It's been said that Vi Lyles is just a "short Jennifer Roberts" — that the two women are virtually the same politician, and that as mayor, Lyles would be no different from Roberts.
That couldn't be further from the truth.
Though the two certainly agree on many of the most pressing issues facing Charlotte, mayoral candidate and Mayor Pro-Tem Lyles and current Mayor Roberts come from totally different backgrounds. Lyles, 66, grew up with five brothers in Columbia, South Carolina, in the segregated 1960s, in a family that faced the scourge of that era's deeply entrenched racism every day. She was among the first group of black women to attend Charlotte's Queens College (now Queens University), and directly felt injustices that still plague this city in different ways today.
Mayor Roberts, 57, sympathizes with issues of injustice, but growing up in a white family in the 1970s in Charlotte's Lansdowne community near SouthPark, she didn't feel it nearly as directly as Lyles.
This is not a criticism of Roberts, who certainly faced tough challenges as a woman in politics; nor is it some sort of blanket validation of Lyles.
But it is a fact. And it's a fact that goes to the very heart of why this city needs a Vi Lyles in the very symbolic role of Charlotte mayor right now. It needs this now more than it has in decades.
In the past couple of years, Charlotte has endured two high-profile political explosions that put the city squarely in the national conversation — the HB2 fiasco and the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and subsequent uprising. For this reason, not to mention day-to-day issues such as housing, gentrification, transportation and other concerns, Charlotte needs a mayor and spokesperson who truly understands the nuances of inequality.
Roberts didn't have that. Not completely. And Kenny Smith, a conservative, white, male, Republican candidate whose concerns mostly center on issues affecting suburban Charlotteans, certainly doesn't have it.
But Charlotte's mayor is not just a figurehead, as some often suggest.
"The mayor has a veto to use very carefully when needed," Lyles tells CL news editor Ryan Pitkin in this week's cover story, an in-depth Q&A with the candidate. "The mayor has important powers increasing citizen engagement."
Right now, it is essential that Charlotte not lose any momentum it has gained, in terms of bridging the gap between the majority of Charlotteans who feel ignored by city government and those who have always enjoyed certain privileges. In other words, between the old Charlotte and the current Charlotte — a swiftly expanding city with a growing and diverse population of millennials.
There's really only one choice for a mayor who has the skills and understanding required for the kind of community relations Charlotte needs. And that's Vi Lyles.
In her 30 years of service, Lyles has been Charlotte's budget director and its assistant city manager, as well as a member of the Charlotte City Council for the past four years. She is methodical; she listens to all sides of issues and is clear in her ultimate assessments of what the city requires in order to thrive while still attending to the needs of marginalized communities and those who live outside of more prosperous areas.
Smith is a competent public servant, but he voted against LGBTQ protections that sought to bring equality, fairness and safety to Charlotteans of all kinds. And he seems rather oblivious — whether strategically or just because he's tone deaf — to the real discrimination that exists for LGBTQ people. And that tone deafness, by extension, should be a concern for other marginalized people.
Although Smith has toned down his anti-LGBTQ rhetoric since announcing his candidacy for mayor, his comment in 2015 that some city council members wanted to "impose the progressive left view of morality on the majority of our citizens" was a strong indicator of his real feelings about fairness and equality.
Both mayoral candidates are fiscally qualified to lead a prosperous city like Charlotte, but only one has the right sense of subtlety and understanding to represent the needs and concerns of all Charlotteans.
In the leadup to the election on Tuesday, November 7, Pitkin sat down with that candidate, Vi Lyles, to get her to talk about the specifics of her positions on policing in Charlotte, on housing and gentrification, on LGBTQ issues and issues facing blacks and Latinos in Charlotte, and on the influx of millennials and other young people into city politics and other leadership positions.
And speaking of millennials in leadership positions, there are other important positions to be filled: four at-large seats on the City Council, and City Council choices in districts 2,3, 6 and 7. Among the at-large candidates CL's editorial team believes would bring the right balance of youthful energy and leadership experience to council are Braxton Winston, Dimple Ajmera, Julie Eiselt and James "Smuggie" Mitchell; in district 2, Justin Harlow; in district 3, incumbent Lawana Mayfield; in district 6, Sam Grundman; and in district 7, Ed Driggs.
You can read Pitkin's Q&A with Lyles here. And then vote accordingly.