At a debate in northwest Charlotte Thursday night, the city's three Democratic mayoral candidates faced an audition of sorts - for an endorsement by the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Filing isn’t even open yet for the Sept. 12 primary. But the group plans to make an unusual early endorsement in the coming days.
The three candidates stood apart on the platform at Reeder Memorial Baptist Church - physically and politically. State Senator Joel Ford talked about his experience in the General Assembly and the need to solve the city's unmet needs. Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles stressed her practical experience in City Hall.
And Mayor Jennifer Roberts talked about job growth and youth programs she's led since taking office in 2015 - and why she needs a second term.
“We have challenges. We have two Charlottes. We know that the opportunity that we're working so hard to create is not reaching every corner of our city. And we've had stresses in the community that have shown us that. And so I want to keep serving as mayor and working with all of you to help us bridge those gaps,” she said.
Roberts was asked what lessons she learned from last September's police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and protests. Preventable, she said, with improved police community relations and better economic opportunity. Then, taking aim at Ford, she complained about a new law she says makes it harder to get video from police body and dashboard cameras.
Ford supported the law and defended himself, saying it was a compromise. “House Bill 972 is not perfect, but it does provide a pathway for the video to be released,” he said.
The law now says police videos can’t be released - to citizens or elected officials - without a court order.
MAYOR ROBERTS DEPARTS EARLY
The candidates didn't get another chance to take on the mayor. Roberts left after about 25 minutes for another event - to give the welcoming speech at the annual Police Community Relations Awards.
From there, it was a debate between the two challengers.
Lyles talked about her Charlotte roots, her vision for the city, and the kind of leader needed to fulfill it: “Good paying jobs, quality neighborhoods with affordable housing, a transportation system where a mother doesn't have to take two hours to commute to work and home. So a mayor that's strong, collaborative, and experienced.”
Against Ford, she struck the tone of an experienced insider - one who knows what the City Council can and can't do.
Ford repeatedly emphasized that his experience in the legislature would help him as mayor. And he promised change.
“I don't have the most experience in local government. And I don't think that that's important right now,” Ford said. “But what I do believe is important is someone with a vision, someone with integrity, someone who can hold city hall accountable for what they're doing on behalf of our community.”
DEBATING HB 2
Ford was critical of both Roberts and Lyles, for example, on the council’s expansion last year of the nondiscrimination ordinance to include LGBT people.
He said the council should have consulted with local lawmakers, who knew the conservative legislature wouldn't like it - especially the provision allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their gender identity. He says that's why the legislature passed House Bill 2, which invalidated Charlotte's ordinance.
“There were a number of opportunities for our local elected officials to make adjustments. And they didn't make adjustments. And so we lost hundreds of millions of dollars and jobs. And people still got hurt. And we still don't have protections that we desperately need for the LGBTQ community,” Ford said.
Lyles said she and other council members did talk to legislators. But she disagreed with their advice to go more slowly on LGBT rights.
“Would you feel comfortable if they told you today, let's take a step-by-step approach for black people. Really? So let's think about this and think about it really seriously,” Lyles said, drawing applause.
CAUCUS WANTS AN ELECTION ROLE
The 50-year-old Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg hasn’t always had a big role in local elections. But leader Colette Forrest says they’re hoping to change that. The group has about 200 members - all local African American residents.
If the caucus picks either Lyles or Ford, it could help answer a question lingering for weeks: Should one of the two drop out to give the other a strong chance to beat Roberts?
The caucus meets Sunday to make an endorsement.
The winner of the Sept. 12 Democratic primary faces Republican City Council member Kenny Smith in the general election. Smith was at Thursday's forum - scoping out his future competition.