'You Can’t Be Afraid of Failure': Meet Charlotte's First Black Female Mayor

Vi Lyles made history when she was elected mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina in November. She talks to Broadly about how she hopes her win reminds young people, and especially young women, to be brave in the face of adversity.

by Kimberly Lawson
Dec 5 2017, 8:09pm

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On November 7, Vi Lyles became the first black woman elected as mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. According to the Charlotte Observer, Lyles received the most votes of any mayoral candidate in at least 30 years— and probably the city’s history.

The grandmother of two beat her Republican opponent, Kenny Smith, by more than 22,000 votes, with a final tally of 72,073. To celebrate the historic win, Lyles tells Broadly, she and her family went bowling one night. “We ate flatbread pizza, and it was family time,” she says. “We went bowling—you know, nighttime bowling? They turn up the music and they play Drake and all of that.”

After a regressive year under the Trump administration, Lyles’ victory is one that many hope is a part of a larger shift in who gets to hold these positions of power. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, before this year’s election, only 10 black women have been elected mayor in the 100 most populous cities since 2002.

But the election of Charlotte’s first black female mayor feels particularly long overdue. Although the city elected its first black mayor way back in 1983, African-Americans now make up about one-third of the city’s population. In 2012, Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, became majority-minority (meaning, people of color outnumber whites).

The Charlotte mayor job is largely ceremonial, and considered a part-time gig. Yet for Lyles, who was sworn in on Monday, it was a gig worth fighting for. She spent nearly 30 years working for the City of Charlotte as budget director and assistant city manager before being elected to the City Council in 2013.

Lyles says she’s honored to become the first African-American woman to be mayor in Charlotte, but her goal is to “be that collaborative mayor that brings together all of the people that need to be at the table” to create real change in the city. Children who are born into poverty in Charlotte are among the least likely to be able to make their way out. The seven-point plan she campaigned on included finding ways to level the playing field for job seekers who face barriers to employment, growing the number of affordable housing units in the city, and building trust between the community and the police department, especially in light of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and subsequent protests in 2016.

Lyles, who grew up in South Carolina with five brothers, says she’s qualified to take charge on such issues because her own perspective as a woman of color and single mother has largely been missing from these types of discussions. When she first moved to Charlotte in 1970, she was one of the first black students to attend what’s now Queens University. Feeling out of place, she told Creative Loafing, she tried to join a sorority to make friends. While every other white recruit was accepted, she and another black student were denied membership.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t understand why that mom doesn’t read to her kids,’ and I’ll say, ‘It’s because she’s on the bus two hours a day commuting to and from work and so it’s kind of hard,’” Lyles says. “Or, ‘Well I don’t understand why that kid isn’t getting to school on time.’ ‘Perhaps it’s because that child has to take the bus with her mom a long way to get to school.’ That’s the kind of thing that I think [will be impacted by] having somebody in the room that understands that perspective in life.”

"I believe it’s really important for us to understand our history so that we don’t take for granted circumstances of today that were created by policies and laws of yesterday.”

“Government does impact people’s lives,” Lyles continues. “We have had the opportunity to make some changes that have been really needed for a number of years, and we’re just beginning to provide the reasons why to so many people across our city.” Many don’t understand the very real-life disparities that continue to exist in Charlotte, and across the country, Lyles says. “I use the example that my dad was in the military and came home to the GI bill. And you could get an education, a house or a job preference, but men of color weren’t eligible for the house and educational benefit. It’s because the playing field was never leveled. I talk about that because I believe it’s really important for us to understand our history so that we don’t take for granted circumstances of today that were created by policies and laws of yesterday.”

Throughout her campaign, Lyles says she remained acutely aware of her status as a woman running for office, particularly when it came to language used in the media. One example she offers happened during the primaries: “On the radio,” she recalls, “a woman reporter said, ‘Well you know there’s been speculation that one of the candidates might drop out, and Vi Lyles could drop out and stay on the Council.’ But why couldn't Joel Ford drop out and stay in the Senate? So there are some gentle twists to things like that that you can see sometimes about being a woman in politics.”

But race matters too—Lyles readily admits that. In March, the Charlotte Observer published an editorial that analyzed how incumbent Mayor Jennifer Roberts might fare against her opponents in the primaries using North Carolina’s controversial anti-transgender law HB2 as a lens. The writers focused a great deal on two male candidates, and suggested Lyles lacked the leadership ability necessary to stand up in the face of state government overreach. Lyles’ daughter Aisha Alexander took issue with the op-ed, pointing out that the newspaper largely ignored Lyles’ long history of public service because of the dynamics of race.

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“This op-ed put my mother in a position black women find ourselves in all too often: our contributions diminished, unattributed and ignored; our leadership overshadowed and unacknowledged; saddled with the burden of proof, having to explain our achievements, credentials and qualifications,” Alexander wrote in a post on Medium. “When you reduce a 40-year record of tireless leadership in the Charlotte community to a sentence, it tells little black girls, that all they do is not enough to be taken seriously; to be considered formidable, you must be white, male or both.”

When I ask Lyles about backlash or criticism since her win, she brings up another recent op-ed from the Charlotte Observer. In it, the editorial writers suggest the city should change the way it elects city leaders because too many Democrats were elected to City Council. Lyles says the points the op-ed raised weren’t necessarily a criticism against her. Rather, she says, it was a question “that I wonder if they would have asked if a mainstream person would have won.”

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Regardless, Lyles says she knows her status as the first black woman mayor of Charlotte is important. “It’s a possibility you can present and show [to children] now,” she says. Her hope, she continues, is that her victory reminds young people, and especially young women, to be brave in the face of adversity. “I didn’t know if I could win in the primary, and I didn’t know if I could win the mayor’s job. You can’t be afraid of failure.”

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