Local & State
|The consensus builder: Vi Lyles is 2018 Newsmaker of the Year|
|Mayor adheres to theme of common ground|
|Published Thursday, December 20, 2018 12:34 pm|
|PHOTO | TROY HULL|
|Vi Lyles’ first year as Charlotte mayor included major corporate locations and a contentious battle over hosting the Republican National Convention.|
In some ways, Vi Lyles was Charlotte’s mayor-in-training.
In nearly 30 years in positions ranging from budget analyst to assistant city manager, she learned the fiduciary responsibility of government. As a nonprofit executive, there was fundraising and connecting causes with activism. As a City Council member, there was extended constituent service. While she didn’t necessarily eye the city’s top job, Lyles, the 2018 Newsmaker of the Year, was ready.
“When I look back on what I’ve done, I was a part of Leadership Charlotte, I was a part of the [Black Political] Caucus; I was a part of the Arts & Science Council,” she said during an interview at her office at the Government Center. “United Way allocations was my first real commitment to the philanthropic community, so when I look back at it, I’ve had great preparation for it. And then my skills that I learned working here have been invaluable from the ability to know and understand financing of municipal government and how that works is something I use every day as mayor. It wasn’t something I thought about but I can see how I got here.”
Arthur Griffin, the BPC’s chair and former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair, said Lyles’ years of varied service suggests sufficient preparation for the tasks a big-city mayor faces.
“She’s demonstrated her knowledge of city government,” he said. “I think that’s a function from her many years of working for the city, so it transitions from being an employee to a city council person at large. …Her transition from being a city council person at large to mayor has certainly demonstrated her preparedness for the role of being mayor.”
Lyles, who was elected mayor in 2017 – the first black woman to do so – is an advocate of listening. Before taking the oath of office, she sought the advice of Harvey Gantt, the inaugural Newsmaker of the Year in 1990 and Charlotte’s first African American mayor.
“I have sought his counsel on many things,” Lyles said. “He’s encouraged me and his advice has always been do what’s right for you, both in your head and your heart, and you have to respect the values of the community. What I have tried to do in every decision is think about the people of this community and what are our values. Are we going to be a community that’s welcoming, we’re going a diverse community and we’re going to have everyone have the opportunity to work and live in our city.”
As the political leader of the Carolinas’ largest city, Lyles’ days are full. There are meetings, appearances and interactions – even at the supermarket, where constituents approach her about topics ranging from city services to posing for selfies.
“Being mayor is an 18-hour a day job,” she said.
But her main job is building consensus where possible, something that can be a challenge in a city of 800,000. Leading the council, and by extension, the city’s future, requires juggling skills.
“You’re always working in a collaborative environment,” Lyles said. “I have to work with the private sector, the city council, neighborhood groups. All of that makes for a really interesting soup sometimes, so being able to figure out where everyone is and find that one thing everyone has in common when we’re trying to solve a problem, that is my biggest challenge. Listening is a great skill. I’m still working on it, though.”
But politics is also about numbers. When fierce debate broke out over whether Charlotte should submit a bid to host the 2020 Republican National Convention, Lyles shifted from consensus-builder to navigator, making the case that despite opposition to bringing President Donald Trump – and expected large-scale political protests – the GOP convention is worth millions to the city. Council approved the measure in July by a 6-5 vote. Lyles admits the debate was bruising, but worth the effort, especially for Charlotte’s hospitality industry, where 1 of 9 residents work.
“The other thing we have to remember is we’re a city trying to attract major corporations that will bring good-paying jobs here,” she said. “The Republican National Convention, while what takes place inside the arena is the Republican Party and the nominee of the party, what takes place outside in our community are jobs for people, opportunities for corporations to come in and see our city. My entire focus during the Republican National Convention will be to talk to people that can help our city grow well. It’s not going to be the politics of it. It’s always about showcasing our city.”
Republicans praised Lyles’ apolitical approach to advocating for Charlotte as the convention host. “This event will bring significant economic stimulus to the region and will be another great opportunity to showcase Charlotte on the world stage,” U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican said after the vote. “I applaud Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, the Charlotte City Council, and the city’s business and civic leaders for their leadership in pursuing this economic opportunity for our great city.”
Said Lyles: “My goal is always the consensus, but there have been times – the Republican convention, for example – where we needed a majority. We started with 10 [council] people in support and ended up with six, so I sought consensus, but we had a majority. That’s an example of how things sometimes work, but I am especially proud of those times we do have consensus.”
The GOP convention is but one of the major economic boosts Charlotte’s landed in 2018. Tech giant Honeywell announced it’s moving its global headquarters here, and homegrown industry leaders LendingTree and AvidXchange announced expansions.
While government extended economic incentives that made those deals possible, local leaders put in legwork to bring business, education and public sectors together.
Lyles also counts the city’s commitment to boosting affordable housing, job readiness and improving relationships between police and civilians as mandates to complete. She points to accomplishments two years after the council’s “Letter to the Community” as proof that local government can be a force for good.
“That demonstrates her experience as being an assistant city manager for a long time and on city council at large,” Griffin said. “I think she’s learned the old African adage God gave you two ears and two eyes for a reason and one mouth. I think she listens well. I think she understands the public, and therefore when she speaks, even in a controversial situation, she speaks in a way that people feel that she has heard them, and I think that’s an attribute we’d all like to have.”
Lyles wants to keep the momentum going. She’s committed to running for another two-year term in 2019, and looking back on the first year as mayor, believes she can do more during an era where Mecklenburg’s is casting wider nets with more women and people of color in politically-prominent positions.
“It’s been an amazing year for me,” she said. “ I have to admit when I took the oath of office, it was such joy for myself for that achievement, but more particularly the joy that all the people that helped put me in office, they were having. I was on a really, really good spot then and I have to say today I still remain there. Serving the city has been amazing. I’m proud to be mayor. It has its challenges, but everything does.”
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