With high hopes, candidates kick off elections in Charlotte and surrounding towns

A flurry of candidates kicked off Mecklenburg County’s municipal elections Friday with enthusiasm, opportunities and high hopes.

For some, like a 20-year-old candidate for mayor of Charlotte, the hope comes despite long odds.

Friday was the first day of a two-week filing period for candidates for local offices throughout the county as well as for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. Most primaries are Sept. 10. The general election is Nov. 5.

Nearly two dozen candidates and their supporters gathered at noon Friday at the Board of Elections. Some were veteran incumbents. Some were making their first run for office.

That included Democrat Joel Odom, who filed for mayor against incumbent Democrat Vi Lyles. He won’t turn 21, the minimum age for the mayor, until a month before Election Day.

“We know the person with the most endorsements doesn’t always win,” Odom told the Observer. “What motivated me to run is seeing so many young people dying on the street.”

Lyles, a former council member, was first elected in 2017. She beat incumbent Mayor Jennifer Roberts and a handful of other Democrats in the primary and won 59% of the vote in the general election against Republican Kenny Smith, who spent $650,000.

Friday also guaranteed primaries in Charlotte City Council’s District 1 and 4, and more primaries are expected. In addition to District 4, there will be vacancies in District 2 where incumbent Justin Harlow is stepping down and District 3, where Democrat LaWana Mayfield is running at-large.

In addition to Mayfield, the four at-large incumbents — Democrats Dimple Ajmera, Julie Eiselt, James Mitchell and Braxton Winston — are expected to run. Former state Senate candidate Chad Stachowicz filed Friday. And Jorge Millares is expected to try to become the council’s first Latino member.

Republican incumbent Ed Driggs filed in southeast District 7. But he was the only Republican who had filed for a Charlotte office through mid-afternoon Friday. Republicans were noticeable by their absence from other races including the at-large race.

“They don’t see a path to victory, but it’s there,” said Edwin Peacock, who in 2009 was the last Republican elected at-large. “I think people are hungry for constructive conservatives. But these people are not stepping up on the municipal level.”

Demographics have worked against Republicans, who make up less than one in five registered city voters. Democrats are almost half and unaffiliated voters are about a third. Republicans outnumber Democrats in only two southeast districts — 6 and 7 — and they’re outnumbered by unaffiliated voters in each.

Like the county, Charlotte has become steadily more Democratic. Last fall Democrats extended their dominance by sweeping the nine seats on the county board and unseating four GOP legislators.

“It’s hard to see (Republicans winning) in a blue city when Donald Trump is president of the United States,” said Democratic strategist Sam Spencer. “Donald Trump is an albatross to every Republican who wants to make headway in a municipal election in Charlotte.”

For Democrats, it’s a different story. And the scramble already started for what will be the council’s three open seats. In westside District 2, where incumbent Justin Harlow is stepping down, Democrat Jessica Davis filed. A Johnson C. Smith University graduate and lawyer with the court system, she emphasized her longtime residency in the district.

“It was District 2 that raised me,” she said in remarks to supporters and the media. It was a point hammered home by a supporter in a dig at another expected candidate, former state Sen. Malcolm Graham, a one-time District 4 council member.

“We don’t need recycled politicians,” said Colette Forest, a former chair of the Black Political Caucus. “District 2 needs a fresh face. District 2 needs a woman.”

Graham said he’s considering a run. He said he’s lived in the same home for 26 years. Since he was on council, redistricting has moved it into District 2.

As with Democratic at-large candidates, it doesn’t appear that Lyles will face significant Republican opposition.

Last month John Powell, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for council two years ago, told the Observer that county Republicans seem “totally focused on the national race and the (Republican National Convention) coming to Charlotte.”

And Kenny Smith, the GOP’s 2017 mayoral candidate, said he doesn’t believe Lyles will get a Republican challenger.

“Based on fundraising and everything you need to do, they would have needed to start in February if they were going to mount a serious challenge,” he said.

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.