For more than a year, Republican City Council member Kenny Smith has planned to run against Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a polarizing figure whom Smith believed would be vulnerable, even in a heavily Democratic city.
He won’t get that chance.
In a surprise, Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles easily defeated Roberts in the Democratic mayoral primary Tuesday night, avoiding a run-off with a 46 to 36 percent victory. Even Lyles’ supporters had expected a run-off.
Lyles has a similar voting record as Roberts, and Lyles even said during the campaign that she and Roberts have similar positions. But many believe she will be a more elusive target for Smith and Republicans than Roberts.
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“I think Vi will be a much more difficult opponent for Kenny because she’s not a pure partisan,” said Michael Barnes, a former Democratic council member who served with Roberts, Lyles and Smith. “She works to build consensus, and whether you agree with her or not, she’s very collegial in how she gets along with council. He won’t be able to point to failed leadership on her part, the way he did with Jennifer.”
Smith said Wednesday that Lyles and Roberts are nearly the same, and mentioned the mayor’s name frequently.
“It’s the same issues in the race,” Smith said in an interview. “She has voted with Jennifer nearly 100 percent of the time. If you want to move away from the direction that Jennifer Roberts has led us, vote for me. If you want to bring balance back to the city, we are your candidate.”
For Republicans, the voter registration numbers in Charlotte are daunting. There are more than twice as many Democrats (48 percent of voters) as Republicans (22 percent).
But the last two elections have been relatively close.
In 2015, Republican Edwin Peacock lost to Roberts, 52.3 percent to 47.6 percent – a difference of 3,730 votes. Two years earlier, Peacock lost to Democrat Patrick Cannon, 53.1 percent to 46.7 percent – a difference of 6,094 votes.
The last Republican to win a mayoral election was Pat McCrory in his 2007 re-election. The last Republican to win a citywide at-large council seat was in 2009, when Peacock was re-elected.
When Smith announced he was running for mayor in March, he ignored Lyles and State Sen. Joel Ford. He immediately criticized Roberts for what he said was “misguided leadership.” He criticized Roberts for focusing on special interest groups and seeking the attention of the national media since she became mayor in late 2015.
He has also focused on the city’s rising crime rate, and said the city needs a mayor who will “stand with” the police chief. Smith was referring to Roberts questioning the city’s response to the Keith Scott shooting and protests, in which she said the city needed to be more transparent in releasing body and dash camera footage. She also called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate.
That angered many police officers.
Lyles, on the other hand, didn’t break with police chief Kerr Putney. She and Smith signed a “Letter to the Community” in which they said “we support our police chief and the men and women of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, including our chief’s continued efforts to enhance trust and accountability within the Department and within the community.”
On LGBT rights, Lyles voted for the city’s ordinance that gave legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals – including allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. But she was never closely identified with LGBT rights and House Bill 2 as Roberts is. Lyles also was willing to compromise on the issue, and at one point supported giving legal protections to the LGBT community – without the bathroom provision.
Smith opposed all of those legal protections.
In the summer, Peacock, the former GOP mayoral candidate, expected Smith to face Roberts. He said a big challenge would be to increase turnout among non-frequent Republican voters.
“That’s the gap that Kenny has to fill,” Peacock said. “Kenny could do something that I couldn’t do, which is to get more off-year Republicans to vote. We were focusing on Republicans who would vote in the (U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis) race but who didn’t vote in our race.”
Smith starts the general election with at least one big advantage: cash. He had $322,714 on hand at the end of August. Lyles had $43,000 left just before the primary.
One issue that may be no longer discussed – President Donald Trump. Roberts invoked the president’s name in fundraising emails and in TV commercials, and was likely to have tried to tie Smith to him.
Lyles doesn’t mention the president.