The most expensive primaries in Charlotte’s history end Tuesday when voters go to the polls to pick nominees for mayor and a majority of the City Council.
Mayoral candidates alone have raised nearly $1.3 million. They’ve spent it on radio and TV ads, polls and glossy mailers. They’ve shared the stage in two televised debates and a host of forums.
They’re vying in the first city election since the 2013 victory of Democrat Patrick Cannon, who resigned five months later after his arrest on federal corruption charges.
Now Mayor Dan Clodfelter, appointed to Cannon’s post, heads a field of four major Democratic candidates that include veteran council members Michael Barnes and David Howard and former Mecklenburg commissioners’ chair Jennifer Roberts.
In the Republican primary, former council member Edwin Peacock III faces businessman Scott Stone. Each has been the GOP’s nominee for mayor before.
Last month an Observer poll found Peacock with a double digit lead over Stone, though almost a third of likely GOP voters were undecided. That included unaffiliated voters who planned to vote in the Republican contest.
On the Democratic side, it found Roberts within a point of the 40 percent she’d need to avoid an Oct. 6 runoff.
Here are five things we’ve learned:
1 Turnout may be higher than in 2013, but not much.
In 2013, just 6.7 percent of Charlotte voters turned out in the primary. Through Thursday, early voting numbers were up by about 30 percent. Nearly as many voters had cast ballots as during all of 2013’s early voting, and there were still two days left.
Election Director Michael Dickerson said while the numbers may not predict actual turnout, he still expects the field to draw more voters.
“I would think that this election itself would suggest a higher turnout,” he said.
2 Despite the polls, the Democratic mayor’s race is fluid.
It’s going to depend on organization as well as less tangible factors.
Nowhere was that fluidity as evident as a Thursday night forum at Johnson C. Smith University. After each of three rounds of questioning, the 180 people in the audience voted electronically, with the results displayed in a video pie chart.
With each vote the segments representing each candidate widened or narrowed, depending on their answers.
One constant: Howard’s slice was consistently the largest. In the Observer poll, he trailed all the major Democrats, not even cracking double digits. Political scientist Eric Heberlig of UNC Charlotte said low turnout races are notoriously hard to predict.
“The trouble with polls is it’s hard to predict, among the people who answer the poll, who’s actually going to show up,” he said.
3 Race matters, but it’s not clear how.
African-Americans make up 64 percent of the city’s registered Democrats, nearly 2 of every 3. That’s almost exactly the percentage of black voters among all those who voted early through Thursday.
Charlotte has elected a black Democratic mayor every election since 2009.
The Observer poll found Roberts with 37 percent of the black vote – more than anyone. She and Clodfelter, both white, were winning virtually half the African-American vote. On the other hand, Howard and Barnes, both African-American, each had only 4 percent of the white vote.
4 Like fireworks? Welcome to the GOP contest.
While the differences among Democrats have generally been over style and focus, there seems to be little love lost between Peacock and Stone.
Peacock has bristled over Stone’s suggestions that he supported the streetcar. When Stone said he’d “broker a deal” with the legislature over Charlotte’s airport, Peacock promised to fight for continued city control.
Stone has generally cast himself as a stauncher conservative. While he supported the voting changes enacted by the General Assembly, Peacock said lawmakers “went too far.” Stone, head of an engineering firm, has said his business experience is more relevant than that of Peacock, a financial adviser.
In a city where Democrats and even independents significantly outnumber Republicans, Peacock said Republicans have to be “cognizant of the fact that this is a majority-minority city.”
5 At-large race is a game of musical chairs.
A record 12 Democrats are running for four at-large City Council seats. Some were drawn by the two vacancies created with the departures of Howard and Barnes.
The field includes incumbents Claire Fallon and Vi Lyles. Even they have found themselves overshadowed by higher profile mayoral primaries.
Some are virtually unknown even to other Democrats.
When they appeared at a luncheon of the Uptown Democrats last week, the moderator made them repeat their names every time they answered a question.
Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.
Another chance to see the candidates
You can catch Charlotte’s mayoral and City Council primary candidates in taped League of Women Voters debates Sunday afternoon on WTVI. Here’s the schedule:
▪ 2-2:51 p.m.: Democratic mayoral candidates.
▪ 2:51-3:15 p.m.: Republican mayoral candidates.
▪ 3:15-4:35 p.m.: Democratic at-large City Council.
▪ 4:35-5 p.m.: City Council District 3.
▪ 5-5:25 p.m.: City Council District 5