Just two years ago, Charlotte’s relationship with North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature hit rock bottom.
GOP leaders blamed the city and then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts for what they called the “radical bathroom policy” that prompted House Bill 2 and for the hundreds of job losses that followed. An already-tenuous relationship became downright toxic.
But last month, current Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles and her city council supporters got what one Republican called a “rock star welcome” from GOP national committee members in Austin, Texas. When they awarded the city their 2020 national convention, party leaders in North Carolina and across the country heaped praise on the city and its mayor.
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“I love that it’s the Queen City and we have Mayor Vi Lyles — you are a queen,” GOP national Chair Ronna McDaniel said.
But will the goodwill translate into tangible benefits in Raleigh or Washington?
“Hopefully the doors will open a little easier when Charlotte goes to those offices and asks for things that they need,” said Larry Shaheen, a GOP consultant from Mecklenburg.
For Lyles, the diplomacy began long before the city landed the convention. She met long ago with GOP legislative leaders as well as Washington lawmakers, including U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis.
“I’ve been working on those relationships from the day I’d been sworn in,” she said.
But the convention appears to have deepened the relationship. Tillis praised Lyles and called the convention a “great opportunity for us to work across the aisles.”
Lyles championed the convention despite late-developing opposition from a majority of city council Democrats. Before council members narrowly approved it on a 6-5 vote, Lyles argued for the convention in an Observer op-ed. “We can show that our city is about inclusion,” she wrote, “(and) demonstrate our values of respect while honoring our differences.”
“It’s not so much the convention, it’s more the attitude of the mayor herself,” said state Rep. Mark Brody, a Union County Republican and member of the Republican National Committee. “We’re glad that we could really melt this partisan ice for a while.”
Beyond an open door
So what will the city get besides an open door?
Charlotte transit officials recently outlined a $7 billion plan that would extend light rail throughout the county, a plan that would need federal and state funding. The city also faces a severe shortage of affordable housing. Jobs, along with the financial incentives it often takes to get them, are always a priority.
“I would hope we would see the ability to move forward on those areas of focus,” Lyles said. “When you’re in that spotlight, you get to talk about both the things you do well as well as the challenges you’re encountering.”
Charlotte has yet to develop an agenda for the legislative session that starts in January. The city also will try to prevent the often unforeseeable things critics say could hurt the city.
This year lawmakers reduced maintenance funds for Charlotte transit by $3 million, or 26 percent. In the last year they’ve redrawn local voting districts in cities such as Greensboro and Asheville. Three years ago, Charlotte and other cities fought efforts to transfer sales tax revenue from urban to rural areas. And a bill last year would have cost Charlotte millions if it was found to be a de facto “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants.
Then there’s the airport. In 2013, lawmakers pushed to take Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city’s control and put it under first an authority and finally a commission. Though the issue landed in court, the city continues to run the airport. But some would like to resolve that issue once and for all.
“Those conversations are starting to percolate,” said GOP Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius, adding that conversations are going on behind the scenes. “That’s what Vi’s done that’s very different. You don’t just show up for (legislative) Town Hall Day. ... We’re already starting to see this collaborative effect of starting to work together.”
Not everybody is convinced.
“I’m a little bit more of a skeptic,” said Democrat Justin Harlow, a city council member who voted against the convention. “I hope Charlotte can get something for this, and I will remain cautiously optimistic. But history has shown that the legislature has not been our friend.”
Hosting the 2012 Democratic convention built goodwill for the city, particularly with the administration of Democrat Barack Obama. He even tapped then-Mayor Anthony Foxx as U.S. transportation secretary.
‘Lowering the temperature’
It’s hard to overstate how much has changed from the antipathy over HB2.
Last year, leading GOP lawmakers contributed to the campaign of one of Roberts’ opponents. And Rep. David Lewis, a GOP leader from Harnett County, even considered pulling an election bill when he was told it could help Roberts’ re-election. Lyles defeated her and three other candidates last November.
“There was no goodwill or no relationship whatsoever with the General Assembly and the mayor of Charlotte,” said Lewis. “And that’s no longer the case. ... (Lyles’) voice is certainly influential in decisions that I make.”
But Republican Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews said lawmakers still remember comments from council Democrats who opposed the GOP convention.
“There are some members of council who probably need to moderate their comments, otherwise they’ll make it difficult for Mayor Lyles to translate the legislators’ trust in her for trust in Charlotte as a whole.”
To be sure, Charlotte would still face resistance, convention or no convention.
Legislative leaders, for example, have long been skeptical of some urban rail projects. And some proposals could fall victim to budget constraints. There’s also inherent tension between the state’s largest urban area and the Democrats who run it and a legislature controlled by Republicans from mostly rural areas. And few expect lawmakers to suddenly give Charlotte everything it wants.
“The main thing is just lowering the temperature of the rhetoric in terms of the arguments between Charlotte and Raleigh,” said UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig. “If we can make them into constructive dialogue instead of pitched battles, that alone is progress.”
Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill