CLT Politics is a new weekly analysis of political news and events in Charlotte and across the region published Thursday by The Charlotte Observer.
City Councilman Tariq Bokhari formed a slate of Republicans to bolster the GOP’s ranks in city government, but he’ll need to worry about winning his own competitive election in a city that’s becoming increasingly blue.
Bokhari is up against Democrat Stephanie Hand, a United Methodist clergy member and former airport manager who won the south Charlotte Democratic primary handily. His slate includes himself, at-large candidates, a mayoral candidate and two other district candidates.
We’re a little over a month away from the Charlotte municipal election — yes, there is an election this summer — and their race stands out as maybe the most interesting and competitive city-wide.
The ballot holds other races that are worth watching, of course, but with Bokhari being the only city Republican up for reelection, it’s worth looking at the two candidates: What are their biggest priorities, and what are their plans for the city’s most pressing problems.
First, a quick look at the numbers
To better understand the race, let’s take a quick look at the district and past election results.
District 6 is in south Charlotte in the areas including SouthPark and Starmount. About 121,000 people live there, and about 90,000 of them are registered voters.
The district is 70% white, 11% Black and 11% Hispanic. Of the registered voters, 30% are Democrats, 29% are Republicans and 41% are unaffiliated or affiliated with another other party, according to the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections data.
Democratic operative Dan McCorkle said the math gives Hand a good shot. Over time, he thinks the district is all but guaranteed to swing blue.
“It’s hard to beat an incumbent with money, McCorkle said, “but this could be our time.”
Bokhari came into office in 2017, winning the general election with about 7,500 more votes than his Democratic competitor. He won again in 2019 with 59% of the vote, or about 3,350 more votes than the Democrat.
Only about 8,500 people voted in the Democratic primary in May. Hand won 4,550 votes. Two competitors split the rest.
We can’t say for sure how many people will vote in July, but it’s an off-year for municipal elections and it’s in the summer. Turnout could be in the single-digits.
Asked about his chances for reelection, Bokhari said he believes he still has strong support among his constituents — plenty to get him through July. Still, he acknowledged that recent history points away from Republican representation in the long run.
“If the trend keeps occurring like it is right now, we’re in the final few iterations of any Republicans being able to win in this town,” he said.
Moderate voters might fear that sole-party leadership could lead to a lack of debate, a lack of pushing the boundaries, he said, possibly pushing the trend back in the other direction.
Hand said her ability to win rides a lot on turnout. If enough people come out to vote, she believes she has the edge.
She acknowledged that a July 26 municipal election this year doesn’t bode well for turnout, but said her message — pragmatic leadership and prioritizing community voices ahead of city action — will resonate.
Let’s look at some issues
If you want to hear the candidates respond to a wide variety of topics, I’d recommend watching the Black Political Caucus’ latest forum on their Facebook page. You should also read Hand’s Q&A with The Charlotte Observer that we published ahead of the primary.
I asked the candidates about zoning, making housing affordable in Charlotte, and their priorities on transit. Let’s dig in:
▪ Affordable housing and zoning: The candidates differ on this issue, but both point to economic mobility as a big part of the problem — and one that’s overlooked.
Hand said creating denser housing alone “does not solve the affordable housing problem.”
“The root of the problem is education, access, better paying jobs, and then housing,” she said. Hand told me building more places to live plays a part, but she sees a broader approach of educating Charlotteans for high-paying jobs, getting the business community to increase wages and having enough homes to go around.
As for creating townhomes and triplexes in areas that are zoned for single-family homes, Hand said she would take each project on a case-by-case basis and rely heavily on what each neighborhood wants.
“I want to ensure that we uphold the integrity of neighborhoods, however we do have an affordable housing problem in the city and we don’t have enough housing,” she said. “There are concessions on both sides.”
During the Black Political Caucus forum, Bokhari said Charlotte’s Democratic leaders have thrown money at the affordable housing problem without doing enough to address incomes.
“The problem is upward mobility,” he told the Black Political Caucus. “Until they start to think about that as the outcome, they’re going to continue to fail.”
He’s also been a vocal opponent of dissolving single-family-only zoned areas. Proponents say increasing density in those neighborhoods to meet demand could reduce overall housing prices, but Bokhari worries it could hurt lower-income parts of the city.
Bokhari told me more density in south Charlotte would lead to more of an annoyance than anything else because the land is so expensive that it’s not ripe for big development. In neighborhoods where property values are lower, though, it could have more drastic implications. Developers, he worries, will buy up huge swaths of those neighborhoods where many resident rent, demolish the homes and build units that locals can’t afford.
“It does absolutely have the potential to gentrify and displace neighborhoods and ultimately have a terrible potential impact on affordability,” he said.
If the data proves otherwise, Bokhari told me he’s open to changing his mind. So far, though, he said the city has done far too little prep work to move forward hastily.
▪ Transit: I asked the candidates about their visions for the future of transportation in Charlotte, and how broken promises to extend the light rail north combined with complaints from CATS employees about wages and working conditions factor into their thinking.
Bokhari said CATS needs a “leadership overhaul.”
“We can’t do anything until we form a solid foundation in our CATS organization,” he said. He also said the city has to make good on its promise to north Mecklenburg to run a light rail line out there.
His vision is to create a City Council committee that examines how transit will look in 20 to 30 years and start building toward that future. That means “totally deprioritize” the Silver Line of the light rail and the Gold Line streetcar, he said. Instead, plan for autonomous vehicles and creating a 5G network that can sustain them, he said.
Rather than spend billions on more light rail lines, he advocates for spending on roads and sidewalks that allow for safe pedestrian transit and autonomous vehicles.
Hand, a former operations and general manager in the airport industry, pointed to the lack of transportation from the airport as an example of how far Charlotte is behind.
“We don’t have direct, fluid transportation to and from the sixth busiest airport in the world,” she said.
Hand favors a mix of options for residents: cars, buses, light rail, bikes, feet and more. While she said the light rail “has its place,” she said the system is very expensive and that, if the city does want to build it out, officials must make sure the projects are worth it for taxpayers.
“We must continue to have numerous modes of transportation,” she said, without being “taxed to death.”
The election is July 26. Early voting opens July 7.