How the last election helped Democrat Vi Lyles win Tuesday’s mayoral race

Mayor-elect Vi Lyles reflects on the day after her historic win

Democrat Vi Lyles easily defeated Republican Kenny Smith on Tuesday to become Charlotte’s first African-American female mayor.
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Democrat Vi Lyles easily defeated Republican Kenny Smith on Tuesday to become Charlotte’s first African-American female mayor.

For Leigh Altman, the road to Democrat Vi Lyles’ sweeping victory in Charlotte’s mayoral race Tuesday began after last year’s presidential election.

“I was galvanized to get off the couch and really get involved in local politics because of Donald Trump,” Altman said. “We can’t leave it to other people because that didn’t work out so well.

So Altman, 45, became chair of Precinct 9 and with her Dilworth neighbors worked to excite other Democrats and turn out the vote. They did. On Tuesday, Lyles not only soundly beat Republican Kenny Smith in their precinct but won 290 more votes than incumbent Democrat Jennifer Roberts did in 2015, an increase of 85 percent.

Such efforts helped Lyles to an 18-point win in an election that will make her Charlotte’s first female African-American mayor. The size of the margin stunned Smith and and even Lyles, who was significantly outspent. In October, a Spectrum News poll showed the race essentially tied.

But Lyles benefited from the blue wave that sent Democrats to victory in Virginia and New Jersey and across North Carolina. Democrats unseated a Republican mayor in Fayetteville and won other local races around the state.

Her win put African-American women in charge of the county’s biggest elected bodies. Democrat Ella Scarborough chairs the Mecklenburg County board of commissioners and Mary McCray leads the school board.

On Tuesday, Smith racked up nearly 50,000 votes, close to his target and 12,000 more than Republican Edwin Peacock got in losing in 2015.

But Lyles collected 72,000 votes – 30,000 more than Roberts did in 2015. All together, 21 percent of Charlotte voters turned out, a third higher than two years before.

▪ In northeast precinct 145, for example, she got 1,271 votes – nearly double Roberts’ 2015 total.

▪ She got around 100 more votes than Roberts’ did in Precinct 16, a predominantly African-American precinct off Beatties Ford Road, where Lyles won 97 percent of the vote.

▪ And in Ballantyne’s Precinct 148, she more than doubled up Roberts with 1,041 votes.

There, Janice Robinson was mad enough last November to get involved and organize what’s generally a Republican area. “The core motivation for me has been Trump,” said Robinson, 57, an occupational therapist.

Like Altman in Dilworth, she and fellow Democrats devised a plan and executed it. Lyles lost the precinct, but made it a lot closer than Roberts had in 2015.

Charlotte Mayor-elect Vi Lyles and her supporters celebrate their victory over challenger Kenny Smith on Tuesday at The Park in Charlotte, NC.

While Smith’s campaign and its allies were outspending Lyles with online and TV ads, Democrats were knocking on doors, making phone calls and ferrying people to early voting. The Black Political Caucus worked hard to get voters to the polls, and as in the primary saw most of the candidates it endorsed win.

Republicans also had a turnout effort, but relied more than Democrats on targeted advertising.

“I think this is going to make folks realize you can no longer mail and advertise your way to victory,” said Larry Shaheen, a GOP consultant and Smith supporter. “You’ve got to have boots on the ground.”

Shaheen credits some of the Democratic turnout to the campaign for school bonds. Organizers had pledged to spend $379,000 to turn voters out. Competitive school board races in many districts also may have boosted turnout.

Even some Republicans say some pro-Smith ads probably backfired.

The N.C. Values Coalition, for instance, ran an online ad that invoked Lyles’ support for the non-discrimination ordinance that led to the Republican legislature’s passage of House Bill 2, which sparked an economic and culture war. The ad showed a menacing man entering a bathroom stall occupied by a young girl.

Some Republicans said the ad backfired by resurrecting the HB2 issue and angering its LGBTQ opponents. Last week, the national Human Rights Campaign spent $10,500 on mailings for Lyles and Democratic city council candidates.

Smith also attacked Lyles for among other things, an alleged conflict of interest involving her family.

“When I saw those ads I was very disappointed that I was portrayed that way,” Lyles told reporters Wednesday morning. “When my kids Google my name, those ads come up. Did it bother me? Yes. The thought does cross your mind (about responding negatively). But I was committed to a positive campaign. You have to be who you are.”

Democratic strategist Dan McCorkle said the ads may have done more to mobilize Democrats than Republicans.

“The more they attacked her the more we solidified,” he said. “What it did in the end was energize Democratic voters.”

Altman, the precinct chair from Dilworth, said she plans to continue organizing Democrats for next year’s elections.

“That is the plan,” she said, “to get the highest turnout we can get in our little corner of North Carolina.”

Republican candidate Kenny Smith talks to supporters after conceding the Charlotte mayoral race to Democrat Vi Lyles. David T. Foster III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Vi Lyles wins the mayoral race against challenger Kenny Smith to become the city’s first African American female to hold the office on Tuesday, November 7, 2017.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill