Will HB2 help take down the mayor, too?

The Observer editorial board

Mayor Jennifer Roberts faces an unusually strong primary challenge for an incumbent.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts faces an unusually strong primary challenge for an incumbent. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

It’s an annual rite of voting to complain about the quality of choices we have in elections. Too many races feature too few candidates who seem worthy of the ballot.

Charlotte’s 2017 mayoral election is not one of those races. With Republican Kenny Smith announcing his candidacy, the field is in all likelihood set – and it’s an unusually strong one.

There’s at least one reason for that – HB2. Just as North Carolina’s most infamous law helped knock Gov. Pat McCrory out of office, the city’s role in the stalemate could contribute to the undoing of Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts.

How vulnerable is she? Most mayoral incumbents get to avoid serious primary challengers. Roberts will face a pair: City Council member Vi Lyles and N.C. Sen. Joel Ford.

Ford, at this point, is the more formidable of the two. He’s an independent thinker who has worked actively – or at least publicly – for an HB2 compromise. He’ll appeal to Democrats who believe in LGBT protections but want their mayor to take a less strident posture on it. At some point, however, he’ll have to declare whether he believes transgender bathroom choice is a must in any compromise. It’s a good bet that Roberts will encourage him to clarify that position.

Like Ford, Smith will sell his pragmatism on HB2, and he and Ford will hit Roberts in what might be a more vulnerable area – her lack of leadership in critical moments. Roberts was unsteady at best last year in the aftermath of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting. She didn’t call for a state of emergency and backup help quickly enough. She didn’t set a curfew until 48 hours after unrest started. Then she wrote a blameshifting op-ed that appeared to throw her police chief under the bus on transparency.

That shakiness, by the way, was reminiscent of her tenure as chair of the Mecklenburg Board of Commissioners. Her opponents will surely note the pattern, although Lyles hasn’t shown enough leadership on the City Council to exploit that weakness.

Smith has his own hill to climb. He’s affable and well-versed in city policy, and he’s moved just far enough to the center on LGBT issues to appeal to some moderates. But he’s not widely known outside of his City Council district, and history isn’t on his side. A non-incumbent Republican hasn’t won the mayor’s office in 22 years.

Most daunting of all: Smith is a Republican in a city that’s been bruised by Republicans in Raleigh for at least half a decade. Will Democratic voters trust anyone from what’s considered the enemy party? Roberts already is poking at Smith for blaming Charlotte, not Republicans, for HB2. The mayor, if she wins her primary, will try to corner the Republican on HB2 and other issues where his ideology hurts him with progressive voters.

Remember, Roberts may be as good of a campaigner as this city has seen. She’s tireless and enthusiastic, and her use of social media is a model for municipal candidates. She will be difficult to beat.

But politics has always been about pendulum swings. The ideology that helped propel Roberts two years ago might work against her now. HB2 isn’t Roberts’ fault, but after a year’s worth of HB2 bruises, voters might be looking for a leader to guide Charlotte out of the pain.