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Two New Candidates Appear At Mayoral Forum

The plan had been for three Democrats and a Republican to show up to Tuesday night's forum, but that's not what happened.

First, Republican City Councilman Kenny Smith said he wouldn't attend, telling organizers he was away on a business trip. Then, hours before the forum was set to start, Democrat Joel Ford canceled. He's a state senator and was getting kept late in Raleigh as part of ongoing budget talks.

But just as the two candidates dropped, two others stepped in.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE-FM
Lucille Puckett

Democrat Lucille Puckett announced her candidacy mere minutes before the forum was to start, telling the audience that she had been contemplating whether to run right up to the moment she walked in the door. Her decision was so last minute, organizers with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, which hosted the event, didn't have time to print her a name card. Instead, they hastily wrote her one with a black sharpie.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE-FM
Constance Partee Johnson

Puckett, who has experience serving on Charlotte's Housing Authority, has previously run for both Charlotte mayor and CMS school board, losing both times.

She lost a son to gun violence last year and said the experience motivated her to again seek the mayor's office.

"Families are losing their sons, their fathers, their families left and right," she said, "It's time for something to be done."

The other new candidate was Democrat Constance Partee Johnson, who formally announced her candidacy two days prior to the forum. Johnson is the owner and publisher of a publication called City Political.

"I'm running because I feel there is a need for more compassion, more unity, more understanding of what Charlotte needs," she said, "I believe we're experiencing great loss in Charlotte that's unnecessary."

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE-FM
Jennifer Roberts

Previously, Johnson has unsuccessfully run for state senator, chair of the state Democratic party, and a position on city council in Salisbury.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE-FM
Vi Lyles

Joining the two new candidates at the table were Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and Mayor Jennifer Roberts. Over the course of the forum, the candidates were asked a variety of questions by moderator de'Angelo Dia. They largely agreed with one another in opposing House Bill 2 and supporting raises for teachers, but they differed on other issues, such as whether Charlotte is or is not a sanctuary city.

"I don't consider Charlotte to be a sanctuary city," said Puckett, "Charlotte is a sanctuary city. I would support that in - if a person is right, than they need protecting."

Puckett did not elaborate on how she would determine who is a right or a wrong person. Lyles, meanwhile, struck a nuanced tone in her response.

"I would say when you're in these kinds of forums, your language really needs to be very precise," Lyles said, "because sanctuary cities are not really defined anywhere. So we can't be something that we don't know what it is."

Lyles said the city needed to be a "welcoming city" without violating federal or state laws, a point that Roberts agreed with.

"Our state has passed a law that prohibits Charlotte from being a sanctuary city, and if we claim ourselves to be such, they will levy a huge fine on us that will cost taxpayers. So we are not a sanctuary city - in case the legislature is listening," Roberts said, "But we are a welcoming city."

Johnson, similarly, said she did not think Charlotte was a sanctuary city, but her answer was muddled and confusing.

"I would feel uncomfortable bringing immigrants into our city right now," she said, "We are a welcoming city, but I see a huge influx of - or immigration of - people from India. And I believe that's due to a technological need for the city."

The event drew a diverse audience of around 100 that included immigrants. One was Charles Mandizha, who moved to North Carolina from Zimbabwe several years ago. He said he hasn't yet made up his mind who to vote for, but he found Puckett to be the most impressive candidate of the night.

"She had some passion," he said, "I think I identify with some of her experiences - you know, economic hardships. I have the feeling that she might be the person who's going to find solutions."

But it was Roberts and Lyles who most impressed Sandra Abraham, who works in the city's banking industry.

"I think both Jennifer Roberts and Vi Lyles were definitely the standouts," she said, "I don't really feel like there's much else competition that I've seen this evening based on - not just where they stand on issues, but their preparedness to be mayor."

With the addition of Puckett and Johnson, five Democrats now face each other in the upcoming Sept. 12 primary. The winner will likely face Kenny Smith, who so far is the only Republican candidate.

Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal