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After Bank of America Stadium vote, the Charlotte mayoral race is on

Two women at the dais
City of Charlotte
Council members Dimple Ajmera (left) and Tiawana Brown.

A version of this news analysis originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

The race is not to run against Mayor Vi Lyles. But to succeed her, whenever she decides not to run again.

That may be next year. It may be in 2027.

But Monday's City Council vote to spend $650 million to renovate Bank of America Stadium was the unofficial campaign opening for several council members, even if we don’t know when that campaign will be.

There are insiders, like Malcolm Graham, who shepherded the deal as chair of the economic development committee.

And there is the outside lane, which was claimed by Dimple Ajmera. She repeatedly questioned how the city handled the deal, while not necessarily opposing the idea of subsidizing David Tepper.

Before we look ahead to that race, there was a moment during last Monday's council meeting that encapsulated the three-week stadium funding debate — and people's frustration with how the city handled it.

It also offered a preview for how the next competitive mayoral race will play out.

More 'truthiness' from the city

It started with council member Marjorie Molina, who voted for the deal and has consistently been a cheerleader for helping Tepper. During council discussion, she tried to spin the vote as just an incremental step in the deal — not as a full green light for city staff to sign a contract.

Molina cast it as special information — “something I have seen” — that she had received and wanted to make sure the public was clued in.

Molina asked Tracy Dodson, Charlotte's economic development director, to come to the podium.

“Today’s decision is an initial policy decision,” Molina said in a half-question, half-statement to Dodson. “This (vote) isn’t saying that the council will not have another touchpoint with the activity of what we’re reviewing today.”

By touchpoint, Molina seemed to be saying council members could still adjust the deal with Tepper Sports and Entertainment.

Dodson did not dissuade her from that.

“You do have a second vote in the future,” Dodson said to an audience that was not only council members but the public as well. “You will vote on the financing. We said we could bring you back the documents before you voted on the financing so you had them in hand.”

This answer is what I would call “truthiness,” to borrow a term from Stephen Colbert.

A truthful answer to the public and council members would have been: “You do have a second vote in the future — but on the financing. Let me be clear, if you vote yes tonight, the city will enter into this agreement with Tepper Sports and Entertainment. The contract will be signed. You will not be able to adjust the terms, or we would be in breach of that contract.”

(During the Panthers negotiations, Dodson has often dabbled in "truthiness," or even untruths. One example is when she characterized the results of an online survey about the stadium as mostly neutral with a bit of concern. In fact, the results were overwhelmingly against the proposal.)

At the end of the meeting, Ajmera wanted to ask a question about whether council members would actually have a legitimate chance to change the contract after their vote.

Mayor Lyles didn’t want her to speak, citing the rules governing the meeting and which motions were on the floor. The mayor supports the $650 million deal.

Tariq Bokhari, who voted for the $650 million deal, also was against allowing Ajmera’s question, saying: “We are done. We are done.”

Ajmera shot back: “Mr. Bokhari, with all due respect, you don’t have the floor. If you don’t want to listen, leave the floor.”

He did.

Finally Ajmera was allowed to directly ask city attorney Patrick Baker her question.

“Is this financing vote going to be a meaningful opportunity to revisit the contract?” she asked.

Baker responded, with all truth and no truthiness: “It would not be a meaningful opportunity to revisit the contract.”

The deal passed 7-3.

Freedom to vote no

Ajmera, Renee Johnson and Tiawana Brown voted no. Victoria Watlington — another possible mayoral candidate — wasn't there for the key vote, and hasn't said why she missed the meeting.

She gave a statement to WSOC’s Joe Bruno in which she said: “There are a lot of things to consider with this deal, and I am encouraged to hear so many voices across our city being represented ... I share many of my colleagues’ concerns about ensuring we are accountable for and aware of the contract we will enter into in behalf of the City, so am glad additional steps in the process are understood at this point.”

(Her statement appears to suggest she believes, like Molina, that City Council can still weigh in on the deal.)

In the past, council members have felt Ajmera is prone to grandstanding. And with the Tepper deal certain to pass, it could be argued that naysayers had an opportunity to score political points, without the risk of actually torpedoing the stadium deal and sparking a crisis with the city’s crown jewel pro-sports franchise.

A similar dynamic happened in 2018, when there was a rock-solid six votes to host the 2020 Republican National Convention. That allowed five council members — including Ajmera — to vote no. Again, risk-free.

Such votes haven’t made Ajmera particularly popular among her colleagues, and she couldn’t build enough support in 2022 to be named mayor pro tem.

But Monday's no votes by Ajmera, Johnson and Brown was a reasonable and arguably necessary critique of a process in which council members said they were not given enough information or time, and felt managed by city staff.

Ed Driggs, another council member, complained publicly about the process but ultimately voted yes.

Back to the mayor’s race

Whenever Lyles decides not to run again, there could be a huge field in the Democratic primary: Stadium deal supporters Graham, James Mitchell and Dante Anderson.

And stadium deal skeptics, like Ajmera and perhaps Watlington, who voted against the city’s 2040 Plan, which eliminated zoning that only allows for single-family homes.

And possible wild card candidates, who aren’t currently on City Council. All of them will be for affordable housing, for the environment, for transit.

But the stadium vote is a rare issue in which there will be a difference.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.