The Agenda guide to every race in the September primary election

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The percentage of people who vote in local primary elections is abysmally low — generally between 2 percent and 8 percent.

And you can’t necessarily blame people for not voting in what’s known in the biz as “off-year elections.”

The ballot is filled with names you may never have heard of. The races are much lower-budget, so the candidates and issues haven’t flooded your consciousness. You may even still be fatigued from the grueling presidential election that feels like it just ended.

But we at the Agenda don’t want you to have any good reasons not to vote.

Our local elected officials have a lot of influence over things we experience each day — from our streets and greenways to development to companies coming in and bringing jobs.

And this primary will have great implications for who’ll hold the gavel for the next two years.

I’m not going to tell you who to vote for.

But in this guide, I do want to give you an honest, helpful, no-BS explanation of why you might want to vote for (or against) the candidates you’ll find on the ballot.

[Agenda story: The 6 biggest issues in this fall’s local election]

Early voting is currently underway — and has now expanded to include nine early voting sites (here’s a guide on how to do that).

September 12 is the official primary election day.

As a reminder, if you’re a registered Democrat, you’ll be voting in that primary. Same for Republicans. Unaffiliated voters can choose which primary they’d like to vote in. Don’t know your district? Find out here.

Why should I vote? Will my vote matter?

Yes, absolutely your vote will matter. Low turnout means that the impact of each vote is amplified.

A total of 44,101 votes were cast in the last mayoral primary in 2015. But only about 600 votes separated David Howard and Dan Clodfelter for the second spot in a run-off race.

The City Council at-large race was similarly tight. Only about 2,500 votes kept Billy Maddalon off the November ballot

And there are a lot of critical issues at play this year. We’re only a year removed from protests that shined a light on inequality in Charlotte, and little action has yet been taken. Several candidates on the ballot are running to change that.

Our city is also in the midst of a year with an abnormally high number of homicides, another problem that has defied easy explanation. There also have been few concrete plans thus far on addressing skyrocketing rent and the availability of affordable housing for low-income families.

Here are the races on the ballot and a little bit about the candidates running.

Charlotte mayor

The Democratic Party primary is extremely competitive, with three big-name candidates.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts is running for re-election after winning the office handily in 2015. She’s the leading fundraiser and has strong support in the LGBT community because of her public stances in support of gay and transgender rights, including being the driving force behind the nondiscrimination ordinance passed last year. She has the endorsement of nearly a dozen groups, including Equality NC, New South Progressives and the Sierra Club.

You’ll vote for Roberts if you’re looking for blue cities like Charlotte to be checks against Republican power in Raleigh and Washington.

jennifer roberts charlotte pride

Mayor Jennifer Roberts shakes hands at Charlotte Pride 2016

Vi Lyles, the mayor pro tem, has emerged as the leading candidate against Roberts. You’ll vote for Lyles if you believe Roberts has veered too far onto the national stage, or that the mayor should be more focused locally. You’ll vote Lyles if you’re looking for someone who is more willing to work alongside the City Council rather than make individual statements.

Lyles has racked up numerous endorsements, including from the influential Black Political Caucus and the Charlotte Observer.

Joel Ford, a state senator, is substantially different from either of his two opponents. He is closer to the center on the political spectrum and has taken heat within his party for his votes on LGBT issues. He voted for a bill that would allow magistrates to refuse to perform same-sex marriages, which was ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory. He also supported compromises to repeal House Bill 2.

Of the three main Democratic candidates, Ford has focused most heavily on jobs, leaning on his career as an entrepreneur. He’s also put out the most detailed proposal on combatting crime. Along the way, he’s gotten endorsements from the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition and the Charlotte Fire Fighters Association. You’ll vote for Ford if you want a Democrat in office who’s willing to work with Republicans in Raleigh, or if you value a little maverick streak.

There are two other candidates on the Democratic ballot — Connie Partee Johnson and Lucille Puckett — but they haven’t raised any money and aren’t viable.

On the Republican side, there’s technically a contest but not a real one.

Kenny Smith, a city councilman, is the only viable candidate in the Republican primary — and he’s a strong one. We’ll get into the case for voting for Smith more in the general election. If you’re voting in this primary, Smith is the only person you’re considering.

Photo by Elect Kenny Smith via Facebook

One of the other names on the ballot, Gary Dunn, is not a serious candidate. Kimberley Barnette has raised only $500 and been invisible during the campaign.

City Council at-large

Charlotte has four council members who are elected citywide. In the primary, this means that voters will be choosing four Democratic candidates. The Republican Party did not mount four candidates, so they won’t even appear on your ballot if you go that route.

Here’s the breakdown for the eight Democrats in the race.

We’ll start with the three incumbents running for re-election (the fourth, Vi Lyles, is running for mayor).

Julie Eiselt was the top overall vote-getter in 2015 and has only garnered more support in her first term on the council. She’s well-respected across the board, endorsed by the Black Political Caucus, New South Progressives and REBIC (among others) and even has significant support among Republicans.

Claire Fallon has been on council for three terms. She’s a New Yorker not known for being demure, and once compared an apartment community proposed in University City to “Soviet barracks.” She told the Observer last year she wouldn’t run for re-election this go-round, citing her age (she’s in her 80s). But there she is back on the ticket. You’ll vote for her if you like an outspoken swing vote on council.

James (Smuggie) Mitchell is another long-time council member, and that’s pronounced “smudge-ie,” by the way. He’d been on council for more than a decade before losing a primary campaign for mayor to Patrick Cannon, then was re-elected to the post in 2015. He’s well-liked and is as Charlotte establishment Democrat as it gets, so you’ll vote for him if that’s what you’re looking for.

Now for the people seeking a new seat.

Dimple Ajmera was appointed to the city council’s District 5 seat in January, but is seeking an at-large seat after being forced to promise she wouldn’t run in her district to get the appointment. She’s young (30) and the first Indian-American councilmember in the city’s history. She’s shown a willingness to make bold but controversial statements, including a memorable one that Trump supporters have no place in Charlotte’s government. She’s also not the most popular among her colleagues on the dais: She got ripped by both Dems and Republicans for a proposed resolution condemning violence in Charlottesville. You’ll vote for her if you’re looking for an energetic partisan.

Ryan McGill is an Iraq War veteran who served in the Navy, Marines and is currently in the Army National Guard. He also co-founded an organization for LGBT military veterans. McGill is a fresh face who has quickly made friends in the Charlotte political establishment despite not raising a ton of money. He was the one non-incumbent in this race to pick up the REBIC endorsement. Like Eiselt, McGill has drawn support from a wide variety of constituencies.

Braxton Winston is a Davidson graduate who surged onto the public stage last September during the protests after the officer-involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. He’s a talented storyteller and has focused the most on opening up opportunities to more segments of Charlotte’s population. You’ll vote for him if you wish Charlotte would do more to address inequality in the city.

The two remaining candidates have not broken through in any meaningful way.

Jesse Boyd is a Charlotte native, Army veteran and political science student at UNC Charlotte. He has a bright future but does not appear poised to make noise in this race.

Roderick Davis is a student at an online university and no stranger to Charlotte ballots. He racked up 152 votes for mayor in 2015.


City Council at-large primaries are super hard, especially with four choices. Here are your most likely scenarios in voting.

If you like the Charlotte Democrat establishment, you’re voting Eiselt, Fallon, Mitchell, McGill.

If you’re wanting a more activist ticket, you’ve probably voting Winston, Eiselt, McGill, Ajmera.

If you want some change without going too crazy, you’re voting for Eiselt, McGill, Winston and Mitchell.

Now on to the districts.

City Council District 1

There is only a Democratic primary in this race, with two main candidates.

Patsy Kinsey is the incumbent and has been a vocal critic of the destruction of Charlotte historic neighborhoods. She’s taken heat in her own party for some surprising votes, though, particularly one that killed a rezoning plan for the VanLandingham Estate in Plaza Midwood. You’ll vote for Kinsey if you’re looking to maintain her influential voice on council.

Larken Egleston has emerged as a strong challenger. He has raised a ton of money, garnered a lot of support and even stolen some endorsements from the incumbent, like the one from the Observer and REBIC. Egleston is a strong advocate for historic preservation, as well. You’ll vote for him if you’re looking for a fresh (age 34) but experienced face on council.

Robert Mitchell is also on the ballot but has raised no money and has little support.

District 2

There are four candidates in this race, but two have risen to the top.

Justin Harlow is the heir apparent to this seat, with the quiet support of Al Austin, who just departed the council for a job in Raleigh. He’s a dentist by trade and at age 29 is already a prominent leader in the Biddleville-Smallwood community.

J’Tanya Adams is also a strong candidate for this seat. She runs Historic West End Partners and has been a prominent voice in responsible development.

This will be a close race between the two and either would be a good council member. Harlow has won the endorsements of the Black Political Caucus, MeckPAC and REBIC. Adams got the Observer’s endorsement by virtue of her longer experience (she’s in her 50s).

The other two candidates on the ballot have much less name recognition. Eric Erickson is law enforcement officer and long-time resident of the community but has raised only a fraction of what his competitors have brought in. Michael McLean is on the ballot but I’m told he’s not campaigning.

District 4

Councilman Greg Phipps faces stiff competition for his seat representing the University City area.

Phipps has been a strong advocate for his area of town as Charlotte booms. The retired bank examiner has the endorsement of the Black Political Caucus, REBIC and the Observer. You’ll vote for Phipps if you’re happy with the way things are going in U-City.

Wil Russell is the strongest challenger. He lost to Phipps in run-off for District 4 in 2013. Since then, he’s only become more involved in the community, serving on the board of Sustain Charlotte and Charlotte’s Business Advisory Committee. He’s a project manager at Rodgers Builders and has concrete ideas for how to guide Charlotte’s development. You’ll vote for Russell if you want a new voice and new ideas on development and zoning.

Priscilla Johnson and Damiko Faulkner are the other two names on the ballot but have not gained as much traction as Russell.

District 5

This is a wide-open race, with six candidates and no incumbent. Several candidates here have a solid chance at victory.

Gary Young II is the leader of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce and passionate about entrepreneurship and small business. He has the Observer’s endorsement.

Matt Newton is an attorney at his own firm that focuses heavily on indigent services. He’s active in the local chapter of the ACLU and has the endorsement of MeckPAC/Equality NC.

Darrell Bonapart has made numerous runs for a variety of offices over the past decade, all of them unsuccessful but several of them close. He’s an Army veteran and has the endorsement of the Black Political Caucus.

The other three candidates haven’t made as much headway: Kris Chambers-Woodruff, Scott Derek Jenkins and Vinroy Reid.

District 6

If you’re voting Republican, this is your only chance to vote for City Council. There are two strong candidates vying to replace Kenny Smith, who’s running for mayor.

Tariq Scott Bokhari is a former bank exec and financial tech entrepreneur, and it’s pronounced “Tark.” He has the endorsements of all the major players in the Republican establishment, including county commissioner Matthew Ridenhour and former Gov. Pat McCrory. He’s also well-engrained in city committees. If you like what Smith has done, you’ll likely vote Bokhari.

Eric Laster is the CEO of well-known local construction firm Edifice. He’d likely be more combative with Democrats on the council, so if you’re looking for that, he’s your guy.

What about the other districts and the school board?

If your city council district wasn’t listed above, it means there’s no primary. We’ll come back to you for the general election.

The school board races are nominally non-partisan (though behind the scenes, candidates’ affiliations are generally no secret). Thus, no primary. All the candidates will be on the November ballot.

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