David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Taylor Batten

Jennifer Roberts just made Kenny Smith’s life a whole lot harder

By Taylor Batten

Editor, the Observer editorial board

September 14, 2017 07:08 AM

Jennifer Roberts just made Kenny Smith’s life a whole lot harder. Smith had hoped to run for Charlotte mayor against the incumbent Roberts, a polarizing and increasingly unpopular candidate who would have been easy to vilify. Instead, he’ll face Democrat Vi Lyles, who will blunt Smith’s advantage in the very precincts where he needs to rack up huge margins.

Charlotte is 48 percent Democrat, 30 percent unaffiliated and 21 percent Republican. To win a race for mayor, a Republican has to crush the Democrat in the “wedge” of south Charlotte from Dilworth out to 485, roughly bounded by South Boulevard and Randolph Road, while not getting crushed too badly in the rest of the city.

If Roberts had won Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Smith had a decent chance of doing just that. He would have done well in the far southern part of the city, of course, but also with the more moderate voters of all parties in Dilworth, Myers Park, Eastover, Cotswold and other south Charlotte neighborhoods. Roberts is unpopular with many there, even among some Democrats, and Smith could have peeled off many middle-of-the-road voters.

Lyles, though, is better liked by those white moderates and she can chip away at what should be Smith’s home base.

In addition to the Black Political Caucus and many individual black leaders, Lyles in the primary won the backing of influential white stalwarts like Hugh McColl, Mary Lou and Jim Babb, Sally and Russell Robinson, Cyndee Patterson and Mattye and Marc Silverman.

Smith will still win most or all of those south Charlotte precincts, but probably not by the margins he would have over Roberts. That’s a crucial difference.

Consider a few examples. Lyles rolled over Roberts in most south Charlotte neighborhoods. She got about double the votes Roberts did in Myers Park and Eastover. In Precinct 18, which includes much of Eastover, Lyles won 137-39. In Precinct 32, which votes at Christ Church Episcopal on Providence Road, she won 111-36. In Precinct 71, which contains much of Foxcroft, she won 90-33.

Compare that to the 2015 primary, when Roberts stayed much closer to Dan Clodfelter. In Precinct 18 that year, she lost 119-48 to Clodfelter; in Precinct 32, she lost 76-42; in Precinct 71, she lost by one vote, 56-55.

Republican Edwin Peacock steamrolled Roberts in those precincts in the general election – and still lost because she enjoyed big margins in the rest of the city. But Lyles’ relative popularity in those places suggests she will dampen Smith’s advantage there.

If she does, Smith has almost nowhere else to turn. Lyles, who is black, will surely do at least as well, and probably significantly better, than Roberts would have done in the north and west, heavily African-American, parts of the city. That makes Smith’s job even harder.

Turnout might not be on his side either. Republicans strongly disliked Roberts and would have been motivated to turn out to defeat her. Will they be as motivated to defeat Lyles?

A black Democrat defeated a white Republican in three straight mayoral elections, followed by a white Democrat winning. Everything has to go perfectly for the Republican to win. Smith suffered his first strike when Lyles beat Roberts on Tuesday.