CHARLOTTE — After an eventful couple of years, the Queen City is ramping up for the next mayoral election with the lingering question of whether Jennifer Roberts will survive another term. Both Democrats and Republicans are vying for her seat this fall. Roberts was first elected to lead the state’s largest city in 2015 after serving four terms on the Mecklenburg County board of Commissioners. Her re-election campaign has received the endorsements of the Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO. She made national news when she advocated for the city of Charlotte to eliminate male/female designations for all bathrooms open to the public within the city, sparking the state’s controversial House Bill 3 law.
Joel Ford (D), age 48, is one of the challengers giving Roberts a run for her money this September. A popular state senator and former chair of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party, Ford may have the political savvy to take over the post and the potential to run it in a way that both Democrats and Republicans can live with.
“Over the last four or five years, I have observed a lack of leadership, focus and direction on local issues affecting our community,” Ford told the North State Journal, “coupled with a lack of relationship with the General Assembly.”
Ford, who has represented west Charlotte for seven years in the state legislature, believes that Roberts — a fellow Democrat — has alienated state leadership with her pursuit of broad-spectrum issues.
Ford said he never heard concerns about transgender rights from constituents or law enforcement before Roberts led the city council to pass the bathroom provision as part of a nondiscrimination ordinance in February 2016.
He had around $90,000 on hand at the end of July, telling North State Journal in early August that he was “continuing to fundraise to administer resources to get the message out about [his] vision for a Charlotte based on collaboration and partnership.”
Ford opposes tolls on I-77 and hopes to leverage his relationships within state government to bring economic opportunity to areas of the city that have not benefited from the corporate boom.
He attended the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and is currently the vice president of community engagement at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare.
But Ford’s biggest roadblock ahead of next week’s primary is Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles (D), who has siphoned from Ford’s base of moderate Democrats and critics of Roberts. She raised roughly the same amount as Ford by the end of July.
Lyles did not return a request for an interview with the North State Journal, but the city council’s second-in-command has a vote record that has publicized her stance on many city-specific issues since 2013.
She voted for the continuation of the I-77 toll lane project in January of last year and was an “aye” on the ordinance to allow trans people to use the bathroom of their choice.
Lyles, 64, holds a master’s of public administration from UNC Chapel Hill.
Connie Partee Johnson (D) also supports the contraction of the toll lanes project of I-77, stating that individuals who would like to use express lanes should be able to do so for a fee.
Johnson said she preferred not to build up fundraising dollars, but rather run her campaign on word of mouth and online marketing.
Johnson holds double Masters in Education Guidance and Counseling from University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Theology from Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.
Lucille Puckett (D) also does not appear to have significantly fundraised for the position and could not be reached for an interview.
Puckett, 49, holds a master’s in business administration and has been a HUD certified Housing Commissioner.
“Each of our candidates have a vision of what they want Charlotte to be,” said Jane Whitley, chair of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party. “Clearly they feel they have different visions for Charlotte, it’s up to the voters to decide but from what I can see we all want a Democrat mayor.”
Kenny Smith (R), 44, has cemented himself as the likely conservative challenger with a stocked campaign war chest. Smith had close to $314,000 on hand at the end of July, and without another well-funded primary opponent, he is saving most of that for ads this fall.
As a city council member for District 6, Smith butted heads with Roberts and other Democrats during a turbulent 2016, casting votes against the bathroom ordinance and taking to the streets with Facebook live feeds during the uptown riots in October.
“Growing up in Charlotte in the late ’80s, we had unprecedented growth,” Smith said, fondly recalling the days of landing the Hornets and big banking companies.
“We dreamed big, but we’ve lost that. And the last 18 months have been chaos.”
Smith, who believes Roberts has veered too far left, is firm that the mayor’s office should be primarily focused on safety, jobs and infrastructure.
Smith attended UNC Chapel Hill and currently works as a commercial real estate broker at New South Properties of the Carolinas.
Gary Mitchell Dunn (R) said he has attended close to 20 years of college but failed to say where and when. And while Dunn has run for office several times on the Republican line, he has never been elected.
While he concedes that Roberts has done the best with what she could, he thinks “politicians sometimes get ahead of themselves” trying to create new and unnecessary laws.
“There are 840,000 people that live in Charlotte, and this small bathroom issue only affects about 6,000 people statewide,” said Dunn, drinking a cup of coffee after his daily morning hike at Crowders Mountain. “[Roberts] took one small case and decided to try and change everyone’s perception of it.”
Dunn, 63, has six children and “several” ex-wives. He draws a self-portrait every day.
Kimberly Page Barnette (R), 52, has been a Charlotte magistrate for 19 years and is also throwing her hat into the race in her first attempt at elected office.
Barnette opposes the I-77 toll lane project and the bid for a Major League Soccer stadium in downtown Charlotte.
Both the Democratic and Republican primary takes place on Sept. 12 in Charlotte. If a candidate fails to win 40 percent of the popular vote, a runoff is triggered and will take place on Oct. 10.