By Jim Morrill and Steve Harrison, The Charlotte Observer
There is a crowded field in the Democratic primary for the four citywide City Council seats.
Three of the incumbents – Julie Eiselt, Claire Fallon and James Mitchell – are running for re-election. But with Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles running for mayor, there is guaranteed to be at least one newcomer. Early voting started last week for the Sept. 12 primary.
Eight Democrats are running. Dimple Ajmera, who was appointed to the District 5 seat in January, is running at-large. Four newcomers are also in the primary: Jesse Boyd, Roderick Davis, Ryan McGill and Braxton Winston.
The Democratic primary winners will face Republicans Parker Cains, John Powell and David Michael Rice in November.
Here are the candidates in the Democratic primary:
▪ Dimple Ajmera: Ajmera, 30, was appointed to the District 5 seat in January, replacing John Autry, who became a member of the N.C. General Assembly.
To be appointed, Ajmera told council members she wouldn’t seek the District 5 seat. But that hasn’t stopped her from running at-large, which surprised some of the council members who appointed her.
Ajmera is probably best known for a comment earlier this summer in which she said, “Republicans that are supporting Trump, they should have no place on city council whatsoever or in the mayor’s race.”
Local Republicans criticized her, but Ajmera did not take back her comments.
Ajmera came to the U.S. from India when she was in high school. She is the council’s first Indian-American member and first millennial.
Ajmera said she has worked to make progress on redeveloping Eastland Mall and said she wants to do more to encourage businesses to relocate to east and west Charlotte. She said the city could change its economic development grants to steer companies toward struggling areas of the city.
“Let’s say you are trying to get a $4 million in economic grant,” Ajmera said. “We could influence that decision (on getting the grant) based on the geographic location.”
▪ Jesse Boyd: At 23, the Charlotte native is the youngest candidate in the field.
After graduating from Harding University High, Boyd enlisted in the Army and went on to spend four years in the service. That included a stint in Afghanistan, where among other things he served as a liaison between U.S. troops and Afghan people.
In 2016 he served as director of a N.C. veterans group supporting presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He says that experience inspired him to make his own run for office, “to bring changes to my own community.”
Now manager of pizza restaurant near the Metropolitan, he says he’s running to rebuild trust within the community and make leaders more accountable to the people they represent. He supports giving people more educational options through more vocational schools, and making sure bond money is spent equitably throughout the city.
He says the Army taught him how to accomplish things.
“I have had that experience especially with the Afghans, even with language barriers we made things happen,” he says.
▪ Roderick Davis: Davis says a lot has happened in Charlotte since he last ran for mayor in 2015.
His friend Justin Carr was killed in the violence that followed September’s shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. Then his youngest sister, 18-year-old high school senior Shania Hammonds, was found dead in February.
“The city’s just not a safe place,” says Davis, 33.
Davis won just 152 votes in the 2015 mayoral primary. However, he took nearly 48 percent of the vote in a 2016 Senate primary loss to incumbent Joel Ford.
Davis is studying political science at the online American Public University. His top issues are homelessness, assisting low-income neighborhoods and public safety, particularly police-community relations. “People of color are profiled and harassed by law enforcement officials in the City of Charlotte on a daily basis,” he says on his website.
He suggests this campaign won’t be his last.
“I’m probably going to be running for the rest of my life until we have some changes around here,” he says.
▪ Julie Eiselt: Eiselt, 56, was first elected in 2015. She received more votes than any other at-large candidate, which would have usually meant she would be the mayor pro tem.
But Eiselt agreed to step aside and nominated Vi Lyles for the ceremonial position.
Eiselt chairs the council’s public safety committee, and said that’s still her top priority.
She said she wants to focus on what she calls the “silo-ed nature of public safety.” She said that means improving how city functions like policing work with the state-funded courts. She also said she wants to work to improve the pay of police officers, which is something police chief Kerr Putney said is important to retaining officers.
“It’s cheaper to retain an officer than to hire a new one,” she said.
Earlier this year, Eiselt worked with city officials to ensure women could safely enter an abortion clinic on Latrobe Drive. The clinic has been the target of large anti-abortion rights protests.
▪ Claire Fallon: Fallon, 82, is the one of the most independent council members.
Fallon, first elected in 2011, has at times voted with the Republican majority on issues such as opposing the streetcar.
Fallon supported extending legal protections for the LGBT community, though in 2016 she voted against an ordinance that allowed transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matched their gender identity. She has voted against funding the streetcar.
In the last three years, Fallon was a vocal critic of the Charlotte Fire Department, specifically former chief Jon Hannan. Fallon said the city had retaliated against a former fire investigator when it forced her out – a charge the city denied. But a jury earlier this summer awarded Crystal Eschert $1.5 million in her whistleblower lawsuit.
“I am independent council member. I am not a rubber stamp. I do not go along to get along,” she said.
Fallon said she wants to focus on building more affordable housing if she wins another term.
▪ Ryan McGill: A native of Reno, McGill moved to Charlotte just two years ago. But he feels ready to serve. “I saw some challenges and I thought instead of being a complainer I ought to stand up and do something,” says McGill, 41.
That’s what he did when he became a Navy diver at 17 and did again when he joined the Marines after Sept. 11. “I said, ‘Looks like it’s time to get back in,’” he recalls.
McGill spent eight years in the Marines, doing three tours in Iraq as a commissioned officer and helicopter pilot. When he returned, he moved to Boston to help care for a friend who’d suffered an accident that left him a quadriplegic. While there, he got a master’s in leadership from Northeastern University.
McGill came out as gay while in Iraq. He has since founded a group called OUTVETS, which acknowledges the contributions of LGBTQ veterans. He’s also on the board of a foundation dedicated to the memory of seven colleagues killed when their helicopter was shot down in Iraq.
Now a project manager with a residential construction company, he wants to help create a new vision for the city. “We’re riding on some good ideas of good leaders in thee past,” he says. “I want Charlotte to be a global city of the future.”
▪ James Mitchell: Mitchell, 55, is one of the most experienced council members. He represented District 2 for 14 year and then was elected to an at-large seat in 2015. He ran and lost for mayor to Patrick Cannon in 2013 in the primary.
Mitchell chairs the city’s economic development committee, which vets public-private partnerships that come for council. He is the most enthusiastic supporter of the city helping pay for a new soccer stadium in Elizabeth, an idea that won’t be considered until after the Sept. 12 primary.
Mitchell voted for legal protections for the LGBT community last year and is also a strong supporter of building the Gold Line, or streetcar. Mitchell often supports city staff recommendations.
▪ Braxton Winston: A photo from last September’s Charlotte street protests shows Winston shirtless, his fist raised against a line of black-helmeted police officers.
It was those protests, which followed the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, that brought Winston to public attention – and now propel his run for city council.
“As I tried to evaluate my role since then, it has been about connecting and building bridges,” says Winston, 34. “I have the ability and skills to do this …in a way that builds common ground, in a way people have not been able to do in the past.”
Winston was raised in Brooklyn, the son of a teacher and a NYC firefighter and former Marine. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and went on to Davidson College, where he majored in anthropology.
September’s protests sparked a new activism. In March, Winston went to Georgia to support 18-year-old Gus Zamudio, who faced deportation to his native Mexico. One reason to get elected, he says, is to speak for the “vulnerable and marginalized.”
“I believe Charlotte can be the next great American city,” Winston says. “But we have some serious issues we need to deal with.”
A freelance camera operator, he lives near NoDa with his wife and their three children.