At first, Vi Lyles just wanted to get out of Charlotte.
Upon her arrival here in 1970, as one of the first African-American students to attend Queens College — now Queens University — and a freshman living in a senior dorm, she felt out of place.
Lyles went home to Columbia, South Carolina, and begged her mother to let her return or transfer to a place where she would feel more comfortable. Her mother told Lyles that she was no quitter, and that she should go back to Queens and stick it out.
She did just that, and decided to rush for a sorority as a way to make friends. The experience shed light on the racism Lyles faced at the college. Each white recruit was accepted into the sorority of her choosing, while neither Lyles nor any other black student was let in.
Instead of looking back on the experience with resentment, Lyles recalls how she was inspired by her white friend Lynn, who resigned from her privileged position within the Kappa Delta sorority in a show of solidarity with Lyles.
Lynn's support moved Lyles forward, as she puts it, and she grew to love the school — the less racist aspects of it, anyway — and the city she's called home ever since.
Lyles, now 66, pauses halfway through telling me about her experience with Lynn. "I don't think I've told anybody this story yet," she says, before resuming the tale.
I assume she means she hasn't shared it with a journalist as she's bounced among countless interviews with local reporters in recent weeks. When I visit Lyles' campaign offices in the Park Expo & Conference Center in east Charlotte early on a Monday morning, she's already appeared on one morning show and has a full day of campaign stops ahead. "I think I've met every TV anchor in town now," she says, laughing.
Since she annonced her candidacy for mayor, Lyles has traveled to all corners of the city discussing Charlotte's issues and her goals for its future. I talked with the Mayor Pro Tem about why she's been enjoying the campaign rather than letting it tire her out, and how she plans to keep engaging with the community if elected on November 7.
Creative Loafing: You've been very busy lately, balancing your mayoral campaign with your work as Mayor Pro Tem. Are you about sick of this campaign yet?
Vi Lyles: Absolutely not. I'm absolutely loving it. The best part of this campaign has been — I've been here for a while, so I have lots of great relationships — either seeing those folks again or meeting new people.
The second part that's really great is being able to drive all over the city. There are nooks and crannies that you don't get to see, but when you're going to meet someone and you're going to their house or you're going to have a little coffee with them, there's just so much in Charlotte that we don't see because we're always on the highways.
What made you decide to run for public office originally?
Deciding to run for office came after I worked with the Democratic National Convention in 2012. Sandra Conway and I put together a group of over 500 women, and we were called DVAs [pronounced divas]. It stood for donate, volunteer and advocate. And we worked really hard because the commitment that then-Mayor Anthony Foxx made was that we would do things that were a legacy for the convention, it wouldn't just be a one-off. The food truck at the transit center is still around. DVAs are still around talking about issues with race and reconciliation. So we have continued that legacy, and Sandra and I worked really hard on that to make sure it was real and tangible and making sure there would be long-term results.
When I saw that the council dialogue in 2012 had basically become what I would say is not Charlotte in a way that we weren't working collaboratively, that's when I decided that running for office was a good thing. I called up Anthony and he of course encouraged me and supported me, all the while knowing that he was going to D.C. (laughs), but I'm grateful for his support today.
The face of Charlotte leadership is changing, in a way now, as we've seen a large group of relatively young candidates entering the political stage. Why do you think that is?
I think it's really one of those situations where people are beginning to understand what public service means. Also, we've had some crises. Braxton [Winston] came out of the Keith Lamont Scott protests. I think Matt [Newton] came out because of the changes on Eastland Mall. I think Dimple is linked to the question about economic opportunity and mobility.
Those folks are coming in and saying, "We need to have some change." And what grounded them in that change, I would ask them specifically, but my sense of it is that the east side feels that they've been left out or disenfranchised. I think people that saw the Keith Lamont Scott shooting want to figure out how to better connect with local government. So I think that's a large part of it.
Someone asked me, "Well, how are you going to deal with all these young people? How are you going to deal with the millennials?" I wouldn't treat a millennial any differently than I would treat anyone else. I want to respect the fact that they've been supported and elected, that they are sending a message, and the first thing I would ask them is, "What's most important for you to accomplish? Let's figure out how that fits in the agenda that the council currently has, and how do we work together to get it done?"
I want every part of the city to feel that we're trusting their judgment, and that we're going to make them a part of the solution.
What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving on city council?
I think it was after the civil protests that I actually was thinking, not only what are we having to deal with today, but what are we going to do next? I believe that my letter to the city council that ultimately resulted in the Community Letter [her personal statement on the Keith Lamont Scott shooting that was officially adopted by the city] was heartfelt about peeling back the layers that we needed to change, but it was also something very tangible that we could do and say to the community — that we have a goal.
I'm glad we accelerated affordable housing. We have a $250,000 job-training program that became a $1 million program. There are over 120 graduates today. Those lives have changed. So, that's what I'm most proud of.
Any things you would change now, looking back on the past four years?
I've been thinking about that a lot, and it's not something that necessarily I would change, but I wish I could change how it's perceived. The vote on taking the money away from Bojangles' [Coliseum] and moving it to affordable housing, my vote to continue to fund that [Bojangles' Coliseum] project from the bonds was because we made a commitment to the east side that the east side would have a facility over here that they could be proud of, because this is the gateway. Independence Boulevard is about to be done; this is going to be a changing area, where we sit now. So I wanted that to be done, plus I wanted that commitment to be honored and respected, and I voted that way. But my colleagues were talking about soccer. To this day, nobody has brought forth a soccer plan for us to vote on, but the way it's being framed is that I voted against affordable housing for soccer, and soccer was never on the agenda.
Anyone who knows me well, they know that I worked on the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, they know that I've actually worked really hard to get affordable housing bonds on the agenda. I just don't think that that is a way that people feel about me, but if I could change that perception of that vote, that's probably the one thing I would do.
Some people say the role of mayor in Charlotte is as a figurehead, so what made you decide you could effect change more as mayor than as a city council member?
The mayor has a veto to use very carefully when needed. The mayor has important powers increasing citizen engagement, which is one of the things that I believe is really important. We've got the same 35 committees that we've had, the same 350 appointments. In this community, with the lack of digital access, what are we going to do differently?
But in terms of substance, it is about leadership and vision. The idea of having a common vision by the council is really important and then acting on that vision. We've got to stop talking about these things and start acting. We can't have 50-year plans and 20-year plans and 10-year plans that sit on the shelf any longer. We've got to take something and do something for this community that makes them know that we care about them.
The people in this community feel like everything is either OK, or they're being left out, and we've got to bring everybody together. We've got to engage with the people that think, "Well, it's just OK. Everything's OK and I don't need government." But we've also got to really engage with the people that feel that they're left out. So that's the difference: a vision and leadership that's collaborative in order to get it done.
Another important role of mayor is the relationship with the police department, a role that's become all the more important since September 2016. How do you plan to build on the relationship you already have with CMPD Chief Kerr Putney to manage the balance between police leadership and the distrust some community members feel for the department?
I don't think it's a balance, I think it's an integration. During the Keith Lamont Scott protests, every morning we would have a 6 o'clock meeting and I sat with the chief and city officials and we talked about how we were going to work hard that day. I have the utmost respect and confidence that Chief Putney is going to be a true leader in this community, changing the way that our police officers are perceived, and working really well with the community.
The work that he's doing in Hidden Valley right now, I think, is a model for what we've got to do in other parts of the community that feel like they can't trust the police. And where we have trust in the police, we need to make sure that those folks understand that that trust comes with great value and we need to maintain that.
What's your biggest concern regarding CMPD?
I am really concerned that we have enough qualified officers to implement community policing again. That would be one of the very first things that I would ask the chief to really tell us. Do you have the people that you need, with the skill sets they need? I've heard some police departments are hiring mental health counselors. Some police department are doing social work.
I was with Shaun Corbett with Cops and Barbers on Friday, and we talked a lot about how they're taking the recruiting class at the police department, and if you're white, they're linking you with a young African-American about your age so that you can develop a dialogue. And the same thing in reverse. If you are an African-American recruit, we're finding someone in the community that would be white to make that partnership. We're talking about building relationships and understanding, and that's what they're doing now with the police department and Cops and Barbers: tangible change.
It's not just black and white, however. In the Latinx community, there is a disconnect that is often reinforced by a language barrier. As we saw with the recent police killing of Rueben Galindo, this can lead to tragic ends.
That is a huge issue in this community. There are over 100 languages spoken in our school system. The department has been sending officers to Mexico to learn Spanish immersion, basically.
We are using translators, as you saw with the Rueben Galindo 911 call, but other departments are taking those people with them when they go to those types of calls, and we need to look at that.
Another one of the bigger stories during the time you've served on council was HB2. The council stood strong in defense of the non-discrimination ordinance that led to HB2, but in the end the ordinance was repealed as part of a deal to repeal HB2, which is regretful. Was that truly necessary?
It was necessary if we wanted to have the repeal by the state of HB2. That's flat out. I participated in three opportunities to try to get a compromise with the state legislators and both governors, Pat McCrory and then Roy Cooper. It was that line that was drawn by the state to do that, and Gov. Cooper worked really hard to bring about that resolution, and I have great respect for him for doing that.
At the same time, that loss, I think, was something that was felt immensely by the people that worked so hard for many years, ever since 2012, to try to find a way so that when you walk into a Bank of America and you have these rights, why can't you have those same rights just as soon as you walk out the door, after you're on the sidewalks of our city. I think there's a lot of regret around it.
The lesson that I learned in this one is that we can't make it just a Charlotte-owned idea. Already we're fighting with our image with the state. When we go back — it's not if, but when we go back — for a non-discrimination ordinance, we've got to bind together with other cities in our state that see that same value of respect and dignity for everyone, who see that same value in developing our workforce with talented people, that same welcoming value, and then we can make a difference.
One issue you've spoken about passionately is walkability. So much of that conversation about transit tends to revolve around folks walking to a grocery store in South End or bike lanes in Plaza Midwood, but the real key issue around transit is for low-income people to be able to get jobs or get to the jobs they already have. How do we make that conversation more inclusive?
If a family can avoid having a second car or any car at all, that's $3,000. Imagine if you had $3,000 of disposable income. If we could get to a place where people are not working that second job to pay for childcare, and that is not a poverty issue, it is a middle class issue, we need to figure that out. So I really do support our bus system growing. I hope that we'll be able to do a light rail system in a way that's tactful for these communities, but I think our most valuable resource right now is to quickly move our bus system to a better routing, not just based on linear but radial routes.
And you know, the good thing about what you just said is that, while you can identify Plaza Midwood and South End, you have to remember Wilmore is right next to South End, and that's where people want to be able to walk as well, is in Wilmore. And Wilmore isn't gentrified. There might be a part of it that is, but we're talking about the inside of the 1960s development. When we were building those roads we put the sidewalk right up to the road, nobody really thought about it very much, but now we're going back and retrofitting.
The four corridors that we're working with are North Tryon, South Boulevard, Parkwood and we're also working on West Boulevard, where we built the road so far apart, and you can drive 55 miles per hour to get to the airport. Now we're talking about how do we bring crosswalks together, how do we create more of a calm boulevard effect versus inner city highway, which is what I call West Boulevard.
I'm glad you mentioned gentrification. In a city growing as fast as Charlotte, how can we do a better job of making sure displacement is not the inevitable result?
That's one of the most complex questions that we're dealing with right now. The tax assessor said this last week, he said, "There's no new dirt in Charlotte." And so we're going to have escalating land values.
In some communities, what they've done is they have created funds where if you are the person who bought your house at $70,000 and you're living there and then all of a sudden someone builds a $400,000 house next door and your values raise — we can take care of the house values, we can adjust for all that — but if your land values, mainly your tax bill, makes it unaffordable for you to live there, other communities have created private funds that allow you to draw down on that and pay the difference.
We have to figure out a way to keep people in their houses. It's not their fault that they chose to live here, worked hard all their lives, paid their taxes, voted for the bonds that made these improvements possible, for them to not be able to stay in their homes. So I'm going to work really hard and focus on that.