Mayoral candidates go toe-to-toe in Observer debate

Democratic mayoral candidates (left to right) Michael Barnes, Mayor Dan Clodfelter, David Howard and Jennifer Roberts prepare for Wednesday’s forum. They followed Republicans Scott Stone and Edwin Peacock.
Democratic mayoral candidates (left to right) Michael Barnes, Mayor Dan Clodfelter, David Howard and Jennifer Roberts prepare for Wednesday’s forum. They followed Republicans Scott Stone and Edwin Peacock. Steve Harrison

Four candidates facing off for the Democratic nomination in the Charlotte mayoral primary Sept. 15 took to a stage Wednesday night to spar on topics ranging from transportation and infrastructure to housing along the Lynx Blue Line and whether transgender residents should use restrooms of their choice.

The debate is held by the Charlotte Observer and WBTV at Queens University of Charlotte. (For tweets from the debate, check out the live stream at the bottom of this story)

Among those seeking the nod are four candidates with varying degrees of political experience: Incumbent Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter; Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes; Jennifer Roberts, former chair of Mecklenburg’s board of county commissioners; and Charlotte City Councilman David Howard.

Roberts, who has raised more money than any other candidate, emerged as a clear leader in a recent Charlotte Observer Poll that surveyed 816 likely Democratic primary voters. Roberts won 39 percent of the votes, putting her as a favorite among men, women and 37 percent of black voters. David Howard and Michael Barnes, the two African-American candidates, each got 4 percent of the white vote, poll results show.

Fifteen percent of voters surveyed were undecided.

Wednesday’s debate ended at 9:40 p.m. Here’s what the candidates said:

(9:40 p.m.) What makes you the best candidate?

Barnes: He stressed that, while not always the most exciting candidate, his track record of adding police to the streets and improving infrastructure and roads proves that his focus to the job would be his biggest asset to the job.

Clodfelter: Touted a 40-year career in public service. He said he’s learned what works and what doesn’t work.

Howard: “I’ve done it the Charlotte way.” Howard said he’s taken opportunities to get involved in the community, serving on numerous committees and groups to learn about the city’s biggest issues and mold that into a vision to take Charlotte beyond being the second largest banking center in the U.S.

Roberts: Building her campaign around supplying residents with education and jobs, Roberts said she knows what matters to people. She has experience as an international business woman who served the U.S. overseas. She wants to support the international community in Charlotte and make the city a more viable global marketplace.

(9:35 p.m.) Audience questions:

One resident noted that Charlotte is a prime city for human trafficking. She asked what the city can do to prevent the problem and how to possibly make a dent in it.

Barnes said CMPD and U.S. Attorney’s Office have worked together to address trafficking in this area. The mayor, he said, should be in position to support the organizations and the victims to help them escape trafficking rings and recover from the resultant trauma.

Howard, who said he’s been involved with linking CMPD and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said it’s an issue that concerns him, as well, and one he would continue to work on.

Roberts said human trafficking is a big plight in immigrant communities. If elected, she would push for programs that would help inform Charlotte’s immigrants about what signs to look out for if trafficking is occurring too close to home.

(9:27 p.m.) Lightning Round Three: The lighthearted questions

Favorite food truck

Barnes: No favorite

Clodfelter: “I always gravitate to the ice-cream trucks myself.”

Howard: “One with a good hamburger.”

Roberts: Owners of Harvest Moon Grill used to have a truck that she liked.

If the Panthers came knocking, asking for more money to ensure the franchise stays in Charlotte, would you say yes?

Barnes: “We don’t have any more money.”

Clodfelter: “That is the right answer.”

Howard: “It’s a conversation we’d have to entertain.”

Roberts: Did not answer

Have any of you taken a ride on the new trolley yet?

Barnes: Yes

Clodfelter: Yes

Howard: “I was on the first ride.”

Roberts: Not yet

What one word describes the next big thing for Charlotte?

Only one candidate answered in one word:

Barnes: Growth

Clodfelter: Four-year medical school

Howard: Medical school and major re

Roberts: Innovation corridor and premiere entrepreneurial

(9:20 p.m.) Upward mobility struggles

Charlotte has been called one of the worst cities in terms of upward mobility, the ability for its citizens to move from a lower social level to a higher one.

Roberts: Fixing that starts with education and access to a good school. The city needs to look at pre-schools, training programs and mentorships and look at opportunity for jobs – not just the CEO jobs but the entry-level jobs, as well.

Howard: The CMS student assignment plan is not assigning students in a way they see people outside their circles of influence. Howard said the city should work on linking students with opportunities to work for real companies.

Clodfelter: The Opportunity Task Force, commissioned to presenting recommendations to right Charlotte’s upward mobility issues, is doing a lot of work to suss out what is causing the disparities in the city.

Clodfelter says few CMS students have an encounter with the “world of work” before they graduate. Putting students to work in the summer is an important step to opening up opportunities for them.

Barnes: Diversify the mix of companies that come to the city.

(9:15 p.m.) Lightning Round Two

Should the extra lane on I-485 in south Charlotte be opened?

Barnes: It’s not the city’s road. The state has said it is unable to open the lane because of money.

Clodfelter: Yes, it should be open. The state did not give convincing reasons why they could not open it.

Roberts: Open the lane to make it an HOV lane.

Yes or no to consolidating city and county governments?

Barnes: No

Clodfelter: No.

Howard: No.

Roberts: Time is not right but the two governments must work better together.

Should the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department fire Randall Kerrick or should he keep his job?

Barnes: He does not think Kerrick will be allowed to return for general morale and personal safety reasons. “The man is not being charged with anything right now.” He should probably not be reinstated.

Clodfelter: He would not answer, calling it a personnel matter.

Howard: Howard does not want any “future mayor” quoted in a court case involving Kerrick and would not answer.

Roberts: “I see no reason to disagree with my colleagues...it’s a personnel decision.”

(9:09 p.m.) Transgender choice for restrooms

Once a new mayor is elected, the new City Council will likely vote on whether to expand the city’s non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBT residents. The measure would include a provision allowing transgender residents to use the bathroom of their choice – an ordinance that failed earlier this year in a contentious meeting that drew opposition from nearly 120 people on both sides of the issue.

Clodfelter and Roberts both have said they would support expanding the ordinance.

▪ Barnes said the most challenging point of the ordinance was the process whereby the council considered it. Most residents, he said, were concerned

Howard said he would not veto the ordinance. He proposed his own “pragmatic” solution: Create single-stall options. It’s time for Charlotte to be more “progressive” and adopt restrooms that are “not just limited” to male-female distinctions.

Barnes said Howard’s idea could work if the expectation in Charlotte is that all bathrooms are unisex.

▪ Clodfelter said the issue is “bogus,” stressing that he’s never noticed someone standing at the entrance to a restroom checking patrons’ anatomy.

▪ Roberts: Pass an ordinance not only about bathrooms but one that addresses discrimination in businesses and contracting.

(9 p.m.) Integration in CMS

Barnes: Place a 40-percent poverty rate cap on all CMS schools.

Clodfelter: The city has to support the school board on integrating Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Howard: The conversation about education becomes integration and more about school assignment and where to place magnet programs. Howard said his son attends a school in Steele Creek that’s 93 percent minority.

Roberts: The city should supplement work by the School Board to ensure diversity is a high priority for the school system. To spread opportunity to every corner of the city and fight poverty, diversity in the schools is essential.

(8:55 p.m.) Lightning Round One: Wages, schools and contracts

Living wage for city workers:

Barnes: There is no number. Barnes said he could not live off $15-an-hour. The city gauges mid-market ranges for similar employees.

Clodfelter: The city should not have any employee qualify for Medicaid because they can not afford health insurance. There are employees who use Medicaid and food stamps.

Howard: It’s unfair to compare Charlotte to place likes New York and other cities that have raised minimum raise to $15-an-hour because those cities have higher costs of living. Grabbing at $15-an-hour is premature, he said.

Roberts: The only candidate to come out with a number, Roberts said the wage should be raised to $15-an-hour for full-time city employees. She said the city must lead by example.

Carlee’s contract

Barnes: It’s not fair to Carlee to discuss the contract since it expires next spring.

Clodfelter: That’s a personnel matter in advance of predicting in advance; it’s not a proper question to answer in public forum.

Howard: A future council will take up that decision.

Roberts: She agreed with colleagues and would not answer.

Public or private school?

Barnes: “We’re a CMS family.”

Clodfelter: “My kids are grown and paid for.” Clodfelter sent his children to public and private schools.

Howard: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Roberts: Children have been through five different CMS schools, one in private school now.

(8:43 p.m.) On how to handle incentives and recruiting

Candidates addressed whether they would have offered the hefty incentives package to Chiquita Brands International, which earlier this year announced plans to leave Charlotte.

Barnes said the city is trying to figure out how to improve business investment grant details. “Companies get bought, companies get sold,” he said. “We lose companies but we also gain them.”

“We are a global player,” Roberts said. “It’s difficult to know when companies are going to merge or be bought...we have to compete in the global marketplace.”

Clodfelter has said the city should focus on attracting talented professionals rather than offering incentives to draw large companies.

Millennials feel Charlotte is a great, interesting place to live and they want to live there to start companies and build ventures.

“What is attracting those folks to our city now is not business incentives,” Clodfelter said. “What’s bringing them here is the quality of life. That is the way the future economy will be built, off that talent.”

(8:35 p.m.) Why do you want the job?

Clodfelter: It’s an exciting job in an exciting place. He said he’s got the right package of skills and background to position Charlotte for where it’s going for the next generation.

Barnes: He said he believes he can “set the vision for the city,” and use the bully pulpit to improve schools.

Roberts: To bring opportunity to all corners of our city by strengthening our schools and creating good-paying jobs for all Charlotte families.

Howard: For someone who grew up in the toughest part of Charlotte, Howard said watching former Mayor Harvey Gantt helped him believe that he could do the same. He said he’s concerned with the city. “Charlotte’s done a lot of great things (but) we need somebody with vision.”

“I always have big ideas and I want to bring those ideas to the table,” he said.


Two candidates vying for the Republican nomination in the Sept. 15 mayoral primary traded barbs over how to attract companies to Charlotte, how to improve the city’s infrastructure and whether the streetcar project was a good use of taxpayer money.

Edwin Peacock, a former City of Charlotte council member who lost the race against former Mayor Patrick Cannon two years ago, and Scott Stone, who ran but lost against prominent Democrat Anthony Foxx four years ago, squared off Wednesday night in a debate held by the Charlotte Observer and WBTV at Queens University of Charlotte. (For live tweets from the debate, check out the live stream at the bottom of this story)

A recent Charlotte Observer Poll shows that Peacock holds the lead over Stone, 44 percent to 26 percent. But about 30 percent of likely GOP voters said they were undecided.

Their debate finished at 8:15 p.m. The Democrats will face off next at 8:30 p.m. Here’s what Scott and Stone said on several issues:

(8:10 p.m.) Audience questions

In response to audience questions, Peacock said he wants to see the City Council reflect the community. That means a Latino representative on the council.

Stone advocated for apprenticeship programs that help students in high school land jobs before they’re even out of school.

Charlotte resident James Daniels asked the candidates how they plan to change hiring police practices and call for accountability among law enforcement officers.

If elected mayor, Stone said he will ensure police have the best training and equipment at their disposal to “really engage the community.”

He praised Charlotte’s response in the aftermath of the Randall Kerrick mistrial, saying the city did not see a major uproar like other communities. He credited that response with “community engagement” already exemplified by the police department.

Peacock didn’t answer the question about police but addressed another question of Daniels’ on how he’s made a decision that didn’t echo sentiments among his party. He mentioned his voting against Amendment One.

(8 p.m.) Lightning Round Two

Toll roads on I-77:

Stone: “No one likes toll roads”

Peacock: “It’s a last option.”

Should the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department fire Randall Kerrick or should he keep his job?

Scott: If CMPD doesn’t reinstate Kerrick, the city will likely face a major lawsuit.

Peacock: Thinks Kerrick is a “fine individual” and wants to see him reinstated.

(7:56 p.m.) Bathroom choice for transgender residents

Once a new mayor is elected, the new City Council will likely vote on whether to expand the city’s non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBT residents. The measure would include a provision allowing transgender residents to use the bathroom of their choice – an ordinance that failed earlier this year in a contentious meeting that drew opposition from nearly 120 people on both sides of the issue.

Stone: He said he would vote against the ordinance and veto it as mayor.

Peacock: Said he wants to be welcoming to all Charlotteans, including LGBT residents. Would not have supported the current ordinance

When he ran for Congress in 2012, Peacock was the only one of 10 GOP candidates in the 9th District to publicly oppose Amendment One, which banned gay marriage.

(7:50 p.m.) Lightning Round One: Wages, schools and contracts

In a series of lightning round questions, Stone said he doesn’t have a number on what is a fair, living wage for city workers. Peacock also didn’t have a number but said he supports the city of Charlotte’s current wage and benefits policy.

Neither candidate would give a straight “yes” or “no” on whether they would extend City Manager Ron Carlee’s contract, which expires next year.

Responding to a question about whether they send their children to private or public schools, Stone answered that his daughters both attend Ardrey Kell High School, a public school in Ballantyne. Peacock’s children attend at Eastover Elementary and the Fletcher School,

(7:45 p.m.) Improving infrastructure

Ballantyne resident April Harley asked Peacock and Stone if they plan to improve Charlotte’s infrastructure. Housing and hotel construction is booming where she lives but the morning and evening commutes long and difficult.

Peacock stressed that planning for the city’s growth needs to continue.

Stone, who lives in south Charlotte, said the city must prioritize its spending and should fund infrastructure in a formula model similar to the state. That formula would score road projects – plans with the highest score would get top priority.

(7:38 p.m.) Incentives and ‘entrepreneurial ecosystem’

Stone, the president of a civil engineering firm, criticized the city giving Chiquita Brands International cash upfront to relocate its headquarters to Charlotte while Peacock touted his voting against the incentives package in the first place.

“It isn’t a race to the bottom,” Peacock said. “We have to look at ultimately how we are creating a family and more business environment for people to come here.”

That includes touting the airport, “the most significant asset we have in this community,” he said. “We have to ultimately sell who we are as a region.”

Dan Roselli, founder and executive director of uptown’s startup incubator Packard Place, asked the candidates what they plan to do to support entrepreneurship in the community, and how their plan differs from their opponents’.

Stone, who said he started his company with fewer than three employees, said he’s an example of “what an entrepreneur can do in the city of Charlotte.”

But to encourage growth in private business ownership, Stone said the city’s leadership has to streamline the permitting process.

“We make it unfortunately so difficult to get through the permitting process,” he said. “That’s one of the things we can do that’s easy. Help (entrepreneurs) open a business as quick as possible.”

Peacock added that the city needs to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is “second to none.” With the Lynx Blue Line, the city has an opportunity to “marry” its education and research facilities with business to make it a destination for startups.

(7:35 p.m.) Can a Republican win?

In a city with a heavy Democratic electorate, Stone said he feels citizens in Charlotte are smart, engaged and capable of looking beyond party lines when selecting the next mayor.

Peacock said he feels differently: “People select person over party.”

“Last time, we had a pretty narrow margin in our race. Obviously, people are becoming much more engaged following” Cannon’s arrest on bribery charges.

Peacock added that he has no regrets on Anne Tompkins’ decision to prosecute Cannon when she did.

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