Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts has found herself serving her first term in one of the most turbulent times for Charlotte, N.C. As she seeks re-election, she is finding herself fending off serious challengers who hope the political moment, turbulent as it has been, is right to convince citizens that the Queen City needs a new leader.
There was the battle between Charlotte and the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) over the city’s non-discrimination ordinance and the resulting House Bill 2 (HB2), one of the most anti-LGBTQ laws in the country. It’s a battle that continues, in fact, with the so-called “compromise” House Bill 142 (HB142) leaving anti-LGBTQ discrimination as the law of the land.
The city was further rocked by the police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, and the subsequent protests that resulted in instances of police escalation, violence, property damage, and ultimately the calling in of the National Guard.
Charlotte has also been at the center of concerns over the Trump administration’s crackdown on the immigrant population.
In advance of the Sept. 12 primary, here is what voters need to know about the candidates, and where they stand on these key issues.
It is likely that whoever wins the Democratic primary will go on to win the general election, to be held on Nov. 7. Democrats make up nearly half of the city’s voters, outnumbering Republicans 2-1. The competition on the Democratic side is stiffer, presumably in no small part for that very reason.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts
Roberts has both the good fortune and is in the unenviable position of having name recognition and experience in the role of Charlotte mayor.
She was a staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights and fought against the compromise attempts coming from the NCGA. But then Charlotte City Council finally did fold under the pressure, after Roberts agreed to hold a vote that resulted in a repeal of the already nullified ordinance in hopes of getting a repeal of HB2 in return.
What they wound up with was a deal Roberts has criticized, breaking with the city’s own statement, as it prevents cities from passing non-discrimination ordinances until 2020. Further, it permanently prohibits them from passing ordinances or regulations impacting the use of multi-stall bathrooms in places of public accommodation.
“I am deeply disappointed that the Republican leaders in the General Assembly continue to see LGBT people as unequal and refuse to let cities like Charlotte govern themselves,” Roberts said of the move agreed to by Gov. Roy Cooper.
She was criticized by both sides for her handling of the non-discrimination vs. HB2/HB142 debate, and was likewise met with unhappy constituents on both sides of the political spectrum over the Keith Lamont Scott police shooting death and subsequent response by the city.
Roberts seemed to try to split the difference throughout the ordeal, sometimes siding with the city and Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney, and at other times criticizing a lack of transparency.
As for the immigration issue, she has painted herself as an ally of the immigrant population, criticizing a deportation program she helped bring to the city during her tenure as a Mecklenburg commissioner. The controversial 287(g) program, allowsthe sherriff’s office to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in order to determine if someone is in the country illegally, and then, if that is the case, to hold them until the federal government decides whether they can stay or if they should be deported. Most cities do not participate in these programs.
If there is any phrase to best sum up Mayor Roberts, perhaps it is this: imperfect ally.
Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles
The Charlotte City Councilmember and Mayor Pro Tem is one of two top contenders challenging Roberts.
Unfortunately for Lyles, she hasn’t done much to separate herself from the pack. As careful a politician as Roberts is, Lyles is even more cautious.
She was also even more eager to compromise over the non-discrimination ordinance, meeting with Republican members of the NCGA to discuss options, along with her city council colleagues: Republican Charlotte Council members Ed Driggs and Kenny Smith and fellow Democrat James Mitchell. Those in the LGBTQ community with long memories are not likely to reward her for that move.
Along with the rest of the City Council, minus Roberts, she signed on to a letter of support for Putney.
Her tendency not to want to say too much was on perfect display during a debate in June when she was asked about immigration and so-called “sanctuary cities” providing shelter to undocumented individuals.
“I would say when you’re in these kinds of forums, your language really needs to be very precise,” Lyles said, according to Charlotte public radio station WFAE, “because sanctuary cities are not really defined anywhere. So we can’t be something that we don’t know what it is.”
Lyles said the city needed to be a “welcoming city” without violating federal or state laws.
Sen. Joel Ford
Sen. Joel Ford is the most right-leaning in the primary of all the Democratic candidates. He was a strong advocate for compromise on the non-discrimination ordinance to secure an HB2 repeal, suggesting that we could circle back around to protecting transgender citizens.
That is likely to alienate the LGBTQ community even more than Lyles and Roberts managed to do with their own willingness to back down.
Ford also voted in 2015 in favor of allowing magistrates to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
He has also failed to take criticism well, responding to former qnotes editor Matt Comer on Twitter with a GIF of a defecating dog after Comer criticized his stance on LGBTQ issues. Ford has since apologized for the tweet, which he called “inappropriate.” He also met with Comer, who reported that Ford is still resistant to a fully inclusive non-discrimination ordinance offering protections to transgender people who wish to use the bathrooms matching their gender identity.
If Ford can beat out Roberts, the LGBTQ community will have an even more imperfect ally leading our city.
Lucille Puckett has experience serving on Charlotte’s Housing Authority, and has previously run, unsuccessfully, for Charlotte mayor and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Board of Education.
She attributed her current campaign in part to due to having lost a son because of gun violence. She filed to run just before the deadline and participated in the June debate.
Constance Partee Johnson
Johnson also filed right before the cutoff, and just in time to participate in the June debate. Johnson called for “more compassion, more unity, more understanding,” and has previously unsuccessfully run for state senator, chair of the state Democratic party, and a position on city council in Salisbury, N.C.
When she lost in Salisbury, she made headlines for comments she posted to Facebook that were anything but unifying.
“So a little Jewish candidate tried to lower my power by offering me some cash to pretend to be my sugar daddy, citing that it was personal money,” Johnson wrote. “I took it, beat the crap out of him at the next debate, and he told everybody I stole his car signs and he wanted his money back. I have never stolen anything in my life and never return gifts from cheap men.”
That statement alone, as well as the hastily organized run, makes her an even longer shot than Johnson.
Charlotte City Council member Kenny Smith is the big name running on the Republican side. He will likely take the primary, but faces an uphill battle after that, as the city hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since Pat McCrory.
Smith voted against the non-discrimination ordinance, and was one of the loudest voices in trying to get it repealed.
While Ford would be a step in the wrong direction on LGBTQ rights, Smith would be a leap in that direction.
Former magistrate Kimberley Barnette told Ballotpedia her main concern was seeing the completion of the “Lynx rail transportation system around the city.” She ranked civil rights as 10th on her list of most important issues, two spots behind “City services (trash, utilities, etc.).”
Barnette also said she thinks the state should set the minimum wage, and not cities. North Carolina’s minimum wage matches the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Gary Dunn has twice unsuccessfully run for governor: as a Republican in 1992, and as a Democrat, in 2012.
He said of marriage equality in 2012: “The moral or religious question is not the one for the office of the governor, as the office of governor and my position is to support and maintain the forum that allows the discussion and debate of the issue, not pick a side on this issue. Making it a personal agenda is reserved for those it affects monetarily, morally and religiously. If that is the only reason besides intolerance, then the money issue should be addressed separately from the religious, or moral. I am not the flag carrier in the cause, but will defend to the death their right to equality, under the law.”
— Lucille Puckett photo courtesy of The Charlotte Observer.
Editor’s Note: Early voting has already begun. Here’s what you need to know, including early voting locations.