For the first time, Charlotte’s mayoral race this fall will likely receive significant state and national attention, a result of the city’s year as a battleground over transgender rights.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who is seeking a second term, has been a staunch supporter of expanded legal rights for the LGBT community – and a critic of the House Bill 2 repeal deal that prohibits Charlotte and other cities from passing their own nondiscrimination ordinances.
Will voters reward or punish her for an unwavering position?
“It’s the biggest race on the stage in North Carolina,” said Brad Crone, a Democratic consultant who is working for state Sen. Joel Ford’s mayoral campaign. “I think everyone wants to come to Charlotte and play.”
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For the September Democratic primary, Roberts has two high-profile opponents, both of whom support LGBT rights but want to focus on issues other than HB2.
Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles is focusing on her efforts to build more affordable housing and jobs to the city. Ford has said his priority is fighting crime. He said the city’s response to the protests and riots that followed the Keith Lamont Scott shooting was inadequate, and he said the mayor needs to do more to stop a sharp increase in homicides.
On the Republican side, City Council member Kenny Smith, the only GOP candidate to announce so far, said Roberts erred in pursuing passage of a nondiscrimination ordinance in early 2016 – an ordinance that was invalidated by HB2. Smith called the nondiscrimination ordinance the city’s “most divisive issue ever.”
All three Democrats favored expanding LGBT rights. Smith opposed the city ordinance in all forms, even when a controversial transgender bathroom provision was removed from an earlier version in 2015, which was defeated.
It’s unusual for an incumbent mayor to face two strong challengers. Dan Clodfelter did two years ago, but he had been appointed to the job.
Anthony Foxx, Pat McCrory, Richard Vinroot, Sue Myrick and Harvey Gantt – whose mayoral terms date back 34 years – never drew such strong primary competition for re-election.
UNC Charlotte political science professor Eric Heberlig said Roberts’ criticism of the HB2 compromise gives critics ammunition to question her leadership.
“She’s essentially doubling down on that commitment (to the LGBT community) in running for re-election,” he said. “It gives an avenue for her critics to argue that she’s further deteriorated Charlotte’s relationship with the General Assembly.”
But Roberts is not running away from her position.
In a three-person field, her campaign believes Democrats, especially liberals, will see her as someone willing to fight Republicans, whether it’s on transgender rights or immigration. Many of her fundraising emails contain references to fighting President Donald Trump.
For city voters, this will be the first election since the November presidential race.
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, said the group hasn’t officially made endorsements. But he said Equality NC, a statewide LGBT rights group, will work with local groups like MeckPAC and the national Human Rights Campaign for “pro-equality candidates.”
“Jennifer Roberts has been a steadfast ally and stood strong for LGBT protections and against discrimination,” he said. “I’m sure our supporters and allies see her incredible support as well.”
The three groups spent money to help elect three of four City Council at-large candidates in November 2015. The Human Rights Campaign has also been active in the North Carolina governor’s race and in national politics.
Besides pushing the nondiscrimination ordinance in February 2016, Roberts repeatedly called on the legislature to repeal HB2. Last month, after legislators repealed HB2 and replaced it with a law that prohibits Charlotte and other cities from passing their own nondiscrimination ordinances, Roberts issued a sharply worded rebuke calling it a “false repeal.”
Her campaign manager, Sam Spencer, said the race will be about Roberts’ standing “up for values that makes Charlotte a great place to live and work.”
He also said the city has added more than 10,000 jobs since Roberts became mayor, and that the city is one-third of the way to creating or preserving 5,000 new affordable housing units.
Here is how the other candidates handled HB2 and will likely frame the issue this summer and fall:
▪ Lyles voted for the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance in both 2015, when it failed, and again in 2016, when it passed.
But she has been more pragmatic about expanding LGBT rights than Roberts, a stance that has sometimes made the LGBT community wary. In 2015, she was worried the nondiscrimination ordinance lacked enough votes to pass, so she supported the version that didn’t give transgender individuals the ability to use the bathroom that matched their gender identity. (She supported that provision a year later.)
She said she supported the nondiscrimination ordinance “every time it came up.” But, she said, “you have to look at what’s realistic.”
Asked whether she favored the recent compromise between the General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, Lyles said, “I supported the nondiscrimination ordinance. That’s what passed and we have to have something to go forward. When you’re in government… sometimes you have to support things that move us forward.”
Both Roberts and Lyles voted to remove the city’s nullified nondiscrimination ordinance in December in hopes the legislature would quickly repeal HB2.
The focus of Lyles’ campaign has been on improving economic opportunity after the Scott protests and riots. She has urged council members to support building more affordable housing and expanding job programs for low-income residents.
▪ Ford said he doesn’t think HB2 will define the race. He said crime is a bigger issue.
“We have people in our city who are getting killed in broad daylight,” Ford said. “So as a candidate for mayor of Charlotte, my number one focus is safety.”
Ford said he supports LGBT rights, though he opposed the part of Charlotte’s ordinance that allowed transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. He voted for the compromise legislation last month that repealed HB2. He also angered LGBT activists when he tweeted a photo of a dog defecating in response to criticism that he wasn’t supportive of LGBT rights.
Two years ago, Ford voted for the so-called magistrates bill, a Republican-sponsored measure that would have allowed civil magistrates to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriages. He did join most Democrats in voting not to override then-Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of the measure.
His pitch to voters is that he can work with both Republicans and Democrats.
“I can’t minimize my relationship with Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “I support the governor and the current mayor does not.”
Ford was referring to Roberts’ criticism of Cooper for signing the HB2 repeal legislation.
▪ Smith’s campaign so far has touched on crime and increasing jobs. He also has taken a swipe at Roberts for pursuing the nondiscrimination ordinance.
In 2015, the City Council voted on a nondiscrimination ordinance that would have extended legal protections to the LGBT community, though businesses wouldn’t have been required to allow transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. It lost 6-5, with Smith being one of the no votes.
A year later, when the full ordinance passed, Smith also voted against it. For the rest of the year, he tried to get council members to compromise with the General Assembly and symbolically repeal the city’s ordinance. Council members repealed their ordinance in December, but only after Cooper defeated McCrory in the governor’s race.
All four candidates have shown they can raise money.
Ford has said he has raised $200,000 so far. Lyles was one of the top fundraisers in her City Council at-large race two years ago. Roberts is an aggressive grassroots fundraiser, and could receive support from national groups that support LGBT rights.
Smith has at least $65,000 that’s a holdover from his uncontested council race two years ago.