Politics & Government

With Republicans ‘focused on the RNC,’ Charlotte mayor may sidestep competition

Not since Democrat Anthony Foxx was re-elected in 2011 has a Charlotte mayor served more than a single term — and three served less than a full one.

Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles could change that.

Barely two weeks before the start of candidate filing, no major opponent has emerged. Some say none is likely.

“Our interest is seeing qualified leaders get elected and good policy being enacted,” said Mark Knoop, a Republican strategist who leads Forward Charlotte, a group that campaigned against Lyles in 2017. “Vi Lyles is doing a good job as mayor, and this is the first time in years that nobody in either party is challenging the incumbent.”

A two-week candidate filing period for city races starts July 5. Primaries are on Sept. 10 and the general election, Nov. 5.

The City Council election already is guaranteed to lead to changes. Two Democratic incumbents — Justin Harlow in District 2 and Greg Phipps in District 4 — are leaving. District 3 Democrat LaWana Mayfield is running at-large, opening her current seat.

More often than not, Charlotte’s recent mayoral races have been competitive — and expensive. In 2017 the two general election candidates spent more than $1 million. Republican nominee Kenny Smith spent more than $650,000.

High-profile candidates for mayor or council usually would have announced by now.

Mecklenburg County Republican Chair Chris Turner said the party is “actively recruiting” candidates. But other Republicans say they and their donors are focused on next year’s Republican National Convention, which Lyles championed.

“It appears to me that the Mecklenburg GOP is totally focused on the national race and the RNC coming to Charlotte,” said John Powell, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for council two years ago. “It seems like they’re not paying any attention to 2019 because the effort seems focused primarily on the RNC.”

Smith said he doesn’t believe Lyles will get a Republican challenger.

“I’ve not spoken with anybody considering it,” he said, “and based on fundraising and everything you need to do, they would have needed to start in February if they were going to mount a serious challenge.”

City demographics

A poll by Forward Charlotte, the group headed by Mark Knoop, found 51% of Charlotte voters approve of Lyles’ performance while 30% disapprove.

In all city races there’s also the matter of demographics.

Republicans make up less than one in five registered city voters. Democrats are almost half and unaffiliated voters are about a third. Republicans outnumber Democrats in only two southeast districts — 6 and 7 — and they’re each outnumbered by unaffiliated voters.

“The demographics in our city don’t lean the Republican way,” Lyles told the Observer. With or without competition, she said, “I’m running for the mayor’s seat and I’m going to give as much effort as I need to be successful. I think our city’s in a good place I think I’ve been a contributor.”

In 2017, Lyles beat then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts and three other candidates in a Democratic primary. Despite being outspent in the general election, she won 59% of the vote against Smith.

Last November Democrats extended their local dominance by sweeping the nine seats on the county board and unseating four GOP legislators.

“There’s an understanding with the donors that we don’t need to rock the boat right now with city leadership,” said GOP consultant Larry Shaheen. “I’m not saying that people don’t want to run or shouldn’t run. What I am saying is there’s not a lot of excitement around the council races and a lot more excitement around the convention.”

Although some Democrats have been unhappy with Lyles’ decision to welcome the convention, none has so far indicated a willingness to challenger her.

Council races

This fall’s election drama is likely to be in council races. Here are some of the candidates running:

In addition to Mayfield, the at-large race will feature Democrat Jorge Millares, who is trying to become the council’s first Latino member. He runs a non-profit called Queen City Unity. Democrat Chad Stachowicz, who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate last fall, is reportedly running. The four Democratic incumbents — Dimple Ajmera, Julie Eiselt, James Mitchell and Braxton Winston — are all expected to run again.

In District 2, where Harlow is stepping down, former council member and state Sen. Malcolm Graham will try to return to elective office. He served in the Senate until running unsuccessfully for Congress in the 12th District in 2014.

Engineer and community activists Terry Brown and Victoria Watlington and banker Caleb Theodros are among the Democrats running for Mayfield’s District 3 seat.

Phipps’s departure in District 4 has left a crowded Democratic race. Among others running are business owner Charlene Henderson, UNC Charlotte student Gabe Cartagena, non-profit director Charles Robinson and Sean Thompson. Republican Brandon Pierce also is running.

Democrat Gina Navarrette, a neuropsychologist and co-president of the Charlotte Women’s March, announced her campaign against Republican Tariq Bohkari in District 6.

In southeast District 7, Republican Ed Driggs faces a primary challenge from planning commissioner Victoria Nwasike.