Charlotte has two capable candidates for mayor. We think one has the edge

The Observer editorial board

Vi Lyles and Kenny Smith are running for Charlotte mayor.
Vi Lyles and Kenny Smith are running for Charlotte mayor. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

It’s been 30 years since an elected Charlotte mayor lost a reelection bid. It’s happening again this year, with incumbent Jennifer Roberts having lost to Vi Lyles in the Democratic primary last month.

Roberts’s defeat sets up a competitive race between two qualified candidates, and makes for a difficult choice for voters. Lyles, a Democrat, faces off with Republican Kenny Smith. Both are two-term City Council members and both would make capable mayors. We give the nod to Lyles, who we think is best-suited to lead Charlotte as it works through issues of economic mobility, police-community relations, non-discrimination and equality of opportunity.

Lyles, 66, worked in city government for 30 years, including as Charlotte’s budget director and assistant city manager before being elected to the City Council in 2013. Those experiences give her a deep understanding of how the city and its $2.4 billion budget work. Armed with her master’s in public administration, her role as a consultant and her service on prominent community boards, Lyles is well-prepared for the role.

We wish she were more outspoken and would better project herself as a sure-footed leader. She doesn’t, because her style is to make decisions based on a deliberative process. She involves others and takes time to understand all sides of an issue and build consensus before committing to action. While that can make her appear hesitant, including to us, it could also help her work with council, staff and community members to arrive at stronger approaches to this city’s challenges.

Lyles is passionate about the issues that are so important at this moment in Charlotte’s history. She helped lead the effort to send a “Letter to the Community” following the Keith Scott unrest, committing to focus on public safety, affordable housing and jobs for those in struggling parts of the city. We believe she can relate well to those challenges and would be deeply committed to helping the disadvantaged as mayor.

Smith, 44, would also be an able mayor. Despite being one of only two Republicans on the 11-member council, he is able to work constructively with other members and so has been an effective district representative.

He brings a fiscal conservatism to the council that we appreciate. For instance, when the Charlotte Hornets sought $42 million in arena upgrades in 2014, Smith was one of the few on council to cast a critical eye, touring the arena to see exactly what the upgrades would entail.

He also notably defused tensions at a City Council meeting amid the Keith Scott unrest, going into a hostile crowd to have civil conversations.

Still, some of his votes and actions concern us. He voted against the LGBT non-discrimination ordinance twice, both with and without a bathroom provision, and says he would vote against it again today. He says that’s an issue for the state to resolve, not the city, though the state has demonstrated it has no interest in passing LGBT protections.

“I don’t believe in Charlotte we have widespread (LGBT) discrimination that exists,” he told the Observer editorial board, adding that he opposes any such discrimination.

Smith says he would not push a conservative agenda as mayor, and we have no reason to doubt him. But we do question whether his election would embolden Republican state legislators to go after Charlotte in hurtful ways, as they have many times. If they did, would he be able to stand up to them? Some Republicans have higher political aspirations for Smith, and crossing the party would not help those.

Charlotte is fortunate to have two credible choices for mayor. We think Lyles is a better choice.