Mayor Viola Lyles

The city of Charlotte has had a stellar reputation with higher education, professional sports and fine arts. As the second-largest banking center in the nation, Charlotte has a bright future.

However, that progress has an underside: homelessness, gun violence and poverty. The upcoming election will likely revolve around these issues. This year, voters will need to decide whether continuing the status quo will heal this wounded city. 

Viola Alexander Lyles has served as mayor of Charlotte since 2017, becoming the first black woman to lead the city in its 253-year history. As a member of the Democratic party, Lyles supports affordable housing, signing off on a $50 million bond for new homes in 2018. In addition, she has bolstered the transit network, approving the nine-mile light-rail extension to UNC Charlotte in 2017. 

Born in Columbia, S.C., Lyles grew up at the end of the Jim Crow era, understanding the need for regional reconciliation with the past. As a child, Lyles attended all-black institutions until high school, where she was one of 11 other black students. In 1969, Lyles went to Queens College, now Queens University of Charlotte. 

At that time, Charlotte was a town of only 125,000 people. The city had just opened its first mall, and Independence Boulevard was peppered with drive-in movie theaters and service stops. Since then, the population of the Charlotte metropolitan area has ballooned to 2.6 million. The issues of the day have shifted from de jure segregation toward de facto segregation.

Lyles announced her reelection for a third term in a Thanksgiving message posted on social media last year. Although Lyles is running without opposition, the city is holding a primary on May 17, 2022. The general election is scheduled for Nov. 8, 2022.

In a phone interview with the Niner Times, Lyles discussed her plans for the city, giving insight into whether those plans offer practical solutions or false hopes veiled in progressivism. 

Homelessness

"We've been tackling homelessness for the last 20 years," Lyles said. "The federal government sends the money for homeless services to the city." The Department of Housing and Urban Development allocates this funding to cities nationwide through Homeless Assistance Grants, which Charlotte delegates to Mecklenburg County. "Mecklenburg County takes the lead because so much of the work around homelessness is about other issues," Lyles said.

That decision might seem like passing the buck, but this is standard practice. For those unfamiliar with local politics, there is a distinction between the city and county governments. 

The city council, with the mayor at its helm, handles public services like police, fire, sanitation, transportation and infrastructure. Meanwhile, the county commission led by the county chair manages elections, records, health and welfare services—homelessness included.

Lyles believes that the source of the homelessness problem is a lack of job opportunities. "Like any growing community in this area of sunbelt and prosperity, we see that there is always a connection that people come into our community seeking opportunities and sometimes don't find them, and as a result often end up homeless," Lyles said. 

However, there are enough jobs, just not enough good jobs. An Oxfam report ranked North Carolina dead last in the country for wages and worker's rights. According to Harvard economist Raj Chetty, Charlotte children born into the bottom quintile of the income distribution only have a 4.4% chance of moving to the top quintile. Stagnant economic mobility amplifies segregation in education, which hampers home-ownership.

As comedian George Carlin once said, "Change the name of the condition! It's not homelessness; it's houselessness. It's houses these people need." 

Affordable houses for those on the street are nearly impossible to build due to rigid zoning ordinances. According to Ely Portillo, assistant director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, 84% of available land in Charlotte is zoned for single-family houses. These residential zones are more welcoming for affluent white families who have historically had time to secure wealth and stability.

Charlotte residents who live by the NIMBY mentality, which stands for not-in-my-back-yard, prevent genuine gains in the fight against urban suffering. However, some blame lies with Lyles and the city council, who dedicate more funding to temporary solutions like policing rather than social programs. According to Axios, CMPD accounts for over 40% of the city's operating budget as of 2021.

Transit Funding

According to the Charlotte Observer, Lyles and local activists have called for investments in the form of a 1-cent sales tax to fund the city's ailing transit network. This bus and rail expansion seeks to broaden access for low-income and minority residents, who are more likely to rely on public transport than their white suburban counterparts. The planned overhaul commemorates Transit Equity Day on Feb. 4 in honor of Rosa Parks' birthday. 

The Charlotte Area Transit System continues to be a source of bitterness for frustrated riders enduring long wait times for filthy buses. However, Lyles' long-overdue proposal aims to electrify the bus fleet and extend light-rail service to Davidson, Cornelius, Matthews and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. 

These wealthy exurban communities would undoubtedly benefit from speedy travel to the airport. However, underserved neighborhoods in Charlotte deserve that privilege more than well-to-do whites living outside the I-485 ring. Charlotte minister and activist Janet Garner-Mullins called public transportation a civil right intended for social uplift, not handouts for the wealthy. 

Racial Equity

The Racial Equity Initiative is the focal point of the mayor's reelection campaign. Based on a Forbes interview with Lyles in Nov. 2021, this initiative is a $250 million investment targeting racial disparities in Charlotte, which COVID-19 has worsened, such as remote learning. According to Forbes, 16,000 children and 56,000 households in Charlotte lacked reliable access to the internet during the pandemic.

The initiative will fund four specific areas: bridging the digital divide for low-income families, transforming historically-black Johnson C. Smith University into a career-focused institution, promoting more black and brown representation in corporations, and investing in Charlotte's "six corridors" of opportunity.

Charlotte Regional Business Alliance and EY, formerly Ernst & Young, have partnered with the mayor's office to develop this initiative. However, during the vote to approve the initiative, details about how funding would be allocated can best be described as unclear. 

Last year, Republican city council member Tariq Bokhari criticized Lyles for "a lack of transparency" in announcing her initiative. Democratic city council member Braxton Winston said, "My concern is that the words of the mayor's racial equity initiative are not as full as they could be, that they ring hollow. It makes empty promises to our citizens who need to benefit from any type of equity work." 

WBTV reported about allegations claiming that Mayor Lyles and City Manager Marcus Jones "conspired on a vote for the council to hurriedly approve federal covid dollars in order to move forward with the Mayor's Racial Equity Initiative, which was announced just a week later." 

The Henderson Scandal

The mayor's initiative is not only a mystery regarding funding but also leadership. In an interview with WFAE, Lyles denied any blame for the former executive director chosen to oversee her racial equity initiative. According to an Ohio state audit, the ex-hire, Kimberly Henderson, previously led an Ohio agency that mishandled $3.8 billion by paying out bogus unemployment claims. 

However, according to the Charlotte Post, Henderson resigned amid growing skepticism in a letter dated Feb. 13. "The work of the Initiative is too critical to be jeopardized in any way by public misperceptions related to my prior leadership as Cabinet Director in Ohio and appointment as Executive Director," Henderson wrote in her letter to the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance CEO Janet LaBar.

"I, nor the Charlotte city council, or any council member had any role in the hiring of the Alliance staff," Lyles said in a prepared statement. Although Lyles has repeated that "no tax dollars are going into this initiative," Henderson was briefly responsible for $80 million in public funding. 

"I'm not concerned [about] her leadership and the people who hired her, they're not concerned," Lyles told WCNC before Henderson's resignation. "Because what I'm going to look for is the bottom line of work." Now, the bottom line has shifted to a new executive director, preferably one who is not an out-of-state multibillion-dollar alleged criminal. 

Lyles is running unopposed in this next election, meaning much of this chaos will continue for four more years. However, November 2025 will arrive eventually. Maybe the Queen City hive needs a new queen bee. 

Although, one thing is undeniable: the imperative need to vote no matter the election—whether federal or state, county or city. Always represent your voice; otherwise, the Dollarcrats will keep winning.

Editor's Note: The Charlotte 2022 mayoral election will have other candidates on the ballot besides the incumbent, Vi Alexander Lyles (D). Her opponents include Lucille Puckett (D), Tigress Sydney Acute McDaniel (D), Tae McKenzie (D), Stephanie de Sarachaga-Bilbao (R) and Mohamed Moustafa (R).

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