CHARLOTTE, N.C. — An off-year election in North Carolina’s largest city will help determine if a mayor who’s been embroiled in controversies over protections for the LGBT community and her handling of a police shooting will get to vie for a second term.
When the polls reopen for the mayoral primary on Tuesday after an early voting period, Democratic Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts will be seeking a second term. Roberts faces challenges from Mayor Pro Tempore Vi Lyles and state Sen. Joel Ford, who has received support from some Republicans in the General Assembly. City councilman Kenny Smith leads the GOP primary field. Four additional candidates, two in each party, are also seeking the nomination.
The primary winners meet in a general election on Nov. 7. State election officials are keeping an eye on Hurricane Irma and its potential impact on voter turnout.
Supported by local and national gay rights groups, Roberts led the effort in February 2016 to get the city council she leads — but votes on only in ties and for vetoes — to pass a measure that expanded public accommodation protections to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Republican-controlled Legislature quickly responded with a state law canceling Charlotte’s ordinance and requiring transgender people statewide to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in many public buildings.
A standoff between Roberts and other legislative leaders continued for months over the ordinance and the law known as House Bill 2. Businesses canceled expansions or moves to North Carolina because of HB2, and the NBA withdrew its All-Star Game from Charlotte.
The city council last December repealed its ordinance in an attempt to broker a compromise that initially fell apart. A partial repeal of HB2 in March still prevented Charlotte from passing expanded LGBT protections again until the end of 2020.
Roberts also faced calls to resign following the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the ensuing riots, particularly after she and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief refused at first to release police body camera and dashboard camera footage from the shooting.
Despite the controversies, Roberts still appears to have the best chance to win in the expected low-turnout election. She had raised more money through the first half of the year than any mayoral candidate. The longtime local elected official also has received endorsements from national and local LGBT groups.
“Almost every Democrat in Charlotte has voted for Jennifer Roberts eight or ten times,” veteran Charlotte Democratic campaign aide Dan McCorkle said. “She has enormous name recognition. … She has an extremely loyal base and her base is basically your most progressive Democrats.”
But it could be tricky for Roberts should she fail to get more than 40 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff next month. Lyles likely would stand the best chance to defeat Roberts in a runoff because of her close ties to the city’s establishment, said Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. But the two primary challengers have their weaknesses as well.
“I’m not sure even if Lyles or Ford has gotten through a clear-enough message of how they’re going to be different” compared to Roberts, Heberlig said.
During a televised debate in the primary’s final days, Lyles said the previous two years in Charlotte showed that the city hasn’t dealt with race and poverty, which she said she would focus on if she’s elected.
Ford spent the debate attacking Roberts and, occasionally, Lyles, on topics ranging from mass transit to race relations. He made special reference to the Scott case, which he said motivated him to run.
“The last thing we can afford to do is have the mayor call out the police chief and roll him under the bus,” Ford said. “What we need in the city is strong leadership, leadership that is going to be responsive to the people, answer the questions and making sure we’re listening and doing what the people of the city of Charlotte want us to do.”
Roberts, who refuted Ford’s charges throughout the debate, said she recognizes there will be a challenge in the primary regardless of how the vote is split.
“I never take any election for granted, and I have never had an easy election,” Roberts said. “I let my manager worry about the strategy, and about who’s going to win and how many points ahead. I just focus on connecting to voters … I’m focused on priorities.”
While Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1, unaffiliated voters comprise 30 percent of the electorate. And Roberts defeated her GOP opponent in 2015 by only 3,700 votes.
Heberlig thinks the election gives Republicans the best chance at the mayor’s office, and Smith agrees. Charlotte’s last Republican mayor was former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who served from 1995-2009.
“We feel really strongly about our opportunity to win the mayor’s race,” Smith said after the debate. “We think we’re bringing the leadership necessary, the vision necessary and a thorough understanding of the priorities that Charlotteans want us to focus on.”