Mayor Vi Lyles enters primary fray, seeks to oust incumbent Renee Johnson
In her six years as Charlotte’s mayor, Vi Lyles has never endorsed a candidate for City Council.
Until last week.
The mayor is trying to unseat incumbent and fellow Democrat Renee Johnson in District 4 by publicly backing one of her opponents, Wil Russell. Her decision has turned a once-quiet race into the headline event in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary.
Lyles’ endorsement has highlighted the division on the City Council, in which there are often two teams.
One is aligned with the mayor, who works to implement what she and the city staff want to do.
Johnson is not on that team.
“You can ask the mayor why she’s supporting Wil,” Johnson said during an interview this week. “I will say, I have been a consistent voice for the people.”
To Johnson, that means questioning city staff, like she did this spring when she grilled Charlotte Area Transit System staff over why it hadn’t disclosed safety problems with light rail vehicles earlier. She also recently loudly objected to a city plan to temporarily move the Greyhound bus station to a light rail station in her district.
Most significantly, she opposed the city’s new development rules in the 2040 plan that allow duplexes and triplexes in neighborhoods that were once zoned only for single-family homes. She tried unsuccessfully again this year to have that provision reversed.
She said her colleagues on City Council too often defer to what city staff wants.
“I mean, you’ll hear them say that we hire professionals to do the work, and we do. I mean, we’re part-time,” she said. “But it’s also our job to ensure accountability and ensure good stewardship of public dollars.”
In an interview, Lyles minimized Johnson’s two terms on City Council.
“I feel like we need more experience on the dais around some of the issues that we have got to address over the next couple of years,” Lyles said.
Lyles was referring to development — and how Charlotte grows. Lyles successfully pushed to pass the 2040 plan, which she and others say will make it easier to build new housing.
She said Johnson is too often hostile to new development — following the lead of neighborhood groups that don’t want more density.
“She really looks at the community and looks at the neighbors,” Lyles said. “But I think a lot of times we forget sometimes how many people have moved here and they love it. But we can’t just say because you moved here that we’re not going to change.”
Lyles’ campaign has paid for a mailer for Russell and the mayor is helping him raise money. Two other former council members are also backing him: Greg Phipps and Julie Eiselt.
Russell is a construction manager at two firms, including Laurel Street Residential, which builds affordable housing. He also serves on the Planning Commission. He ran for the District 4 seat in 2013 but lost to Phipps.
“What we are doing when we don’t increase housing stock is that we are pushing up prices and we’re pushing people out of affordability,” he said. “You are looking at people who are on the lower end of the socio-economic scale who are going to struggle to find anything other than rent.”
District 4 in Northeast Charlotte is one of the fastest-growing parts of the city.
Johnson said the race is about more than development.
She pointed to a debate in which Russell said he would lead District 4 with “one goal, one voice.”
Johnson said that sounds like the goal is consensus — not debate.
“Maybe he thinks we should get to a point where he thinks the mayor appoints council members. I don’t know,” Johnson said. “I think we need diversity. In a city as big as ours, we should expect and respect diversity. So that’s a ridiculous premise.”
Russell, who is also African American, said that’s not what he meant.
“It’s my goal to go out into the community, to the business owners and property owners and represent their interests to council,” he said. “So I need to bring that one voice to council, but it’s up to us collectively to move the city forward.”
It’s rare for an incumbent district City Council member to lose, although Larken Egleston beat incumbent Patsy Kinsey six years ago. At-large member LaWana Mayfield also defeated Warren Turner in District 3 last decade.
Olivia Scott is also in the race. She says the city “needs a voice, not a rubber stamp.”
When asked about Lyles’ endorsement of Russell, Scott said “It’s well known that she doesn’t support or get along with the current District 4 incumbent” but that wishes the mayor had done her homework before making her pick.
And while Russell has the mayor’s backing, Johnson has the endorsement of the Black Political Caucus.