In the GOP primary for mayor, one candidate has a big advantage

Editor’s note: The Observer will publish full profiles of the Democratic and Republican nominees for mayor following the Sept. 12 primary and possible runoff.

The race featuring Charlotte’s mayor, mayor pro tem and a state senator highlights this year’s city primaries, which began with early voting on Aug. 24.

But five other candidates – two more Democrats and three Republicans – are on the ballot.

Most are long shots in a field with better-known and better-funded challengers.

In the Democratic primary, the marquee contest features incumbent Jennifer Roberts, Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and Sen. Joel Ford. Constance Partee Johnson and Lucille Puckett are also running.

The Republican race is dominated by Kenny Smith, a two-term member of the city council. With support from many Republicans and independents, he’s widely expected to win the GOP primary. The ballot includes perennial candidate Gary Dunn and newcomer Kimberley Paige Barnette.

Here’s a look at the other mayoral candidates on the ballot.

Kenny Smith, R

Smith, 44, lives in Barclay Downs, a half-mile from the home where he grew up. He was president of the neighborhood association before running for council in 2013. He won a four-way primary by 304 votes and ran unopposed two years later.

A graduate of Myers Park High and UNC Chapel Hill, Smith works as a commercial real estate broker.

On council he’s built a conservative record as one of just two Republicans.

Kenny Smith
handout photo

For example, he opposed the anti-discrimination ordinance that led legislative Republicans to pass House Bill 2, the law requiring transgender people in government-run buildings to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate. The law prompted a national backlash that cost North Carolina – and Charlotte – jobs and high-profile sporting events. Smith says the current mayor and others who supported the city ordinance are ultimately responsible for the reaction.

He’s running on a promise to focus on local issues such as traffic, jobs and infrastructure. He has criticized Democratic Mayor Jennifer Roberts for what he calls “a divisive political agenda.”

“The turmoil and chaos of the last 18 months, the lack of focus on issues critical to local government, made me feel I couldn’t stand on the sidelines anymore,” he said.

Kimberley Paige Barnette, R

A newcomer to elective politics, Barnette, 52, is a former magistrate in Mecklenburg County.

She served in that post twice, from 1987-1995 and again from 2003-2013, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Barnette now works as an associate at the Amazon warehouse in Charlotte.

She’s not raising money for the race, and said she hopes word of mouth will be enough.

Why is she running?

“Because I’m a good decision-maker,” she said. “And I’m good at listening and analyzing information. I think I’d be good at it.”

Gary Dunn, R

Dunn, 63, is no stranger to running – in either party.

He ran for governor as a Republican in 1992 and as a Democrat in 2012. He ran for mayor as a Democrat in 1993 and 2013 before running now as a Republican. He also has been a registered independent.

A former textile broker, Dunn is senior vice president of an energy drink company. He’s not a typical politician.

Gary Dunn

Once, to protest rising insurance rates, he sent his drivers’ license to then-U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Then he arranged to get ticketed, driving alongside a patrol car until a cop spotted his outdated tag sticker. A superior court judge found him in contempt.

At a recent forum, he said the city should not be in the housing or transportation business. He proposed getting rid of buses and giving people money to buy cars. His published platform includes the promise, “I will wear a tie to most events / this I promised my mom.”

To a question about his family, he replied to a candidate questionnaire saying, “Yes, most of my kids are okay, my x-wives are sort of okay, my brothers are so-so, my dad is dead, my mother is bed ridden. And I don’t have a dog.”

Constance Partee Johnson, D

Johnson, 55, publishes a magazine called CityPolitical. She also has a Facebook page devoted to her own sermons and theology.

Johnson has run for office before, but not in Charlotte.

In 2015, she ran for the Salisbury City Council. A year before she ran for the state Senate from Rowan County and in 2012 ran for Rowan school board. In 2015 she also ran for chair of the N.C. Democratic Party.

Johnson was registered to vote in Charlotte until 2012, when she changed her registration to Rowan County. She changed it back to Mecklenburg last year. She said she lives “in both places.”

Constance Johnson
Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Johnson graduated from Livingstone College and later received a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

On her website, she says, “We are presently oppressing citizens of targeted regions in education, the workforce, entrepreneurship, government, and contracts to keep a segment of our population … lacking incomes necessary to afford their basic needs…”

“What we fail to see is when all areas of our population are prospering and well educated our city is targeted for greater wealth by large corporations bringing jobs, contracts, scholarships for educational advancements and a better living,” she wrote.

Lucille Puckett, D

For Puckett, crime is not just a statistic. Last year she saw her son, Shawn Harbin, gunned down in front of her at their home off Freedom Drive after an argument.

Puckett, 49, said she later went to city officials and told them the murder rate was out of control.

“All they could do was give me condolences,” she said.

Puckett is a community advocate for the National Action Network, the organization started by the Rev. Al Sharpton. She had been a member of ACORN, a community group that advocates for low-income families. She also directs a non-profit called Project Pacts Today, designed to help people in at-risk communities.

She spent two years on the board of the Charlotte Housing Authority.

Lucille Puckett

A native of Detroit, Puckett moved to Charlotte in 2005 and wasted no time getting active. She ran for the school board that year and for mayor in 2013. She’s a graduate of S.C. State University with a graduate degree from the University of Phoenix.

She advocates for affordable housing and an end to the kind of violence that came to her home last year.

“We as African American [sic] need to stop sugar coating,” she wrote on Facebook in June. “You keep making excuses for this non-sense the murder rate will continue to climb and it was my son last year, but could be yours tomorrow.”

Observer, WBTV to host debate

The Charlotte Observer and our news partner, WBTV, will host a debate 7 p.m. Sept. 6 with the leading candidates for mayor. The debate will air live on WBTV Channel 3.

More election coverage

For complete election coverage, including candidate questionnaires, go to charlotteobserver.com/election.

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