Voting had barely ended in Tuesday’s Democratic primary when supporters of Charlotte City Council member Renee Perkins Johnson began trickling into a University City-area restaurant where an election-night watch party was starting to take shape.
Some of the early attendees wore SEIU shirts, indicating their membership in the Service Employees International Union, which had endorsed Johnson. Others were members of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which had also thrown its weight behind the two-term incumbent.
In a city where municipal elections typically offer little suspense, this race, they all knew, would be closer than most. Johnson’s primary challenger, Wil Russell, had won the backing of Vi Lyles, Charlotte’s popular mayor, and two former City Council members. The Charlotte Observer, in issuing its own endorsement of Russell, had touted his “impressive breadth of experience,” including his service on the Unified Development Ordinance advisory committee and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, as well as the board of directors of Sustain Charlotte.
“While Johnson is a passionate advocate for what she believes is best for her district, Russell offers a perspective that the current council lacks — and needs,” the Observer said.
Those high-level endorsements had not been lost on Johnson supporters who gathered at Harold’s Chicken & Ice Bar to watch the primary votes come in. Some in the room even murmured that they had seen Lyles earlier that day, out at the precincts, campaigning for Russell, who works for a real estate development firm that builds affordable housing.
Development has become a hot-button issue for voters in some of the University City neighborhoods that Johnson was elected to serve. Most recently, Johnson stood in the way of a city plan to locate a Greyhound bus terminal in her district. More significantly, she opposed a provision in the city’s 2040 plan that allows duplexes and triplexes in neighborhoods once zoned strictly for single-family homes.
In an August interview with public radio station WFAE (90.7-FM), Lyles suggested that Johnson is too often hostile to new development.
“I feel like we need more experience on the dais around some of the issues that we have got to address over the next couple of years,” Lyles was quoted as saying.
At Tuesday night’s watch party, Johnson’s campaign manager, Monifa Drayton, said Johnson is simply representing her 4th District voters, who, she said, have legitimate concerns about growth and density.
As votes began trickling in late Tuesday, Johnson told QCity Metro she was “cautiously optimistic” with early results showing her with 53% of the ballots cast but with most of the District 4 precincts unreported. In addition to Russell, a second Democratic challenger for her seat on City Council, Olivia Scott, was also a factor. Johnson would need one vote more than 50% to avoid a primary runoff.
“Can I talk with you afterward?” Johnson said when asked about the mayor’s endorsement of her opponent. “I’m still still watching it and kinda nervous, you know.”
When the last votes were counted, Johnson had retained her council seat, winning 52.27% of the 4,023 votes cast in her district. Russell came in second with 40.94%. Scott finished a distant third at 6.79%.
As victory cheers erupted inside Harold’s Chicken & Ice Bar, Johnson told her supporters that her victory served as proof that “God was in this.”
“District Four set the standard,” she said, “and I am honored to serve such smart and informed voters.”
From somewhere in the crowd, a supporter shouted: “Has the mayor called to congratulate you?”
“I don’t have my phone,” Johnson said.
In a later interview with QCity Metro, Johnson said District voters want her to “continue to be authentic and continue to advocate for them.”
“District Four voters have given me a mandate to represent them,” she added. “…They don’t want anyone whose votes are going to be predictable and controllable. They have validated my leadership, and I appreciate it.”
Not far away in University City, at an election night event hosted by Lyles, Russell thanked his voters and supporters while conceding defeat, according to The Charlotte Observer.
“We still have a lot to give, and we’re not done yet,” the Observer quoted him as saying. “We got to keep working, keep fighting. I can’t wait to get back to the community and do some good things.”
Lyles, meanwhile, said she was pleased that Russell had done as well as he had in the Democratic primary, according to the Observer.
“We need more young people,” the Observer quoted her as saying. “We need more people with a lot of expertise to participate in our governance. And so I will always try to promote people that do a great job that are willing to do it.”
With no Republican challenger in the November election, Johnson will return for a third term on Charlotte City Council.