CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - Five months before the mayoral primary, three Democratic candidates for mayor held their first forum before more than 200 people Saturday, with Mayor Jennifer Roberts and challengers Vi Lyles and Joel Ford debating the city's response in releasing video of the Keith Scott shooting.
In the days after the Sept. 20 fatal shooting by police, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and city staff, including Roberts, said it would not be prudent to release the body camera and dash camera video of the incident.
But six days after the shooting, Roberts changed positions. She wrote an op-ed that said the city needed to be more transparent and should have released the video.
"I was the first city official to call for full release of body camera video," Roberts said during the debate, to some applause. "I wrote an editorial and I got heat for it. I called us – the city – out for not being transparent."
Ford, a state senator, blasted Roberts for not pushing to release the video sooner. He defended his vote in Raleigh for House Bill 972, which said only a superior court judge can release police video. Cities and towns can't release police video.
"They didn't release the video," Ford said. "House Bill 972 is not perfect. But it does provide a pathway for videos to be released. Videos have been released three times under 972."
He later criticized Roberts for her op-ed.
"We shouldn't go on international television and roll the police chief under the bus," he said. "If you have a problem with the chief, you take him in the back. When you undermine authority, you open it up for everyone else to do the same."
Roberts refuted Ford's claim. She said she did not single out CMPD Chief Kerr Putney for criticism, though some people in the audience at Weeping Willow Zion AME Church grumbled that she did.
Lyles, the Mayor Pro Tem, was on City Council during the shooting.
She supported the city's decision not to immediately release the video. After Roberts wrote her op-ed, Lyles and other council members wrote their own response to the crisis, which was supportive of CMPD.
"(HB 972) is the law, and will I respect what's on the books?" Lyles said. "Yes."
She said that after the Scott shooting, "we had a lot of lessons to be learned."
"We should stop using words like transparent," Lyles said. "I believe that if we can't trust (CMPD) then we have to do something differently. We have to make the department look more like our community. I will work very hard to do that."
An energetic crowd
For a debate that's five months before the primary election, the crowd was large and energized. And because of issues like the Scott shooting and House Bill 2, the Charlotte's mayoral election will likely attract national attention. Legislators passed HB2 last year to nullify Charlotte's non-discrimination ordinance that gave legal protections to the LGBT community.
City Council member Kenny Smith is the lone Republican mayoral candidate.
In the Democratic primary two years ago, Roberts was often leading in polls. But the three other candidates declined to criticize her in debates and forums.
Ford showed Saturday he is willing to be more aggressive.
Roberts also punched back. Towards the ends of the forum, she criticized Ford for voting for a bill in the General Assembly that would allow magistrates not to perform gay marriages.
For much of the forum, Lyles spoke about her family and the challenges that African-Americans face.
"Race is an issue in our city," Lyles said. "We need to own it and call it out."
She said her son had been mistakenly accused of a crime, in part because he is black and wore dreadlocks. "I know what it means for every black child living in the city," she said. "We have to address the issue of race."
Lyles received her biggest applause when she spoke about her support for the Charlotte Area Transit System's plans to rework its bus routes. The transit system wants more crosstown routes instead of almost all routes going uptown, causing people to change buses and have long rides.
"Today, already underway, the City Council has decided that we will rework the bus system so it will be linear. It will not be another two-hour commute for any mother in this town!"
Lyles and Ford have discussed that one of them might drop out of the race. They are both African-American, and some strategists believe that Roberts's best chance to win is for two or more black candidates to divide the African-American vote.
The candidates discussed LGBT rights and House Bill 2, but only briefly.
Ford said the city got the "policy right but the politics wrong" with its nondiscrimination ordinance last year. Lyles said she supports LGBT rights and that "safety is the most important thing for all residents."
Roberts said she was the only candidate to say that House Bill 142, which replaced and repealed HB2, "was not a full repeal." "All we're asking for is for Democratic and Christian principles and of every major religion to let people be who they are," she said.
Both Roberts and Lyles often criticized Raleigh and Washington D.C. for enacting policies that they said make it difficult for Charlotte to pass their own legislation.