“I would say that when you do an op-ed, and when you are our mayor, you also represent the governing board (City Council) – that’s the way I would do it,” Lyles said. “I want to communicate with council and the business community.”
Soon after the protests, Lyles issued her own seven-point plan to bring the community together. Some of that plan became the City Council’s official response to the protests, which includes an outside review of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s response to the protests; building more affordable housing; and a jobs program.
“That partnership between the community and government has cracks – large cracks,” she said. “If I had a crack in the foundation of my house, I would do something about it.”
▪ As a state legislator, Ford did not play an active role during the Scott shooting and unrest.
In an interview, he chastised Roberts for criticizing Putney and CMPD. He said she threw Putney “under the bus” during the Charlotte protests.
He calls himself a “fresh face” compared to Roberts and Lyles.
“You’ve got two people who are part of the establishment, and part of the problem,” he said.
▪ A Republican might be expected to focus on a “law and order” theme that the city should have been better prepared for the civil unrest by having more law enforcement resources available.
Smith said “there are lessons to be learned” from the city’s actions but said he would not criticize Putney’s response.
He said one of the problems during the Scott protests was that Roberts didn’t do a good enough job communicating with Charlotteans. He said rumors were rampant.
“The farther you got out from center city, people didn’t know what the curfew meant, they didn’t know the ramifications,” Smith said. “I would hear stories about how there are protesters at Sharon and Fairview, and I drive out and see they aren’t there.”
He said Roberts focused too much on giving interviews to national media.
“People don’t want to turn on CNN at 9:30 and have a political discussion – their concerns were more immediate,” he said. “You should start with the local media.”