By Steve Harrison, The Charlotte Observer
For much of his four years on City Council, Kenny Smith was more conservative than the city’s two other high-profile Republican candidates, former mayor Pat McCrory and two-time mayoral candidate Edwin Peacock.
McCrory, for instance, championed the taxpayer-funded NASCAR Hall of Fame, while Smith voted against using public money to support next year’s NBA All-Star Game.
But in the past year, Smith has voted with Democrats to spend public money on subsidies for businesses and backed millions for improvements to Bojangles’ Coliseum, something he once opposed. Smith has also softened his rhetoric against Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance that led to House Bill 2.
If Smith defeats Democrat Vi Lyles for mayor in November, he would be working with a Democratic-controlled council.
Would he govern as a fiscal conservative of his early years on council – or a middle-of-the-road Republican of the past year?
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During his time on council, Smith has said the council should focus on the “core responsibilities” of local government. As a mayoral candidate, Smith said he would “get back to basics,” and focus on issues like public safety, infrastructure and jobs. He said Mayor Jennifer Roberts has spent too much time on social issues, and Smith has tried to link Lyles to Roberts’ agenda.
“The moment I’m sworn in, I want to sit down with the city manager and the department heads and create a 25-year vision to help us with the growth that’s coming. We can’t get caught flat-footed,” he said.
Peacock, a former council member, lost the mayor’s race to Patrick Cannon in 2013 and Roberts in 2015.
“Kenny isn’t loud or abrasive, he was just that no vote,” Peacock said. “Kenny matched closely with much of the conservative base of the older, traditional SouthPark voters. The conservatives will have a different response to Kenny than they will to me. They viewed me as a moderate.”
Smith, a commercial real estate broker, lives in Barclay Downs, a half-mile from where he grew up. He prides himself on being able to work well with his colleagues on the council, where Democrats have a 9-2 majority.
Last September, when council members were assailed during a meeting after the Keith Scott shooting, Smith took the most verbal abuse of any elected official, outside of Roberts. Protesters said he was smirking. They said he reminded them of Donald Trump. Some threatened to come to his house.
“I may have misjudged some of you, but I think I was misjudged tonight,” Smith during that meeting. “We need to talk, and I’m willing to overlook everybody saying they are going to come to my house; my wife and kids didn’t have anything to do with it, but if you want to come over let’s break bread, let’s talk. I’m a conservative Republican, but if we are going to fix this we need to fix it together, and it would work.”
Soon after Smith spoke, the tension in the council chamber between elected officials and protesters went down significantly.
A shift to the center
Former council member Michael Barnes, who served with Smith for two years, said Smith isn’t abrasive, and is able to work with colleagues despite being a conservative on a liberal council.
“But I told him, ‘You can’t just vote no,’ ” Barnes said. “And I think that when you run for a citywide office, or mayor, you start to see that.”
Over the last year, Smith’s position has shifted on some issues. He’s been more willing to support the position of city staff and local business boosters like the Charlotte Chamber, which want a strong public role in supporting business development.
Several times a year, the City Council votes on giving companies property tax rebates to expand in Charlotte or relocate to the city. During his first term, Smith voted against those incentives, for companies such as Corning Optical Communications. He often said he felt like the companies would come anyway.
But last year, Smith approved the city’s share of $631,000 in city and county incentives for the snack maker Lance to expand its South Boulevard plant. Recently he voted to approve the city’s share of $288,000 in incentives for a Tennessee company, NN Inc., which is moving its headquarters to Charlotte.
Smith said he started favoring incentives because of HB2. When companies were willing to consider Charlotte during and after the controversy, Smith said it was important to support the businesses in return.
“HB2 was a game changer for me,” he said.
In December 2014, the City Council approved spending $16 million on improvements to city-owned Bojangles’ Coliseum, including new seats, a new scoreboard and ice-making equipment for the Checkers hockey team, which was moving there. Smith was the only council member to vote no.
This year, council members approved spending $18 million on a new building to connect the coliseum to Ovens Auditorium. Smith voted yes.
“I was not sure that Bojangles’ Coliseum would warrant those type of improvements,” he said about his 2014 vote. “But once that vote was cast, I wanted to figure out how we best utilized that asset.”
Would veto be used?
The Charlotte mayor usually does not have a vote on most council decisions. But the mayor can veto a council action – something McCrory numerous times in his 14 years as mayor.
There are a number of issues in which a Democratic-controlled council could be at odds with a GOP mayor.
Council members may consider spending money to advance the third phase of the Gold Line streetcar in the next few years.
“I would veto that,” Smith said without hesitation.
In 2020, N.C. cities and towns may be able to pass their own nondiscrimination ordinances to give legal protections to the LGBT community. (State law prohibits them from passing ordinances related to the use of bathrooms.)
Smith said he doesn’t know whether he would veto a council ordinance that gave legal protections to the LGBT community. He voted against the city’s expanded nondiscrimination ordinance in 2015 and 2016.
“We’ll have to see the lay of the land in 2020,” he said. “We have to see what changes in Raleigh. My viewpoint is that the majority of these issues should be decided at the state level.”