Lyles And Smith Show Different Views Of Mayor's Role In Debate

Oct 24, 2017

WFAE's Mike Collins (left), Republican Kenny Smith (center) and Democrat Vi Lyles (right) at the Charlotte Talks Mayoral Debate
Credit Jenifer Roser / WFAE

Election Day is now just two weeks away. Early voting has already begun.

And the big race, the one for Charlotte's next mayor, is too close to call, at least according to a Spectrum news poll.

Tuesday, the two candidates for that post, Democrat Vi Lyles and Republican Kenny Smith took part in a Charlotte Talks debate. And though few political elbows were thrown, the candidates did paint very different pictures about how they would lead.  

There's a funny thing about Charlotte's mayor. On paper, they have very little power.

Which is why Charlotte Talks Host Mike Collins asked both Kenny Smith and Vi Lyles this question, "Both of you are on City Council, where you have a vote. The mayor does not vote except to break a tie and the mayor really has no official power. So why give up your city council seat to be the mayor?"

Democrat Vi Lyles answered first.  

LYLES: "It's not giving up something, it's actually stepping up for something, Mike. It's stepping up for how we can have collaborative leadership and how the City Council can move an agenda forward."

COLLINS: "Kenny Smith?"

SMITH: "You know that's a question you get a lot. The mayor controls what goes on the agenda. The mayor has the ability for the veto. The mayor is the face of the city in good times and bad times."

Clearly this is not the "sexiest" way to start a story about a debate. The candidates actually agree on this point.

But that agenda is important. And it's an honest take on what the mayor really does.

And here is where Republican Kenny Smith and Democrat Vi Lyles are different.

Their campaign talking points, if you will.

"I want to get back to basics," says Republican Kenny Smith. "I want to get back to the core functions of local government, safety, infrastructure and jobs."

Meaning don’t go wading into complex social issues. Stick to what needs to happen to run the city or what needs to be fixed. Smith says he often asks people this question, "Raise your hand if you think a pot hole is a Democrat or Republican. Like once you get the joke you realize it just wants to be repaired."

Smith says on day one as mayor he would pull all city departments together to work up a 25 year plan to account for the city's explosive growth.

Democrat Vi Lyles has a different take. "Now I believe in plans," she told the audience, "but I really believe right now we have enough planning. We've got to begin to do things." Doing something with the current plans, that would be Lyles's day one goal. "We've had goals to end homelessness. We've had goals to build affordable housing. We've had goals to have a transportation action plan. It's time to do. It's time to act."

Here's how these differences played out on specific topics.

Take affordable housing. And a question sent in by a WFAE listener:

"Affordable housing in Charlotte seems to have city government baffled. What real solutions do you have and, she adds, refrain please from empty platitudes. That would be appreciated."

Kenny Smith answered first by referencing his four point plan. "We need to establish a land trust so we need to get the philanthropic sector, the corporate sector and the faith community to get seed money so we can buy land throughout Charlotte."

Smith would also help fund the rehab of some current affordable units to keep them in use, open up more areas of the city to affordable units and help pay for all this with a larger city bond for affordable housing projects.

Lyles agreed on many of these points before adding, "We have the opportunity to look at our rent subsidy endowment. People are able to pay rent. But sometimes the rents, because of development, are escalating faster than the wages have in the past community."

So if someone who's already stretched thin suddenly sees their rent increase, they may be forced out. This subsidy could be used to keep people in their current homes by bridging that rent gap.

Lyles says she would pay for this with the cooperation of the private sector.

Both Lyles and Smith said building community trust with police is a work in progress, especially after last year's protests.

Both stressed they support officers. Both stressed they are also listening to the community. And both stressed the city needs to hire more police to fight Charlotte's murder rate.

But another question from moderator Mike Collins revealed some daylight between the Republican and Democrat. Collins asked, "With gun violence plaguing us around the country, what can the city do, what can a mayor do to lessen that gun violence."

Democrat Vi Lyles focused on the pragmatic.

"I think that a mayor can actually start talking loudly about guns in our city. And we go out and start educating people. So the first thing I would say is please lock your car. Don’t leave your cell phone, your spare change and your gun in your car unlocked in your driveway."

It's advice also being given by CMPD Chief Kerr Putney.

Republican Kenny Smith followed a key point made by past Republican mayoral candidates. It takes a Republican to get the Republican controlled General Assembly on our side.

"First thing we can do is mayor can ride up to Raleigh, they can sit down with a legislator and they can figure out how we can have stiffer penalties for folks who obtain guns illegally and then folks who distribute guns illegally."

The debate's final question was a nice change. It was sent in by a listener and seems important given these polarized political times.

MIKE COLLINS: "Erin on Facebook would like to hear each of you say something nice about the other."

KENNY SMITH: I've enjoyed working with Vi and I admire her dedication to process.

VI LYLES: I enjoy working with a Republican anytime I can.

You can listen to the full hour long Charlotte Talks Mayoral Debate here.