As neighbors, Jennifer Roberts and Dan Clodfelter could hardly be closer. Just three doors separate their homes in the Elizabeth neighborhood.
But the two candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral runoff are far apart in their leadership styles, and they bring different leadership records.
Outgoing and energetic, Roberts throws herself into the task at hand, whether it’s running for mayor or leading the charge for a community nonprofit. If elected, she says she would “spend all my time focused on the duties of mayor.”
But as a former chairwoman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners, she had a bumpy record overseeing a county government often tangled in sideshows and scandal.
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Clodfelter is more deliberate, a “workhorse” more comfortable offstage than on. But appointed mayor last year, the longtime legislator is cognizant of how he came to office. As a result, he has struck some as too cautious, reluctant to take the lead on big issues.
If elected, he says that would change, and promises new initiatives in transportation and other areas.
The winner of Tuesday’s runoff will face Republican Edwin Peacock in November’s general election.
Here’s a look at the leadership records of each Democratic candidate – and the job they’re trying to win.
Limited powers, loud voice
By charter, Charlotte has a “weak mayor.” A professional city manager makes sure streets are patrolled and trash is collected. Though mayors can veto measures passed by the City Council, they only vote in case of a tie.
But the mayor has a bully pulpit. It’s a part-time post that, since the seven terms of former Republican Mayor Pat McCrory, has evolved into a virtually full-time job.
“Leadership is about making sure that the voices of the community are heard,” says former Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat who now heads the U.S. Transportation Department. “It’s a city of 800,000 people who want a seat at the table.”
Whether campaigning or in the community, few people have more energy than Roberts. Just ask the people at International House, whose board she heads.
“When she came on board, we could not have been more excited, because Jennifer is so energetic. She is so passionate,” says Johnelle Causwell, the agency’s citizen diplomacy program director. “She has really raised International House’s profile in the community. She’s everywhere.”
Roberts says she would bring that energy as a salesman for the city.
“My skill is that I am a great listener,” she says. “I go out into the community and seek community input. And I’m able to listen to a number of different perspectives.”
‘The go-to guy’
During 15 years in the General Assembly, Clodfelter sponsored or co-sponsored nearly 1,300 bills. But a lot of his work was behind the scenes on issues such as tax policy and ethics reform.
“He was the go-to guy for the complicated, sometimes controversial matters,” says Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Concord Republican and a Davidson College friend. “He frankly led with his intellect and his ability to explain difficult or complex matters in a simple way people could follow.”
From heading his neighborhood association to chairing Senate committees to being mayor, Clodfelter says he leads by listening.
“One of the least utilized but most important leadership skills is to listen first,” he says. “You can’t possibly craft a solution if you’re not listening first. It’s enabled me to find ways to bridge differences and to build sort of agreement among people.”
Roberts, 55, served on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners for eight years and chaired it for five, through 2011.
She takes credit for maintaining the county’s AAA bond rating during the recession, boosting teacher pay, putting the county on a “debt diet” and helping land thousands of new jobs. She also helped lead a campaign that raised $8 million for a new domestic violence shelter that opened in 2012.
“When she gets something in her mind, she’s willing to stand up for it,” says Republican commissioner Bill James.
But Roberts presided at a contentious time.
“I like Jennifer personally very much; she was a very good relationship-builder,” says former Republican commissioner Karen Bentley. “My concern revolved around her ability to make difficult decisions. She may be challenged with difficult decisions and managing through conflict.”
In 2009, a study of the Giving Tree charity found lax fiscal controls in the Department of Social Services. In 2010, a report found the county failed to properly oversee a nonprofit that handled more than $1.7 million in federal money.
And in 2011, property owners flooded the county with complaints about a botched property revaluation. Roberts defended the process. But a different set of commissioners launched a new revaluation in 2012, shortly after she stepped down.
A lot of blame for it fell on County Manager Harry Jones, who would be fired in 2013, a few months after Roberts left the board. But Roberts and other commissioners got their share.
“I struggled with the prior board’s leadership,” says Democrat Pat Cotham, who chaired the board in 2013. “They didn’t address these serious problems.”
Roberts says she would have handled some things differently, short of firing Jones.
“I should have held Harry accountable to being responsive to the public sooner,” she says. “And I think there are some things that could have been more forthcoming with information sooner, but I’m proud of the results that the county achieved.”
Roberts was ousted as the board’s leader midway through her final term when Democrat Harold Cogdell teamed up with Republican commissioners in 2011.
Facing a packed council chamber last spring, Clodfelter spoke about an issue that was roiling the city: a controversial anti-discrimination ordinance that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to protected categories. He reminded the audience that the council had debated the same issue 23 years ago.
“Earlier today, I read what I said 23 years ago, and I still stand by it,” he told them. “So I don’t need to belabor that further this evening.”
To some, it was a missed opportunity.
“Dan has had a reluctant style of leadership since he’s been with the council,” says Mayor Pro Tem Michael Barnes, who lost this month’s mayoral primary. “He certainly defers to the council a lot, which we appreciate. He doesn’t take charge very often.”
Republican Kenny Smith, who backs Peacock, says Clodfelter “has an incredibly strong understanding of municipal government (and) how the city runs. I expected him to be maybe a little more out-front than he’s been.”
Clodfelter came to office in 2014 at a trying time. Former Mayor Patrick Cannon had resigned after a federal corruption probe. He says he’s been conscious of how he came to office.
“They need to understand that I didn’t have an electoral mandate coming into office,” he says. “I was appointed in circumstances where my job was not to rock the boat. That’s part of the reason I want to do this on my own.”
Other council members praise a leadership style that helps sort through complicated issues.
“His ability to dissect the intricacies of sometimes very complicated policy is a real benefit and help to council,” says Democrat John Autry.
With a mandate from voters, Clodfelter says he’d be more aggressive in pursuing new initiatives, just as he did in Raleigh.
“Sometimes the hard work is the front-end work, not the day when you announce the ribbon cutting or the groundbreaking,” he says. “At that point, the hard work’s been done.”
Mayoral candidates to debate live on ‘Charlotte Talks’
Democratic contenders for Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts and Dan Clodfelter will face off before a live audience Wednesday during a debate on the “Charlotte Talks” radio program.
The debate, co-hosted by the Charlotte Observer and WFAE and sponsored by Duke Energy, will take place at the McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square. A meet-the-candidates coffee begins at 8:15 a.m.; the live broadcast starts at 9.
Live coverage at charlotteobserver.com.