By Jim Morrill, Katherine Peralta and Elly Portillo, The Charlotte Observer
Democrat Vi Lyles easily beat Republican Kenny Smith in the race for Charlotte mayor.
With 77 of 168 precincts in, Lyles had 59 percent of the vote to Smith’s 41 percent.
Lyles, 66, will become the first African-American woman to lead the city.
Smith conceded around 9:20 p.m. and spoke to supporters at J. Sam’s near SouthPark. he said he expected the gap between him and Lyles to narrow, but not enough.
He said his campaign “just didn’t turn out as many as they did.”
At Park Expo, dozens of Lyles’ supporters, mostly African American, ate and laughed as the night went on. Cheers filled the room as early voting results flashed on the projector, showing Lyles with a healthy lead.
Lyles cast herself as a unifier after two years of division over House Bill 2 and the unrest that followed last year’s police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. That resonated with some voters.
“She is one of the least political politicians I have encountered,” said Democrat Amy Wilson, 45, a pre-school teacher. “I’m hoping she’ll be a breath of fresh air.”
Smith, 44, ran on the slogan “Charlotte deserves better.” That was a winning message to his voters.
“I wanted a change,” said Rita Huntley, a Democrat. “Just on some issues we struggled with under the (current) mayor.”
Smith pledged to focus on the “core responsibilities” of local government and “get back to basics” by focusing on public safety, infrastructure and jobs. He said Roberts spent too much time on social issues and he sought to link Lyles to Roberts’ agenda.
He was able to outraise and significantly outspend Lyles.
He raised more than $510,000, more than any candidate since Democrat Anthony Foxx in 2011. With no significant primary, he was able to run ads for weeks. Lyles, on the other hand, just started last week. Since the end of August, Smith spent $287,000 on TV and digital ads, according to a recent report. Lyles spent about $11,000, mostly on radio.
A pair of outside groups gave Smith a boost with their own advertising.
The North Carolina Values Coalition sought to tie Lyles to Roberts and the most controversial events of her tenure: the backlash to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance that led to House Bill 2 and the unrest that followed last year’s police shooting of Scott.
A group called Forward Charlotte has spent more than $21,000 on radio and digital ads attacking Lyles. By Tuesday, its online ad had 104,000 views.
The state Republican Party spent as much as $100,000 on behalf of Smith and the GOP ticket. The national Democratic Party invested an unspecified amount for Lyles.
And the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights organization, was knocking on doors and calling voters for Lyles, according to a spokesman.
Lyles, 66, had demographics on her side.
Women make up 53.5 percent of city voters. African-Americans, 37 percent. Nearly half the voters are Democrats. Women made up more than 57 percent of people who’d voted early.