A slate of Republicans, including a group of young, first-time candidates, are hoping to turn the tide of Charlotte City Council with a red wave of their own this July. A Republican has not been elected to an at-large council seat in Charlotte since 2009. The council has a 9-2 Democratic supermajority and has for more than a decade.
Under the current city council a lot has changed in the Queen City. Crime has increased. Total homicides in 2009 were 56, compared to 118 in 2020 and 98 in 2021. Affordable housing is hard to come by. About 1% of area rental apartments are priced under $1,000 per month in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte.
Home purchase prices have also increased by almost 20%, and the city’s public transportation, the CATS bus system and LYNX light rail, are widely criticized for inefficiency. Some can face riding the bus for 1.5 hours to get across town.
Those on the Republican slate are campaigning on a message to tackle these issues and make Charlotte a better place to live. The slate includes mayoral candidate Stephanie de Sarachaga-Bilbao; Kyle Luebke, Charlie Mulligan, David Merrill, and Carrie Olinski, all at-large candidates; James Bowers for District 3, Mary Lineberger Barnett for District 2, and incumbent Tariq Bokhari, who is running for re-election in District 6. David Michael Rice is also running as a Republican at-large candidate in the May 17 primary. The top four at-large candidates will face off against Democrat contenders in the city council election on July 26.
Bokhari put the slate together over the last nine months because he said Democrat Mayor Vi Lyles and Democrat city council members have not been meeting the needs of city residents.
“They voted themselves pay raises, voted to extend the at-large and mayor race beyond when they needed to, even though the General Assembly gave them the authority to have it in November, voted to abolish single-family zoning, and threw the police under the bus by championing ‘defund the police,’” Bokhari stated. “The real reason they refused [to hold the at-large and mayor race in November] is they knew they had just done some very unpopular things [abolish single-family zoning, giving themselves raises] expecting to have more time to have people forget. There is this litany of examples, not just of not meeting needs but also proactively doing things that logical, regular voters are kind of scratching their heads over.”
He says he would love Charlotte to become a part of it if they were to win seats in the city council election.
“It’s going to give us not just an opportunity but make us a national bellwether for what’s going to ultimately happen in November. If we could pick up a couple of seats, let alone my moonshot goal, which is to achieve a Republican majority by sweeping the four at-large seats, that will be national news without a doubt,” he said.
Bokhari is working with the NCGOP to establish the Urban Defense Fund, which will help with advertising and mailers.
“Rarely has the state looked at Charlotte as anything but just a liberal haven, and they had given up on it,” said Bokhari. “If we give up on those, we will leave all these things unchecked. That message is starting to be heard. I think and hope we may be able to pull off a moonshot here.”
Luebke is a lawyer who practices financial services law and serves as president of the Log Cabin Republicans of North Carolina, a Republican organization representing the LGBTQ+ community.
“I felt for so long that I had to be a Democrat, but being a Democrat constantly conflicted with my conservative principles,” he said. “Cities are where our economic engines are. If we sacrifice our cities to the Left, then we are sacrificing a very significant portion of America, both from an economic standpoint and just from a demographic standpoint.”
Luebke wants to focus the campaign on issues that appeal to voters in rural and urban areas: safe communities, good-paying jobs, affordable housing. and reliable transportation.
Luebke, Mulligan, Merrill, and Olinski met recently with the Charlotte Firefighters Association, who said the city won’t meet with them and hear their concerns, including issues with recruitment.
“You can have all the great policy in the world, but unless you have rhetoric where people are valued and they feel as if they have a place in a city or in their workplace, you aren’t going to attract individuals to come work for you,” Luebke said.
Olinski, a physician’s assistant in functional medicine, was inspired to run because of her 18-month-old daughter.
“It got me thinking that if I want to see those changes for her, I have to start now because things don’t turn around in a day,” she said. “It’s not just for her but all the kids. The kids are the future of Charlotte. We need to give them our best shot. Also, I feel that this is an open door from the Lord, so I am following Him in that.”
Merrill warns that throwing money at the affordable housing problem isn’t going to solve anything, and a key opportunity is cleaning up the way housing subsidies and vouchers are managed. That would improve how fast landords are paid.
“We have to take a multi-prong approach to fix our housing affordability,” he said.
The slate of young Republicans worries conservatives are quick to cede urban areas to Democrats, and Charlotte is just one example. Mulligan, an executive with Carolina Fintech Hub, pointed to his brief stay in a $4,000-per-month, one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. He said he was surrounded by crime, sirens constantly blaring, stepping over needles and human feces.
“We cannot abandon our cities as conservatives and people who care about the social welfare of our communities and urban centers,” he said.
N.C. municipal elections are scheduled for July 26, the same day as runoffs from the May 17 primaries. A runoff might increase voter turnout for the municipal races, something these candidates hope would turn the election their way.