Casting herself as a unifier after two years of tumult, Democrat Vi Lyles easily defeated Republican Kenny Smith on Tuesday to become Charlotte’s first African-American female mayor.
Lyles took about 58 percent to Smith’s 42 percent in unofficial returns. She carried precincts throughout the city, including a handful in south Charlotte.
Despite being heavily outspent, she won on a night Democrats flexed their muscles not only in Charlotte but in Virginia and New Jersey, where they swept state races.
Lyles piled up an 8,400 early-vote margin and built on it throughout Election Day. Her victory came two months after she upset incumbent Jennifer Roberts in the Democratic primary.
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“With this opportunity you’ve given me, you’ve proven that we are a city of opportunity and inclusiveness,” Lyles told supporters at Park Expo off Independence Boulevard. “You’ve proven that a woman whose father didn’t graduate from high school can become this city’s first female African-American mayor.”
Overall turnout was about 20 percent, higher than officials predicted.
Lyles, 66, spent three decades in city hall as a budget official and as assistant city manager. She’ll be the first former city administrator in the mayor’s office.
Smith called Lyles to congratulate her and concede.
Smith attributed the defeat to a heavier than expected early vote turnout. He said the campaign was outperforming many of its Election Day turnout targets, but was not able to close the gap.
“It really caught us off guard,” Smith said. “That deficit just ended up being too much to overcome.”
Lyles’ victory came after two years of division over House Bill 2 and the unrest that followed last year’s police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. That resonated with some voters.
“She is one of the least political politicians I have encountered,” said Democrat Amy Wilson, 45, a pre-school teacher. “I’m hoping she’ll be a breath of fresh air.”
Republican Kim Beal, 56, worked as a volunteer under Lyles at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
“She’s been a great mentor,” said Beal, who’s in marketing. “She worked well under pressure at the DNC and handled herself well during (last year’s) rioting.”
Smith outraised and outspent Lyles.
He raised over $510,000, more than any candidate since Democrat Anthony Foxx in 2011. With no significant primary, he was able to run ads for weeks. Lyles, on the other hand, just started last week.
Since the end of August, Smith spent $287,000 on TV and digital ads, according to a recent report. Lyles spent about $11,000, mostly on radio.
A pair of outside groups gave Smith a boost with their own advertising.
The North Carolina Values Coalition sought to tie Lyles to Roberts and the most controversial events of her tenure: the city’s non-discrimination ordinance that led to House Bill 2 and the unrest that followed last year’s police shooting of Scott.
A group called Forward Charlotte had spent more than $21,000 on radio and digital ads attacking Lyles. By Tuesday, its online ad had 104,000 views.
The state Republican Party spent as much as $100,000 on behalf of Smith and the GOP ticket. The national Democratic Party invested an unspecified amount for Lyles. And the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights organization, knocked on doors and called voters for Lyles.
In a statement Tuesday, the Human Rights Campaign congratulated Lyles, saying she has “the vision and experience needed to move equality forward in the Queen City.”
Smith and other critics sought to tie Lyles to Roberts. He said she was “pretty lock-step with Jennifer.” And one ally, Democratic City Council member Claire Fallon, called Lyles “just a short Jennifer.”
Like this election, three of Charlotte’s last four have been for an open seat. Democrats won them all, but not by much. In 2015 Roberts beat Republican Edwin Peacock with 52 percent of the vote.
A Spectrum News poll last month found Smith and Lyles essentially deadlocked.
Lyles grew up in Columbia, where her mother was a teacher and her father owned a construction company. She came to Charlotte to attend what was then Queens College. She went on to get a master’s in public administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.
She began working for the city as a budget analyst and became budget director in 1987. Nine years later she was named an assistant city manager, a post she held until retiring in 2004. At the city, Lyles led initiatives on community policing, affordable housing and transportation, including new urban street design guidelines.
She then joined the nonprofit Lee Institute and became a consultant with Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, which trains female leaders. During the 2012 Democratic National Convention, she directed community outreach for the host committee.
On Tuesday night, Lyles said, “I feel a relief and a confidence that we can more forward, that we can bring our traditions forward and that we are really the kind of place that can make things happen.”
“It’s a gift for me to be able to serve this city,” she said, adding that her first order of business will be talking about jobs, housing and trust with law enforcement.
“I’m also going to work with city council, to really spend some time to ask, ‘What are your goals? What do you see the world like?’ And to craft something we can begin to work on together.”
Smith shrugged off the question of whether he would run for office again. He said he’s taking his family to Legoland to relax.
As for future GOP candidates, he said, “Maybe they’ll find some secret ingredient we didn’t.”