CHARLOTTE, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - Democrat Vi Lyles and Republican Kenny Smith clashed over toll roads, LGBTQ protections and the tone of the campaign Wednesday night in the final televised debate of Charlotte's mayoral race.
Sponsored by WBTV, the Observer and Duke Energy, the debate came less than a week before Election Day and days after a Spectrum News Poll showed the race virtually tied.
Lyles, who beat incumbent Democrat Jennifer Roberts in September's primary, would become Charlotte's first female African-American mayor. Smith is trying to become the first Republican since Pat McCrory left office in 2009.
It was Lyles who invoked the tone of the campaign.
"It's been a very negative campaign," she said, responding to a question on bullying. "As a mayor, you have a responsibility to be positive."
Asked about the charge, Smith said his campaign has "focused on the issues."
"We've had the opportunity to contrast ourselves," he said. "We're measured by how we vote, not on the words we say" afterwards.
Smith has pointed to Lyles' July vote against a GOP proposal to use hotel/motel tax money to pay for planned improvements to Bojangles' Coliseum. That would have freed up as much as $18.5 million for other projects, including affordable housing.
At the time, the city was still considering using hotel/motel tax revenues to help land a Major League Soccer franchise. Lyles said at the time that she was uncomfortable "making those kinds of decisions quickly," and voted against the plan. She has said Smith used that vote to suggest she does not support affordable housing.
"What I hate about the campaign is the caricature of votes," she said in the debate.
Smith has raised how she voted in a series of TV and digital ads. With no significant primary opposition, he has been able to run ads for weeks. Lyles' first ads began Wednesday.
Since the end of August, Smith has spent about $287,000 on TV and digital ads, new reports show. Lyles spent about $11,000, mostly on radio. Altogether, Smith had raised $510,000 to Lyles' $422,000.
And Smith has gotten help from outside groups, which have also attacked Lyles.
Forward Charlotte, a group of unidentified "concerned citizens," has spent more than $21,000 on radio and digital ads, according to reports filed Wednesday. Such groups must operate independently of a campaign.
Smith also has had help from The North Carolina Values Coalition, a conservative group that backed House Bill 2. Executive director Tami Fitzgerald has said it made a "five-figure" buy to produce digital ads and mailers that resurrect the HB2 controversy and accuse Lyles of supporting "a radical national LGBT agenda." Through Wednesday it had more than 78,000 views.
HB2 came in response to a 2016 Charlotte ordinance that extended LGBTQ protections and would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom or locker room of the gender with which they identify. The law resulted in a national backlash that included economic and sports boycotts until it was repealed this year. The candidates were asked if they would revisit the city ordinance if that's what it took to land Amazon's new headquarters, a prize that would bring 50,000 jobs.
"We've been through the most divisive two-year period our city has ever seen," Smith said. "I don't think we want to relitigate the issue. This issue should be resolved at the state or federal level."
Smith said then-Gov. Pat McCrory warned City Council of repercussions if they passed the ordinance. "We knew the path that we were headed down when we took the vote," he said.
In repealing HB2, the General Assembly barred cities from enacting new anti-discrimination laws until 2020.
"If it were a deal-breaker (with Amazon)," Lyles said, "I'd be at the General Assembly and say, 'Can we change this law? Because we've got an opportunity to change the future for our children.' "
On toll roads, the two disagreed, and their records reflect it.
Lyles voted in favor of building the Interstate 77 toll lanes in north Mecklenburg. Smith voted against the project. She defended the vote Wednesday night, saying Charlotte stood to lose millions in transportation money if the I-77 project were canceled.
Poll shows close race
The Spectrum News Poll showed Lyles with support from 41 percent of likely voters and Smith with the backing of 40 percent, while the rest are undecided. The margin of error was 4.4 percentage points.
The poll showed wide gender gaps, with men breaking for Smith and women for Lyles. White voters backed Smith almost 2-1, and black voters supported Lyles more than 2-1.
Lyles has an advantage in a city where almost half the city's voters – about 48 percent – are registered Democrats. Just 21 percent are Republican and 30 percent are unaffiliated.
Through Tuesday, African-Americans, who make up about 37 percent of all city voters, comprised 35 percent of early voters. Whites, 51 percent of all Charlotte voters, made up 61 percent of early voters.
Republicans and Democrats were both slightly outperforming their registration numbers.