Politics & Government

5 things to watch as Charlotte election season heats up

Mayoral candidates clockwise from left Mayor Jennifer Roberts (D), Joel Ford (D), Kenny Smith (R) and Vi Lyles (D).
Mayoral candidates clockwise from left Mayor Jennifer Roberts (D), Joel Ford (D), Kenny Smith (R) and Vi Lyles (D).

Rarely has Charlotte gotten the kind of attention it has in the last year and a half, with headlines over House Bill 2, a police shooting and deadly riots.

All that is raising interest in what promises to be a high-profile mayoral race and crowded contest for city council.

The two-week filing period for local offices opens Friday at noon.

In addition to Charlotte races, voters will see contests in Mecklenburg County’s small towns and six school board districts. They’ll also vote on a $937 million school bond package.

Though local races typically attract few voters, there already have been indications of wider interest. As many as 200 people have come to forums for council and mayoral candidates.

A rising number of homicides and lagging social mobility are motivating some candidates and voters. So is last November’s election.

“We’re seeing an increased enthusiasm on both sides of the aisle for all levels of elections,” said GOP strategist Larry Shaheen. “North Carolina has been getting far more national press than it has before and you can tie in voter enthusiasm and interest to how often they see it on the national news.”

There are just seven weeks from the end of filing to the Sept. 12 primary, and only five to the start of early voting on Aug. 24.

Here are five things to watch:

1 In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-1, two prominent Democrats are challenging Mayor Jennifer Roberts in the primary.

Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and state Sen. Joel Ford have each raised a lot of money. Lyles has raised $215,000; Ford, $205,000. Republican council member Kenny Smith has raised $260,000. But candidates aren’t the only ones spending money.

At least two outside “dark money” groups that don’t have to disclose donors are getting involved. So is a super-PAC affiliated with the N.C. Association of Realtors.

One of the so-called social welfare groups, Queen City Leadership, supports Ford. The other, called Forward Charlotte, is run by a former Republican operative. Democracy for America, a PAC founded by former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean, is backing Lyles.

The winner of the Democratic primary is expected to face Smith.

Mayoral candidates from left Mayor Jennifer Roberts (D), Vi Lyles (D), Joel Ford (D) and Kenny Smith (R). JOHN D. SIMMONS

2 Smith’s run for mayor means there will be at least four open council seats, setting the stage for competitive races in districts and at-large.

At least five Democrats have expressed interest in running in District 2, where incumbent Al Austin has stepped down. And as many as six have said they’ll run in District 5. That’s where former member John Autry left to join the N.C. House and his replacement, Democrat Dimple Ajmera, is running at large.

Lyle’s departure has helped spur a crowded at-large race, with at least seven Democrats and two Republicans running. One of the Democrats is Braxton Winston. A Davidson graduate, he became an unofficial leader of the protests that followed the September police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

“The reason that I’m running is because I believe the people want new leaders,” he said. “My message of equity for everyone, and my ability to build bridges is something the city needs right now.”

Braxton Winston, a Democrat, is among a crowded at-large race on city council. A Davidson graduate, he became an unofficial leader of the protests that followed the September police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. File photo

3 At 34, Winston is one of many young and first-time candidates. One council candidate, Republican Daniel Herrara, won’t turn 25 until later this month.

The question is, how many young voters will vote?

Last fall, voters under 40 made up 36 percent of the electorate, according to a CNN exit poll. And Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer found that voters 40-or-younger accounted for just 30 percent of N.C. voters last year.

Andrew Fede, 32, thinks that will change. He organized a forum last month especially for millennial candidates. He said young people are bothered by what they see as detached leaders and a lack of upward mobility.

“People just feel like the status quo is not working for the everyday Charlottean,” Fede said. “In a nutshell, I just think people are very upset with the current city council and current mayor and are really looking for change.”

4 Charlotte-Mecklenburg school elections come after a tumultuous year that saw the hiring of a new superintendent and the conclusion of a contentious student assignment revamp.

Voters will choose six of the school board’s nine members (the three at-large seats aren’t up until 2019).

At least three members will be new: Tom Tate (District 4), Eric Davis (District 5) and Paul Bailey (District 6) say they’re not running (coincidentally, they’re the only men currently on the board).

Several contenders have already launched campaigns on social media – including Inez Annette Albright, a former CMS employee who last week sued the board and the district over her firing, saying she was unjustly blamed when she was injured by students while trying to get them to go to class last year.

Filing will start the same week new Superintendent Clayton Wilcox took the reins of the state’s second-biggest district.

5 In 2015, road rage – that is, opposition to the Interstate 77 toll lane project – swept out Huntersville Mayor Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain and other local officials from North Mecklenburg. Last year toll critics claimed credit for toppling Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who failed to stop the project.

Now at least three toll critics are running for town commissioner in Cornelius. Michelle Ferlauto, Kurt Naas and William Rakatansky are running for seats on the five-member nonpartisan board.

Naas founded the anti-toll organization, Widen I-77. Ferlauto has been active in a group called I-77 Business Plan. Rakatansky, a former Cornelius commissioner, announced his candidacy on the Exit 28 Ridiculousness Facebook page, according to Cornelius Today.

I-77 Toll Lanes Appeal_04
Traffic is down to one lane as construction continues on the Oaklawn Avenue bridge over Interstate 77. The work is part of the Interstate 77 toll lanes project from Charlotte to Mooresville. The new Oaklawn bridge will be larger and will include bike and pedestrian lanes. Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill