Elections

‘Very unusual’: Conservative PAC is running ads backing two Charlotte Democrats

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2019 election coverage

Mecklenburg County voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect local officials and school board members — and decide whether to raise their taxes.

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A conservative political group is running a TV ad praising Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt — both Democrats — for standing up to Democrats who opposed bringing the 2020 Republican National Convention to Charlotte.

The Truth and Prosperity political action committee, which generally backs Republicans, is running the ad on cable TV less than two weeks before Election Day.

Exactly why is unclear.

Both Lyles and Eiselt are expected to easily win re-election in a city that’s overwhelmingly Democratic. The only question is where Eiselt will finish in the at-large race. She finished fourth in the primary. Now she’s one of four incumbents and a GOP newcomer vying for four seats.

“This is very unusual,” said UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig. “It’s unusual enough that it begs the question of, what is going on?”

The PAC is best known for its support of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Its biggest single contributor is Greg Lindberg, a Durham businessman awaiting trial on federal bribery charges.

“Both Julie and Vi have been pro-economic growth and job creation,” said William Gumpton, the PAC’s executive director, explaining what he described as the reason for the ad.

Eiselt said she didn’t find out about the ads until they ran.

“I think it really confuses people. It confuses me,” she said. “I had to look up who the group was. I’d never spoken with them and frankly I’d just as soon run my own race.”

Lyles’ campaign would not comment, saying they weren’t aware of the ad.

The ad calls the two Democrats “proven leaders.” It shows pictures of people holding signs opposing last year’s city council vote to formally bid for the convention. The council voted 6-5 for the convention, with Eiselt in the majority. Lyles, who championed the RNC, did not vote.

“When partisans tried to deny the Republican National Convention from being held in Charlotte,” the ad says, “Lyles and Eiselt stood firm advocating the economic benefits the convention would bring to small businesses across Charlotte.”

Eiselt wasn’t the only at-large Democrat to support the RNC bid. So did James Mitchell. Two at-large members, Braxton Winston and Dimple Ajmera, opposed it.

Eiselt joined fellow Democrats in July when the council voted to support a resolution to “strongly condemn” President Donald Trump’s call for four Democratic congresswomen to leave the U.S. and his supporters’ “Send Her Back” chant during a N.C. rally.

“For Democrats this is sort of a nothing burger,” said Sam Spencer, a Democratic activist. “The city council race isn’t the biggest thing on the ballot. It’s the sales tax and maybe the school board.”

While none of the at-large incumbents is expected to lose, the order of finish could be important. The top voter-getter usually becomes the mayor pro tem, the person who runs meetings in the mayor’s absence. Braxton Winston led the field in the primary.

Mecklenburg voters are being asked to approve a referendum that would raise the sales tax by a quarter-cent, to 7.5%. The money would go to the arts, parks and education. Voters will also choose three school board members.

Heberlig offered another explanation for the ad.

“For whatever reason, they need some bipartisan credibility so they need to find some ‘safe’ Democrats to contribute to,” he said. “So they give to a couple local Democrats who are going to win anyway and who are politically acceptable in the eyes of their donor base because they helped land the Republican National Convention.”

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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.
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