During a mayoral debate Wednesday, Democratic candidate Vi Lyles turned a question about bullying into a chance to criticize her opponent Kenny Smith’s campaign.
“This campaign hasn’t been an example of positive behavior,” Lyles said, with her voice rising. “It’s been a very negative campaign in a number of respects. As a candidate you have a responsibility to be positive.”
Smith, the Republican candidate, said he was being fair.
“From day one we decided we would focus on the issues,” he said. “We focused on the votes we have taken. We have very different records. We have differences on toll roads, streetcars, affordable housing.”
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Smith – boosted by a fundraising advantage – has run an aggressive campaign against Lyles. The N.C. Republican Party has also sent harsh mailers and the N.C. Values Coalition released a digital ad comparing Lyles with Mayor Jennifer Roberts on LGBTQ rights.
Are the mailers and ads fair?
A recent mailer by Smith’s campaign states “Vi Lyles Wants You to Pay Up, Charlotte.”
The mailer states Lyles co-wrote a budget proposal that would “increase property taxes,” “impose new fees on Charlotte small business,” and “raise utility rates for Charlotte renters.”
In 2015, the City Council approved a budget that increased the property tax rate by 2 percent. To counter that hike, a garbage fee paid by single-family homeowners decreased from $47 to $25. The city said that 73 percent of property owners would pay less.
The other major change in the budget impacted about 2,100 small businesses that use roll-out garbage containers and have the city collect their trash. For the first time they were charged a garbage fee of $250 a year.
The reference to utility rates on renters appears to be related to the garbage fee increasing slightly on apartments. The fee for each apartment unit increased by $1 annually, from $24 to $25.
Lyles voted for that budget. Smith was one of four council members to vote against it.
In his four years on council, Smith has never voted for a property tax increase. But he has voted to increase fees – including some of the same fees that he criticized Lyles for supporting.
In the 2016 budget – which Smith voted for – the city increased the garbage fee by $8 a year on homeowners. Apartment owners also had to pay $8 more a year for each unit they have.
The monthly water and sewer “availability fee” increased from $8.14 to $9.84 a month. The water and sewer “billing fee” increased from $6.30 to $7.14 a month.
“I think it’s intentionally nebulous,” Lyles said about Smith’s ad.
Smith said Lyles played a critical role in shaping the 2015 budget with a property tax increase, and that there was a competing plan by Republican Ed Driggs that didn’t have a tax increase.
Smith has also criticized her for supporting the I-77 toll lane project, which he voted against. Lyles said she thought that comparing their two votes was mostly fair.
But she has been angered over Smith attacking her for not supporting a proposal to shift money in the city budget to free up as much as $18 million for affordable housing.
During Wednesday’s debate, Lyles said she has a long record of supporting affordable housing.
“It’s fine to put money into an account,” she said.
But she then criticized Smith for voting against a 2014 rezoning that allowed the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership to build low-income apartments on Weddington Road.
Smith has also criticized Lyles for a September vote in which she supported awarding a Convention Center renovation contract to a consortium that includes R.J. Leeper Construction. Lyles’ son Kwame is employed as a project manager for the company.
“Charlotteans deserve better than someone who wants to stay in power just to keep lining their own pockets,” Smith said in a digital ad.
Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said that under state law Lyles did nothing wrong, and that she did not have a valid reason to not vote on the contract.
The N.C. Republican Party recently sent a mailer that depicted Lyles and Roberts behind yellow police tape. The mailer criticized them for the city’s rising homicide rate as well as the Keith Scott protests and riots. It said they turned their “Backs on law enforcement when they needed support the most.”
While Roberts pushed for more police transparency after the Scott shooting, Lyles and Smith have nearly identical records and votes when it comes to law enforcement.
The harshest ad of the campaign has come from the N.C. Values Coalition, which supported House Bill 2. The digital ad says that “Vi Lyles is Jennifer Roberts” and that they “share the same progressive values.”
The ad shows images of comedian Kathy Griffin holding what’s supposed to be the severed head of President Donald Trump; of a man entering the bathroom stall occupied by a girl; and what appear to be anarchists dressed in black rioting.
“I believe that the lack of speaking out says as much as speaking out,” Lyles said about Smith and the ad. “If he hasn’t spoken out now, I don’t expect that he will.”