It would be tough for any of her challengers for Charlotte mayor to understand city government as thoroughly as Vi Lyles. But can Lyles be as bold as she is knowledgeable?
Lyles, a Democrat who has been an at-large City Council member for four years, worked for the city for 29 years before that, mostly in the budget office.
Besides her command of policy, she often works to find consensus on council. But she is also cautious, and in her time on council, Lyles has been one of the most consistent defenders of what city staff want – sometimes reluctant to change when her colleagues believe there is a better way.
Lyles, 64, and Democratic Mayor Jennifer Roberts have an almost identical voting record over the past two years. But two of the biggest issues of the past two years – the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and House Bill 2 – show a difference in style between Lyles and the mayor.
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The other prominent Democratic candidate, Joel Ford, is a state senator.
During the debate over HB2, Lyles and Roberts supported legal protections for the LGBT community, including allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matched their gender identity.
But while Roberts almost always stood in unison with the Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign – which wanted no compromise on LGBT rights – Lyles, the mayor pro tem, was open to other options.
In 2015, in an effort to reach a compromise with reluctant council members, she supported LGBT protections that didn’t allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their gender identity. And she was part of a bipartisan team of council members who negotiated, unsuccessfully, with Republican leaders in Raleigh over repealing HB2.
Charlottean Scott Bishop, a member of the Human Rights Campaign board, said he thanks Lyles for her support. But he also said, “Some people will look for ways to compromise. But in the fight for equality, there can be no compromise.”
During the Scott protests and riots, Roberts came under intense national and international criticism for backing the city’s early decision not to release body and dash camera footage of the shooting. Roberts later wrote a column that said the city needed to be more transparent.
Lyles was mostly out of the national spotlight. She supported the city’s decisions to not immediately release the footage – and was upset about Roberts’ column.
“I absolutely think there is a time to call someone (like the police chief) out,” Lyles said. “But the mayor’s representation looks like the full council. (Those views) should be shared by everyone.”
Lyles later urged council members to sign the so-called “Letter to the Community,” in which they said they would focus on building more affordable housing and creating more jobs. The letter also mentioned the police department, but it only said the council would support the department’s “continued efforts to enhance trust and accountability.” It said it would look to implement some of President Barack Obama’s recommendations from his task force on “21st century policing,” but it didn’t list specifics.
On a personal level, Lyles often speaks about her son being questioned by Matthews Police about an armed robbery near Independence Boulevard a decade ago. Lyles said he was stopped by police because he is black and wore dreadlocks, and that he was mistakenly identified as a robber by a witness.
She said he proved his innocence by showing a debit card for a receipt for a meal he bought at a diner at the time of the robbery.
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“I always tell the story because you have to talk about this with young men,” Lyles said.
Support of establishment
Her experience, and governing style, have earned her the support of much of the city’s so-called “establishment.” Her donors include former City Manager Pam Syfert, former assistant manager Julie Burch, former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr. and former U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins.
“She really understands budgeting, and the politics of budgeting as well as the mechanics of it,” said Syfert, city manager from 1996 to 2007. “She is also very good with people, in terms of bringing them together. What I observed about Vi is that for her it’s better to work out a consensus and to avoid confrontation.”
On council, Lyles has sided with city staff on controversial votes on issues such as supporting the Interstate 77 toll lanes – a project envisioned by city transportation planners.
Last fall, the City Council’s economic development committee was considering property tax rebates for a new development in midtown, one of the city’s most prosperous areas.
When it was noted that the proposed development didn’t include affordable housing – and the city could have used its leverage to ensure low-income units were included – Lyles said that needed to be corrected. But she voted for the $4.4 million in tax grants anyway.
“I took a lot of heat from people who said how can you be an advocate for housing (and vote for the tax rebates),” she said. “But the city had worked with (developer Peter A. Pappas) for two years and he had this financing in place. I believe when you tell people that you can do something, you ought to follow through with it.”
Earlier this summer, she voted against a proposal by Republican Ed Driggs to use money from hotel/motel taxes to pay for improvements to Bojangles’ Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium. Driggs wanted to use the money slated for the coliseum improvements for something else, like affordable housing.
The idea came from Driggs – not city staff members.
Lyles said she didn’t feel comfortable “making those kinds of decisions quickly” and voted against Driggs’ plan.
Charlotte has a weak mayor form of government, and the job’s power and duties are limited. Lyles said one area in which the mayor can be effective is getting more people involved in the community.
“We have to figure out in this day and time, how do we engage the community?” she said. “We have citizens advisory committees, at least 50 of them. We have parts of the community who feel disenfranchised. I don’t see those communities serving. The mayor can reach out.”
Observer, WBTV to host debate
The Charlotte Observer and our news partner, WBTV, will host a debate 7 p.m. Sept. 6 with the leading candidates for mayor. The debate will air live on WBTV Channel 3.
More election coverage
For complete election coverage, including candidate questionnaires, go to charlotteobserver.com/election.