In a move that would reshape Charlotte’s mayoral race, the two Democrats challenging incumbent Jennifer Roberts could take an unusual step: one would drop out to give the other a better chance in September’s primary.
State Sen. Joel Ford and Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles confirmed Thursday that they’ve talked about the possibility.
“We agreed on two things,” Ford told the Observer. “One is that Jennifer needs to go, and only one of us needs to run. That’s what we agreed on… We have to decide who that will be.”
And each maintains that they’re the best candidate to take on Roberts.
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The maneuvering comes ahead of North Carolina’s highest profile race of the year, one that already has drawn national attention. Charlotte was the epicenter of the debate over transgender rights and House Bill 2, passed in response to a 2016 Charlotte ordinance.
Filing for office opens July 7 and runs through July 21. Republican City Council member Kenny Smith already has announced for mayor.
Lyles acknowledged discussing her options with Ford.
“(Both) of us agreed that a change is needed in leadership,” she said. “We both recognize the demographics of our city.”
Ford and Lyles said voters would determine who is the stronger candidate against Roberts, though they gave no specific benchmarks.
Davidson College political scientist Susan Roberts said winnowing the field would have “a huge impact on the race, given the demographics of Charlotte.”
“If Joel and Vi are thinking that way, that means the voters are thinking that way,” she said.
Like nearly two out of three Democratic voters in the city, Lyles and Ford are African-American.
In 2015, four major Democratic candidates competed in the primary, including two African-Americans. Roberts won eight of the 20 precincts with the largest percentages of black voters, the Observer found. Council member David Howard won all but one of the rest. In the African-American precincts Roberts won, Howard and then-Council member Michael Barnes often finished second and third.
Roberts won 36 percent of the primary vote. She went on to defeat incumbent Dan Clodfelter in a runoff.
A candidate needs 40 percent to avoid a runoff. Both challengers know that how the Democratic primary vote splits will affect the outcome.
“Clearly I think the African-American split benefits Jennifer,” Ford said. “(But) a female split benefits Joel Ford.”
Roberts’ campaign manager, Sam Spencer, said the mayor “is focused on creating jobs and moving the Queen City forward, not backroom deals.”
“She’s the strongest candidate in the race no matter how the field shakes out,” he said.
Both of Roberts’ rivals said they’re the stronger choice.
Lyles said she’s pushing on a message of inclusion and collaboration, focused on upward mobility and neighborhood safety. “I’m confident I can bring the kind of change people want,” she said. “My commitment to the city is long and deep.”
Ford promised to make crime fighting a priority, and pledged to hire an additional 100 officers over what the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department already has requested.
Ford announced this month that he has raised nearly $200,000 for the race, though finance reports aren’t due until July. Last month a Raleigh consultant formed a political action committee called Citizens for a Better Charlotte that will work on Ford’s behalf.
“My desire is to work as hard as I can to hopefully garner enough support so hopefully, by July 7, it’s loud and clear who the community wants to challenge Mayor Roberts,” Ford said.