CHARLOTTE Friday marked the last day that individuals in Mecklenburg County could file official paperwork to run for elected office, revealing the final slate of candidates challenging incumbent Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts this fall.While midterm elections traditionally generate low public interest, the Charlotte mayoral race could drive people to polls after controversy, including a transgender bathroom ordinance last year that resulted in the N.C. General Assembly’s House Bill 2, surrounded Roberts during her term.Joel Ford, a state senator who is challenging Roberts in the Democratic primary, has pointed to “divisive politics” in Roberts’ first term as the leader of the Queen City as his motivation to enter the race.”It’s time for new leadership and a bold vision for our city,” Ford said in a campaign video announcing his candidacy in April. “We need a mayor that will focus on the issues that unite our city, not divide it.”Republican frontrunner and current city council member Kenny Smith echoed those same statements in his own campaign launch.”In the past year and a half, Charlotte has seen controversy like it has never seen before,” Smith said in a video on his campaign website.”October brought social unrest that led to the shutdown of our streets uptown,” Smith said, referring to the riots that followed the police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man family members said suffered from with a traumatic brain injury. “The mayor was more concerned with national media appearances than navigating the crisis or solving the underlying issues that plague our community. Just this past month our council meeting was shut down by protesters demanding sanctuary city status.”But Roberts has doubled down on her support of the LGBTQ community and position as a progressive outsider fighting for change.”She hasn’t been afraid to stand up to Republicans in the General Assembly or the Trump administration,” a petition on her website reads.Roberts’ pursuit of a nondiscrimination ordinance in February 2016 to allow transgendered individuals to use the bathroom that corresponded with their gender identify rather than their birth gender led the General Assembly to pass H.B. 2. Conservatives said the ordinance created a public safety risk and dangerous precedent in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.The ordinance was repealed by the city council just weeks after the general election in conjunction with the General Assembly that it would overturn H.B. 2. After initially failing to override the bill, the state legislature overturned H.B. 2 in late March.On Friday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state law, House Bill 142, that replaced H.B. 2, proving the transgender rights political fight in North Carolina is still very much alive.But team Roberts says her message is resonating, at least among Democrats.A poll of 400 likely primary voters commissioned by Roberts’ campaign in June and conducted by Lake Research Partners of Washington, D.C., found Roberts leading her Democrat opponents with 35 percent of primary voter support. The poll showed Charlotte City Councilwoman Vi Lyles, the mayor pro tem, behind Roberts with 21 percent. Ford polled at 15 percent.The Democrat primary election is Sept. 12.Jim Burton, a GOP strategist who previously worked for the N.C. House Republican caucus, said Roberts will be the focal point of the election.”For voters in Charlotte I think there is a real perception that the city council and the mayor don’t know what they’re doing,” said Burton, who runs a consulting firm out of Chapel Hill. “This is all going to be about Jennifer Roberts, in the Democrat primary and the general election, assuming she makes it and even if she doesn’t make it, she will still be a topic of conversation.”Running against an incumbent or institution is a common political strategy.Federal candidates often run “against Washington,” positioning themselves as an outsider when a current order, such as Congress, has poor approval ratings. President Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” in D.C. saw him prevail over Hillary Clinton, who has spent her adult life in politics, in the presidential election in November.Ultimately, Roberts’ record on social issues will prove either to be a burden or a testament to the city’s interest in progressive policies and either way, a lightning rod for her opponents.
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