With less than two weeks before the primary election, Charlotte’s Democratic mayoral candidates had a low-key debate Wednesday night, with the four prominent candidates declining to attack one another.
A Charlotte Observer poll last week found former county commissioner Jennifer Roberts leading the field with 39 percent of the vote – close to the 40 percent that would allow her to win without a run-off.
Though the candidates did not challenge Roberts, they did have some differences on issues such as LGBT protections, marijuana arrests and a living wage. Much of the debate was about schools and the role that the city can play in improving them and increasing their diversity.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
When the candidates were asked about public schools, Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes offered one of the most detailed proposals, saying the city should look to partner with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in a proposal to create a “poverty cap” at all schools. If a school’s poverty level exceeds the cap, then CMS could look to move students to more affluent schools.
Mayor Dan Clodfelter said that model – which had been used by Wake County – was a good idea and should be explored.
The other candidates, at-large council member David Howard and Roberts, said the city needed to partner with CMS and be a part of the conversation. They didn’t offer a specific proposal.
The candidates were also asked about where they sent their children to school.
Roberts’ children have attended public schools, and she said her child at home now attends private school. Clodfelter sent his children to public and private schools.
Howard’s and Barnes’ children attend CMS.
As council members, Barnes and Howard opposed all or part of a proposal earlier this year to expand the city’s non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBT residents. They were asked whether they would use a mayoral veto if the City Council voted to include LGBT residents in the ordinance.
Howard said he would not veto it as mayor. He said he favors increasing the number of single-stall bathrooms in public buildings, which could be used by people of both sexes.
Barnes did not say whether he would or would not veto the expansion. He said the problem with the ordinance was “the process” that didn’t allow for enough community input.
He said the City Council should have had the ordinance go through a council committee, where it would have had more time to be vetted.
The candidates were asked whether Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick should return to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department after the Attorney General’s Office dropped charges against him Wednesday in the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell. Kerrick is suspended without pay. The trial ended in August with the jury deadlocked 8-4 in favor of acquittal.
Clodfelter, Howard and Roberts declined to say. Barnes said “probably not,” adding there would be “morale and safety issues” with the officer returning.
The candidates were asked whether they would support a living wage and what that hourly wage would be for full-time city employees.
“We can’t talk about spreading opportunity unless we pay them a living wage,” Roberts said. “We should lead by example. I would support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.”
Clodfelter said he would support a wage to ensure no city employee would have to use Medicaid.
Barnes and Howard said it’s too difficult to give a firm number. They said the city strives to be competitive with other similar-sized cities.
Role of mayor
The candidates were first asked why they want to be mayor, a job which is often ceremonial.
Barnes said he believes he can “set the vision for the city” and use the bully pulpit to improve schools. Roberts said she would bring “opportunity to all corners of the city.”
Clodfelter said he has “demonstrated the ability to work across party lines. That’s an important need in Charlotte.”
Howard, a Charlotte native, said he was inspired by former mayor Harvey Gantt. He said he wants to improve all parts of the city.
Barnes and Clodfelter later said they were against changing the mayor’s job to what’s known as a “strong mayor,” which would run the city. Howard and Roberts said it should be up to the community to decide.
Barnes and Roberts both voted for a controversial incentive package for Chiquita. The banana company has closed its headquarters and still owes local taxpayers $1 million.
“Monday morning quarterbacking is valuable in this case,” Barnes said. “We have been reviewing the business incentive program. That deal made everyone uncomfortable.”
Roberts said she didn’t regret her vote.
“We are in a global economic environment,” she said. “It’s difficult to know when companies will be merging.”
Clodfelter has said the city should focus on attracting talented professionals, rather than trying to land large companies. He was asked what policies he would purse to make that happen.
The mayor did not outline a specific plan but said “what’s attracting them is not business incentives.”
Howard said the city should pursue closer partnerships with universities, as cities in the Triangle have done.
As a City Council member, Barnes has voted against some city budgets, in part because they contained general fund money for the streetcar.
He was asked whether he would use a mayoral veto if the City Council passed a budget that used general fund dollars for the streetcar.
Barnes didn’t say whether he would use the veto or not.
He said he thought council members could pass a budget with streetcar funding that didn’t include general fund dollars.
“That budget wouldn’t come before me,” he said.
Howard, Barnes and Clodfelter said they had taken rides on the streetcar. Roberts hasn’t done so.