Vi Lyles: Because I Love This City

One of her guiding principles, says Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles ’74, is inclusion. (Travis Dove for The Washington Post)

On a quiet morning in her 15th-floor office overlooking uptown Charlotte, Vi Lyles ’74 (MPA) took a break from the demands of her job as mayor of North Carolina’s largest city and marveled at her improbable journey.

She spoke of her great-grandmother, who was born into slavery, became educated and made sure each of her five children got an education, too.

She spoke of her father, who after burying fallen comrades in World War II returned home to find that black veterans did not qualify for the same benefits from the GI Bill as white veterans.

And she reflected on her own life in the segregated South. With a new master’s degree in public administration from Carolina, she took a job in 1975 at the N.C. Justice Academy in Salemburg. She said that the town diner had never before served a black person indoors and, when forced to integrate, switched from ceramic to paper plates.

Those and other moments help inform Lyles’ policies, though sometimes in unexpected ways. In early 2018, seven months after taking office, the lifelong Democrat invited Republicans to bring their national convention to Charlotte in 2020, prompting a #ByeLyles and #OneTermVi backlash.

To residents upset by her decision and worried that violent protests will erupt as they did during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Lyles has this to say: “When you’re elected mayor, you’re not elected just to serve one segment of the population. I have a point of view, but I have to respect the others who live here. If you’ve ever been in a minority, you understand that.”

One of her guiding principles, Lyles said, is inclusion.

“She’s courageous,” said Kathryn Heath ’71, a leadership coach and author of The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power for Women Leaders. “She’s not afraid to wade into really murky, dirty water. She has a bold vision for Charlotte, and she gets people to follow her.”

“There’s some things that are big on our agenda. It’s trust. It’s jobs. It’s giving people a decent place to live so they can work and raise a family without fear. That is our commitment. No more talk. It is time for some action.”

–Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles ’74

As Charlotte’s first female African American mayor. Lyles brought a range of experience to the office — nonprofit executive, council member and nearly 30 years as a city employee, including as budget director and assistant city manager. She’s known as “the process queen” because of her strategic approach to problem-solving. She tends to be methodical — some would say overly cautious — anticipating consequences before taking steps.

Counterbalancing that serious, deliberate side of her personality is genuine warmth. Over the years, she has cultivated a network of allies, political and personal, whom she turned to in campaigns and in periods of profound sadness. She raised her son and daughter in Charlotte but also buried two husbands.

Her second husband encouraged her to run for office even as he confronted pancreatic cancer. It was 2011. “He got so sick, I couldn’t even manage to move him upstairs so he could see the sky,” she said. But over time, as his health improved, he began tinkering again on his 1940 Buick, and he urged her to pursue a passion.

At the time, city council members were embroiled in a contentious debate over streetcar funding, which then-Mayor Anthony Foxx supported. Lyles felt certain she could help Foxx win the vote if she were on the council. Her decision to run then — and later for mayor — stemmed from her confidence in her ability as a skilled facilitator.

Despite her husband’s diagnosis, she said the campaign’s early days were a happy time. They had long talks, and he cheered her on. Then, as the election approached, his health deteriorated.

On the day of the primary, he died.

“It was hard,” she said. “We were both very prepared, so that made it easier.” She paused for a moment, searching for words, and then added: “It’s quite an amazing story when I think about it.”

In 2016, when she decided to run for mayor, the stakes for the city were much higher than streetcar funding. Charlotte was reeling from violent protests after a police officer shot and killed an African American man while he waited for his son’s school bus. On the second night of unrest, a protester was shot and killed by another civilian, prompting then-Gov. Pat McCrory to send in the National Guard.

Every day at 6 a.m., Lyles met with other city leaders to discuss how to approach what was to come over the next 24 hours after violence from the previous night. All the while, she contemplated long-term solutions to underlying racial and economic inequities. “The shooting was like the spark that ignited the fire,” she said. “But the logs were systemic issues that we had in our city — housing and jobs.” By week’s end, she had crafted a seven-point plan for “a more equitable city,” including building affordable housing and increasing the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour.

The following week, residents erupted in anger at a council meeting, shouting down then-Mayor Jennifer Roberts ’82 and other elected officials. After three chaotic hours, Viola Alexander Lyles held up her hands, palms forward, and pleaded for quiet. With five brothers and a son who are African American, she told the protesters that she shared their fear.

“I raised two children in an environment that is black and African American and … I want you to know I’m sitting here because I love this city, and I love the people of this city. I love each and every one of you.”

She then made them a promise. “There’s some things that are big on our agenda. It’s trust. It’s jobs. It’s giving people a decent place to live so they can work and raise a family without fear. That is our commitment. No more talk. It is time for some action.”

Anger turned to applause.

A year later, voters elected Lyles mayor by an overwhelming margin. Since then, she has won approval for $50 million in housing bonds, among other initiatives. Despite lingering resentment over the GOP convention, she was elected to a second term in October with no major challenger.

“She’s done a good job,” said former Mayor Harvey Gantt, who admires Lyles for standing up to her party to welcome the GOP convention — and, with it, exposure and revenue — to Charlotte. “She is not an out-front, look-at-me type of leader. She’s someone who’s going to try to build consensus and, for that, she at times takes some heat.”

—Elizabeth Leland ’76


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