Mayor concedes to Vi Lyles in Charlotte's Democratic primary. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com
Mayor concedes to Vi Lyles in Charlotte's Democratic primary. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Elections

Why did Jennifer Roberts lose? The reasons aren’t hard to find.

September 13, 2017 06:27 PM

UPDATED September 13, 2017 08:23 PM

In the end, it was the two-year accumulation of events that fell like an avalanche on Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts.

From a showdown with the General Assembly over LGBT rights to nights of street protests to a fraught relationship with police, it all led to what one Democrat called “Jennifer fatigue.”

“I don’t think many people think the last couple years have gone well under her,” said DeWitt Crosby, an active Democrat and retired psychologist.

Roberts lost Tuesday’s Democratic primary to Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles by nearly 3,400 votes, or 10 percentage points. Lyles goes on to face Republican council member Kenny Smith in November.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

Reasons for the mayor’s loss aren’t hard to find:

▪ Roberts found herself up against a suddenly reinvigorated Black Political Caucus, focused by last fall’s street violence.

▪ She lost support among many white progressives, who saw her as increasingly divisive or ineffective. During the protests over the fatal Keith Lamont Scott shooting by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, she disappointed those who found her either too supportive of police or not supportive enough.

▪ And she became the campaign’s favorite piñata, bashed repeatedly by state Sen. Joel Ford and other critics while Lyles was generally able to remain above the fray.

Roberts was used to being the top vote-getter, whether running for mayor or Mecklenburg commissioner. But she wasn’t the only Democratic incumbent to lose Tuesday.

Veteran council incumbents Claire Fallon and Patsy Kinsey lost their seats in an election that saw the victories of four candidates 35 or younger.

“I do often feel that there’s a true appetite for change,” said Aisha Dew, a former Democratic party chair who ran the Lyles campaign.

Lyles carried precincts across the city. She piled up big margins in predominantly African-American precincts along Beatties Ford Road. She carried white liberal precincts in Dilworth. And she won areas in tony Eastover and Myers Park. At Eastover Precinct 18, she won 71 percent of the vote.

Most supporters at Lyles’ election night headquarters said they had expected a run-off election. They were happily surprised. But Ruth Sloane said she was one of the few who expected a clean victory.

“I might be the only one,” Sloane said. “Everybody was saying run-off. I was saying, no, she’s going to win.”

Progressives’ frustration

It was Roberts’ actions in the wake of last fall’s protests that turned off some progressive voters.

“I thought she was divisive,” said Liz Winer, a community advocate who runs a family foundation. “I felt she was pandering to her real solid base and not looking at Charlotte as a whole.”

During the heated public debate on whether to release police videos of the incident, Roberts wrote a column urging police to turn over the footage.

“I was really disappointed in how it appeared she threw Chief (Kerr) Putney under the bus,” said Crosby. “I don’t think that’s good leadership.”

Roberts has argued that she wasn’t being critical of the police, only trying to ensure transparency.

Jay Leach, pastor of Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, was a Roberts ally. But he believes she didn’t question police enough after the protests.

“There were those of us in the aftermath of the uprising (believing) that what we had seen was kind of a vacuum of leadership,” he said.

Leach, a strong supporter of the city’s passage of an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against the LGBT community, said he and others were blindsided last December when the council rescinded the ordinance in an effort to get House Bill 2 repealed.

“Some of us had really stuck our necks out to defend this mayor and council in their refusal to compromise,” he said. “And suddenly we realized all that was on the table.”

Caucus muscle

Few had a more satisfying election night than the Black Political Caucus. All nine of its endorsed candidates either won outright or qualified for an Oct. 10 runoff.

Caucus Chair Colette Forrest credits the success to an intentional evaluation process of candidates and an early endorsement of Lyles. But it’s clear that Roberts had trouble with the caucus from the beginning.

When Roberts initially cited a scheduling conflict with a caucus candidate debate, Forrest issued a news release headlined: “Are African-Americans Mere Facebook Props to Mayor Jennifer Roberts?”

Civil rights attorney James Ferguson, who backed Lyles, said the street protests that followed the Scott shooting, coming on the heels of a study that showed Charlotte lagging in upward mobility, focused caucus attention on ways to deal with underlying problems.

“Not that the (black) community was against Jennifer,” he said, “but the community was looking for a more dynamic way to address these issues.”

Dan McCorkle, Democratic strategist who was supportive of Roberts, said the mayor ended up with a lot to overcome.

“She suffered a year of fairly negative media coverage and I think that steadily eroded her support,” he said. “At some point I think a lot of people had Jennifer fatigue.”

Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill