Monday, October 3

She went from council’s youngest member to a frontrunner in Charlotte politics

Dimple Ajmera has risen through the ranks of Charlotte leadership, from her start as a housing authority commissioner in her late 20s to the youngest female city council member.

Most recently, the mom of a 14-month-old daughter (fittingly named Charlotte) was the top vote-getter in the July council race.

Yes, but: Ajmera fell short of earning the position of mayor pro tem, a role that by tradition should have been hers for the taking.

  • Historically, city council appoints the member with the frontrunner in the election to the position, but this time they unanimously chose the close runner-up, Braxton Winston, over Ajmera.
  • Of note: The mayor pro tem, the No. 2 elected leader on city council, leads council when the mayor is absent. They also act as a “de facto whip,” as WSOC notes, gauging where council members stand on certain issues.

Why it matters: Despite the loss, Ajmera’s victory is still historic: A female Asian-American immigrant turned out the most votes in a major U.S. city.

  • City officials reiterated a similar sentiment after the mayor pro tem decision, as reporters pressed on why the tradition was broken: This council, with two LGBTQ+ members and majority Black female representation, is untraditional.

Flashback: As a child, Ajmera remembers her parents were called by the “American Dream” — they successfully immigrated from Surat, India, to California when she was 16. It was a difficult age to balance culture shock, adopting the language, and fitting in at high school, she tells me at Undercurrent Coffee, the day after her mayor pro tem loss.

  • “I know many immigrants have this (view) that there is no going back,” she says. “It’s only moving forward.”
  • The family had little, besides a language barrier. One opportunity took them across the country to Durham for a motel job, where the family crammed into one of the rooms.
  • The high school yearbook team asked Ajmera about her goal for the summer. “All these kids had, ‘I’m gonna go here and vacation or whatever,’” she remembers. “And I said, ‘Well, my goal is to really be able to speak English.’”

She made it to college on multiple scholarships and was making a comfortable six figures by the time her finance career took her to Charlotte. Then, her father, who she says taught her the value of giving time, passed from a sudden heart attack. He was 55.

  • “That really made me question my purpose in life as I was writing an obituary,” she says. “What is it that I want to leave behind? What is going to be my legacy?”

In working to answer that question, Ajmera went into public service by joining the Charlotte Housing Authority. In 2016, she applied for John Autry’s District 5 council seat after he was elected to serve in the state house.

Her 2017 campaign was already an “uphill battle” as she faced an incumbent. Plus, she had a disadvantage: Some say she shouldn’t have been running.

  • After Ajmera was appointed to the District 5 job, she promised not to run for that seat because it’s seen as an unfair advantage, she says. Instead, she ran at large.
  • “I know that there are some that didn’t like me running at large either,” she says. “I think some of it was age. ‘Prove yourself,’ kind of thing.”

By the numbers: Ajmera came in fourth place in her first two at-large elections, trailing behind fellow Democrats.

  • By her third at-large race, this past summer, she raked in 46,751 votes. It was an unusually low turnout, the fewest votes she and others had ever received.
  • In between, she ran in the 2020 primaries for state treasurer and came close, but lost to Ronnie Chatterji as the Democratic nominee. She says her mission was to bring female representation to the male-dominant Council of State.

Ajmera is known to send birthday cards and personal notes to constituents, says councilman James “Smuggie” Mitchell. “It was the personal touches,” he says, “and Dimple has a great relationship across all demographics, and I think that’s what you saw in her success in the primary and general.”

  • But ultimately, Mitchell led the motion to appoint Winston over Ajmera as mayor pro tem, citing his growth from an activist to statesman and his co-chairing of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee.

What they’re saying: While Winston and Ajmera, both young Democrats, have similar supporters, the pro-tem decision had some questioning whether gender played a role.

“Why not her?” asks Jennifer Moxley, a local small business owner and supporter of Ajmera. “When we look at bias, it comes down to why not that person? Because biases lead people to believe things that people are not capable of, but they don’t have tangible proof. So why not Dimple for a position that she earned as the top vote getter from the voters?”

  • Moxley said Ajmera never shies away from having conversations about being a woman and mother. That’s a reason she supports her — but she also believes it’s held against her.

The intrigue: The new council held a behind-closed-doors meeting ahead of the mayor pro tem vote. Ajmera wasn’t in attendance. (Since several members were not sworn in yet, it did not break open meeting laws. But the city attorney warned the Democrats of potential pushback and negative perceptions, according to an email obtained by Axios.)

  • The night of the swearing-in ceremony and subsequent mayor pro tem decision, members weren’t forthcoming about the meeting. Mitchell told reporters the decision was an “internal process” and Winston “overwhelmingly” had the support.

“I wanted to make sure that we were unified,” Ajmera said after the pro tem vote, explaining why she shut down a substitute motion to appoint her. “I did not want to put my personal motivation over the work of the people.”

What’s next: Council has moved past the mayor pro tem vote, and Ajmera said the next term, only 15 months long, will be “laser-focused” on issues like public transportation in particular.

  • She has yet to say whether she’s running again for council or mayor next year. After talking it over with her family, she’d have to decide by July.
  • “I know this is a typical answer that you get from an elected official,” she tells me. “No one will ever say whether they’re running or not. I think it just comes down to, you just have to wait and see.”

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