By Jim Morrill, The Charlotte Observer
For Democrat Vi Lyles, it’s all about process.
Set a goal. Be inclusive. Work methodically. Reach consensus.
“Trust the process” is a mantra of the non-profit Lee Institute, where she worked as a leadership consultant.
“I know sometimes people say, ‘Oh, Vi is the process queen’,” Lyles says. “Without process people don’t know what to expect.”
It’s a lesson Lyles learned over three decades as a Charlotte city administrator and later as a consultant and member of city council. Now she says it’s what has prepared her to be the city’s next mayor.
Lyles, 66, faces Republican council member Kenny Smith in the race to be Charlotte’s seventh mayor in eight years. Early voting for the Nov. 7 election starts Thursday.
It’s no secret that Lyles is not the Democrat that Smith hoped to face. For months he’d aimed his attacks at incumbent Jennifer Roberts. But after Lyles won last month’s primary, Smith did a quick pivot.
Lyles, he says, is “pretty lock-step with Jennifer.” One Smith ally, Democratic City Council member Claire Fallon, even calls Lyles “just a short Jennifer.”
And on many issues, Lyles and Roberts agree. Both progressive Democrats, they supported last year’s ordinance on LGBT rights which prompted state lawmakers to respond with House Bill 2. They also agree on extending rail transit, including the controversial street car line, and on the expansion of affordable housing.
Where they differ is in style.
Lyles is “more collegial (and) much more collaborative,” says Republican Edwin Peacock, a former council member and Smith supporter who ran against Roberts in 2015.
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Cyndee Patterson, a former Democratic council member who worked with Lyles as president of the Lee Institute, says it goes back to process.
“You’ll see a much more strategic approach to problems,” Patterson says. “If we do this what happens? … What are the unintended consequences? Jennifer never asked about the unintended consequences.”
Embracing the process
Lyles grew up in Columbia, where her mother was a teacher and her father owned a construction company. She came to Charlotte to attend what was then Queens College. She went on to get a master’s in public administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.
She began working for the city as a budget analyst and became budget director in 1987. Nine years later she was named an assistant city manager, a post she held until retiring in 2004. At the city, Lyles led initiatives on community policing, affordable housing and transportation, including new urban street design guidelines.
She then joined the nonprofit Lee Institute and became a consultant with Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, which trains female leaders. During the 2012 Democratic National Convention, she directed community outreach for the host committee.
Another mantra of the Lee Institute, which offers community- and leadership-development programs, is “Go Slow to Go Fast.” That’s what Lyles did as the institute’s project director for UNC Charlotte’s task force on football a few years ago. The group was charged with recommending whether the school should start a football program.
“Vi provided the committee the discipline (and) the focus on the process to arrive at a conclusion no matter what the conclusion was,” says Mac Everett, who chaired the task force during its nearly year-long study. “The process was so important because we didn’t have a conclusion in mind. Wherever the data led us is where we wanted to be.”
In the 1980s she was the city liaison who helped Kathryn Heath and other activists start what became the Charlotte Housing Partnership. A founder of Flynn Heath Holt, Heath later hired Lyles as a consultant. She calls her “a bridge builder and collaborator.”
“She has a vision of where she’s going and works the path,” Heath says. “Vi isn’t scared of hard work and long hours.”
But critics say Lyles can be cautious to a fault, with a bureaucratic hesitation to take a stand. Peacock says when compromise proved elusive after passage of HB2, Lyles “seemed to not be willing to challenge those to her left.”
Defenders disagree. They describe Lyles as deliberate.
“I know that criticism has been there,” says former City Manager Curt Walton, whom Lyles hired as a budget analyst in 1986. “She gives great thought to everything she says and the positions she takes … There’s no question in my mind that she can make decisions when she needs to because I’ve seen her do it for 15 to 20 years.”
Lyles says “it’s not about being cautious.”
“It is about being able to say at the end of the day that a decision was made and it was made because of this process.”
Few people can match Lyles’ network.
She has served on community boards including the United Way, Arts & Science Council and the Charlotte Chamber. She chaired the board of then-Presbyterian Healthcare. She boasts that she can “walk in to any room in this (city) whether it be some place in affordable housing neighborhoods to corporate boardrooms.”
“Vi will be able to talk to many audiences throughout the community,” says Malcolm Graham, a former Democratic state senator and council member.
At a forum, Smith noted Lyles’ career in the city.
“Thirty years in government is not the experience we need,” he said.
Lyles, during an interview at her southeast Charlotte home, disagreed.
“I believe government has a role in making a difference in our community’s life,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of stuff.… What’s different for me right now is we’ve got to focus on where we didn’t create opportunity. And that’s what drives me everyday.”