With less than a week before the primary, state Sen. Joel Ford repeatedly attacked incumbent Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts during a televised debate Wednesday night, and the senator also criticized Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, who has usually avoided confrontation during the campaign.
The three leading Democratic candidates discussed some significant differences during the Charlotte Observer/WBTV debate, including affordable housing, transit funding and the city’s response to the Keith Lamont Scott shooting.
During the campaign, Roberts and Lyles – who sit next to each other during City Council meetings – have rarely criticized each other. But Roberts took the unusual step at the debate of questioning why Lyles voted against two ways to put more money in the city’s Housing Trust Fund.
Early voting is underway and runs through Saturday. The primary is Tuesday. The one-hour debate, sponsored by Duke Energy, aired on WBTV Channel 3.
The debate included the candidates who had filed the two most recent expense reports.
If no candidate reaches 40 percent, there will be a run-off in October. On the Republican side, City Council member Kenny Smith is heavily favored to win.
Two years ago during the Democratic primary, polling showed Roberts ahead before Election Day. But the other Democratic challengers then in the race were reluctant to attack her.
That wasn’t the case Wednesday.
At one point, Roberts criticized Ford’s “personal attacks” as something President Donald Trump would do.
Ford said Roberts “threw the police chief under the bus” when she said the city needed to be more transparent in releasing body and dash camera footage of the Scott shooting.
Roberts hit back. She said Ford’s characterization of her relationship with Police Chief Kerr Putney “is as fictional as (Ford’s) crime-fighting plan.”
Moments later, in a discussion about the Citizens Review Board, which reviews claims of police misconduct, Ford criticized Roberts for not working with the General Assembly to get subpoena power for the board.
“I go back to the failed relationship (with the police),” Ford said.
Roberts said Ford’s “baseless attacks show that his campaign is desperate.”
Ford responded that “it’s unfortunate that she can’t answer this question or any question. They have not worked with (Raleigh) like they should have.”
During a discussion about the city’s $6 billion transit plan, none of candidates would say the city might need to raise taxes to pay for it. Ford said the city needs to work with the federal government and Raleigh for funding, and Lyles questioned why Ford hadn’t done more for the city and transit as a state senator.
Lyles talked about her response to the Scott shooting, in which she urged council members to write a “Letter to the Community” that pledged more money for affordable housing and jobs programs. In a subtle jab at Roberts, she said the city “has to have the right leadership to do that.”
Lyles and Roberts have similar voting records. Lyles has said she is the more effective of the two in getting things done.
Roberts raised two recent votes that Lyles took as a council member related to affordable housing. In one vote, Lyles opposed a plan by Republican Ed Driggs to use hotel/motel tax money to pay for improvements to Bojangles’ Coliseum, which could have freed up to $18 million for affordable housing.
Roberts does not vote on most council issues and did not vote on that decision. She did not strongly urge her colleagues to support Driggs’ plan, however.
In a question about renaming streets with ties to the Confederacy, Roberts backed off an earlier statement that she supports changing the name of Stonewall Street. She said renaming Stonewall would be a “worthy discussion” but said the name Stonewall also has special meaning for the LGBT community.
Lyles said if a panel of historians said it was appropriate to rename the street, she would be OK with that. But she also told a personal story about her mother having to learn the names of Confederate generals in school, which she said was unacceptable.
Ford attacked Roberts over a 2006 vote as a Mecklenburg commissioner in which she supported a resolution for a local Confederate History Week. The mayor said it was “hardly worth a response because it’s inaccurate.”
Roberts did vote for Confederate History Week, but she had also supported renaming the resolution as Civil War History Week.
Smith, the likely Republican candidate, fielded questions alone.
He said the legislature wouldn’t have passed House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill,” had the city not mandated that businesses allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.
“That gave Raleigh the opportunity for some to say there was overreach,” Smith said. “If bathrooms had been removed, city would have kept popular sporting events. It would have kept PayPal.”
During his 15 minutes, Smith said Roberts should have spent more time in Raleigh than in “LA for a fundraiser.”