The Charlotte Observer
By Steve Harrison and Jim Morrill
Voters this fall will either elect Charlotte’s fifth mayor in five years or keep Dan Clodfelter in the job.
Clodfelter, a Democrat, was appointed mayor a year ago after Patrick Cannon resigned and pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge. Cannon is in a West Virginia prison.
Filing opens in July, but the campaign has begun, prompted in part by former Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners Chair Jennifer Roberts’ announcement 11 months ago that she would run.
Roberts and two sitting council members will challenge Clodfelter. One Republican is also campaigning.
For the next five months, Clodfelter and the other two council members’ public votes and speeches will be scrutinized through the lens of the upcoming election.
1. An unusually deep field
It’s an open race with an unusual number of seasoned candidates.
“They all have experience in public policy, experience in running a campaign,” said former Democratic Mayor Harvey Gantt, who served from 1983 to 1987. “And that’s unusual.”
Four veteran Democrats will make the September primary an intriguing contest. They are Mayor Dan Clodfelter, at-large council members Michael Barnes and David Howard, and Roberts.
Clodfelter’s eagerness to keep the job has rankled some council members, who said they nominated Clodfelter only because he said he wouldn’t try to keep the office. Clodfelter has said he never promised that he wouldn’t be on the ballot this year.
Roberts hasn’t served in city government, but she was top vote-getter in countywide elections three times.
Republican businessman Scott Stone, who lost to Anthony Foxx in 2011, has said he’ll run. County commissioner Matthew Ridenhour and former City Council member Edwin Peacock, both Republicans, are also considering whether to run.
2. Taxes and the budget shortfall
The city is trying to close a more than $20 million budget shortfall from the loss of the business privilege license tax and a loss of revenue from the county property revaluation.
This spring, the City Council will decide on the best way to close the budget gap. That will likely include service reductions and could include a property tax increase, a decision that could split the four candidates.
At a budget workshop Friday, Barnes criticized a city proposal to scrap a $47 garbage fee in exchange for a 1.5-cent property tax rate increase. The plan is designed to raise an additional $4.5 million, mostly from commercial property owners.
Howard said the council should consider the plan, saying City Manager Ron Carlee was being creative in trying to close the budget gap. Clodfelter did not weigh in on the debate.
It’s likely whoever wins the Republican primary will criticize any budget solution that includes a property tax.
Two years ago, the City Council approved a 7.25 percent property tax increase to fund a capital spending program. In the 2013 mayor’s race, Peacock criticized Cannon for his vote in favor of the tax hike.
3. Questions around the streetcar
The streetcar has been debated for six years, but the project is scheduled to open in June, giving the public its first opportunity to see the $37 million Gold Line in action. The streetcar will run from Time Warner Cable Arena to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Elizabeth.
If the streetcar is a success, that will bolster Democrats Howard, Roberts and Clodfelter, who have supported it.
If the line struggles to attract riders, Democrat Barnes could take advantage. He has voted against paying for streetcar operating funds and construction costs with money from the general fund, which is the city’s method of paying for its share of the line.
Barnes would prefer the streetcar be built with money from the half-cent sales tax for transit, but the Charlotte Area Transit System doesn’t have enough money. Barnes has warned the streetcar will result in higher property taxes.
Businessman Stone campaigned against the streetcar four years ago.
4. LGBT agenda and influence
In March, the City Council voted 6-5 against expanding its nondiscrimination ordinances to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.
After the defeat, MeckPAC, a political action group for the LGBT people, said it would work to elect candidates who support the full ordinance.
The most controversial provision would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice in public places.
Howard supported the ordinance but without the bathroom provision.
Before the vote, Barnes said he opposed the bathroom flexibility but hadn’t declared his opposition to the overall ordinance. Before the vote was taken, the bathroom provision was removed, but Barnes voted against the ordinance.
Clodfelter said he supports the full ordinance, as does Roberts.
Stone said because discrimination “does not occur, nor is it tolerated” in Charlotte, the “highly divisive” ordinance was unnecessary.
5. Will there be a primary runoff?
It’s possible. The Democrats all have had success in politics. A candidate must exceed 40 percent to avoid an October runoff.
The biggest voting bloc in the primary will be African-American voters, who make up 64 percent of the city’s Democratic voters.
Barnes and Howard, both of whom are black, have strong support from African-Americans and have won citywide elections. Clodfelter and Roberts have a history of support from both whites and African-Americans citywide.
As mayor, Clodfelter is a visible figure, leading council meetings and at events where he represents the city. But as a former state senator and district council member, he has never been on a citywide ballot. Until his Senate district was redrawn in 2011, he ran almost exclusively in east and central Charlotte.
In the primary, a winning candidate will have to do well in west and northeast Charlotte.
▪July 6-17: Candidate filing period.
▪Sept. 3: Early voting for primaries starts.
▪Sept. 15: Primary election day.
▪Oct. 6: Runoff (if needed).
▪Oct. 22: Early voting starts.
▪Nov. 3: Election Day.
Barnes, 44, is the longest-serving council member, having first been elected in 2005.
Barnes, a lawyer who specializes in employment litigation and accident injury cases, lives in the University City area. His undergraduate degree is from UNC-Chapel Hill, and his law degree is from N.C. Central University. He plays tennis and basketball with his children in his spare time.
In the 2013 election, Barnes ran for an at-large seat for the first time after representing council District 4 in northeast Charlotte for eight years. He raised only $61,448, far less than Howard and Vi Lyles. It was rare to see a Barnes sign in the city.
But he finished first. He was elected Mayor Pro Tem by the council, a position that usually goes to the at-large candidate who receives the most votes.
Barnes serves as chair of the council’s economic development committee, which is responsible for vetting some of the city’s major public-private partnerships.
“People will be looking for the type of leadership that represents the things that have kept the city strong, for the basics of local government – public safety, job creation and infrastructure,” Barnes said.
He is one of the more conservative of the council’s nine Democrats, having voted against the streetcar and the expansion of the non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBT residents. Steve Harrison
Team: Barnes declined to name his campaign team, though he said he has the same staff in place as in past elections. “I have had a committed team who have executed our game plan in every election. The same four people are with me now.”
Supporters: “Because of the non-traditional way I campaign, I have a broad group of people who support me and I will hope they will continue to be with me.”
It was a job Dan Clodfelter didn’t expect to have. And when he got it, he didn’t expect to enjoy it so much.
“I really get excited by being out in the city and seeing the energy,” he says. “It’s infectious. You can’t engage with people in Charlotte without getting excited. And that’s really the best part of the job for me.”
Clodfelter, 64, was in the midst of his eighth N.C. Senate term last year when Mayor Patrick Cannon resigned. Clodfelter won the backing of council members for the post.
For Clodfelter, who had seen his influence in Raleigh wane after Republicans took over in 2013, it was a fresh start he seems to have relished.
But Clodfelter, who lives in Elizabeth, has never run citywide, only in specific districts. He says he’s not worried. “It’s a bigger campaign, obviously,” he says. “But it’s going to be fun.”
A former Rhodes Scholar, Clodfelter likes to tackle problems. Two he wants to address: Finding new ways to pay for transportation and working to ensure everyone shares in Charlotte’s prosperity. He says a Harvard study that showed poor upward mobility for lower-income families in Charlotte keeps him up at night.
“If there are people who can’t participate in that prosperity, then something’s wrong,” he says.
He knows opponents will say he’s reneged on his promise not to run if appointed.
“Some people wanted that, others of the council didn’t,” he says. “And so I never was getting a clear message from the council that they were of one mind on the issue. The question now is, let the voters decide what they want.” Jim Morrill
Team: Manager, Dan McCorkle; field director, Casey Mann; media, Strother Strategies, Dane Strother.
Notable supporters: Former state Sen. Malcolm Graham; former City Council members Malachi Greene, Nasif Majeed and Sara Spencer; former Mecklenburg commissioner Norman Mitchell, former City Attorney Mac McCarley; former Sheriff Chipp Bailey.
Howard, 45, says he’s the only native Charlottean among the four Democratic candidates. As a child, Howard said he wanted to be Harvey Gantt, the city’s first black mayor, who served from 1983 to 1987.
“I wanted to be mayor and be an architect before I even knew what an architect was,” said Howard, who actually became a developer of low-income housing. On the council, he often supported developers in zoning and other issues.
He was first elected to City Council in 2009 as an at-large member. He is also a vice president at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership.
A Steele Creek resident, he graduated from UNC Charlotte with a degree in sociology.
Howard’s two main focus areas are transportation and planning, and he enjoys debating the details of city policy. He has advocated for the city’s transit projects and pushed Charlotte and other local governments to find new ways to fund the planned commuter train to Lake Norman and transit along Independence Boulevard.
“I love policy where it connects with people,” Howard said. “On planning and urban issues, I have understood those issues and shaped those issues.”
For fun, Howard said he reads and enjoys international travel. Steve Harrison
Team: Finance director Brice Barnes; assistant finance director Jill Santuccio; Yolanda Johnson and Stephan Rosenburgh finance committee co-chairs.
Supporters: Former City Council member James Mitchell Jr.; bank executive Hugh McColl; former U.S. ambassador Mark Erwin; education advocate Carlenia Ivory; former county commissioner Darrel Williams; developer John Collett; Yolanda Johnson; community leader Polly Little; state Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr.
Jennifer Roberts is nothing if not competitive.
At 55, the former varsity volleyball player at UNC-Chapel Hill still plays. She also competes on a tennis team, climbs mountains and kick-boxes in her spare time.
She’s a former Mecklenburg County commissioners’ chair who led the ticket three of the four times she ran. In an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2012, she carried Mecklenburg over Republican Robert Pittenger.
She announced she wanted to be mayor in May, before anyone.
“I am uniquely poised to bring transparency and teamwork back to Charlotte,” she says, “with energy and tireless commitment to the things citizens need.”
Roberts, who speaks four languages and has a background in international affairs and diplomacy, says she wants to make Charlotte “a premier, 21st-century global city.”
She would involve Charlotte’s newest citizens – immigrants from other countries and regions – in city government while trying to ensure “opportunity is open to everyone.” She cited a study last year by Harvard and the University of California-Berkeley that showed Charlotte ranked last of 50 metro areas for income mobility.
Roberts – who lives three doors from Clodfelter in Elizabeth – is relying on a network of supporters who helped her win the county and raise $154,000 before anybody else entered the mayoral race.
Team: Manager, Aiesha Dew; consultant, Brad Crone; media, Media Inc., Jennifer Smith.
Notable supporters: Retired textile executive Crandall Bowles, publisher Hilda Gurdian, former Mecklenburg commissioner Dan Murrey, former bank executive Al DeMolina, lawyer Bill Diehl, philanthropist Sarah Belk Gambrell, musician Si Kahn, retired Observer publisher Rolfe Neill, former racing executive H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler.
There are nearly 500,000 registered voters in the city. Here’s the breakdown:
▪Democrats: 49.2 percent
▪Unaffiliated: 27.4 percent
▪Republicans: 22.6 percent
Charlotte’s previous four mayors
Anthony Foxx – December 2009-April 2013, resigned to become U.S. secretary of transportation.
Patsy Kinsey – July 2013-December 2013, appointed by City Council to finish Foxx’s term.
Patrick Cannon – December 2013-March 2014, resigned after being arrested by FBI.
Dan Clodfelter – April 2014-present, appointed by the City Council to finish Cannon’s term.