The Observer’s editorial board watched and listened to Wednesday’s mayoral runoff debate between Democratic candidates Dan Clodfelter and Jennifer Roberts.
How’d the candidates do? Here’s editorial page editor Taylor Batten’s recap:
Batten’s grades: Dan Clodfelter; A-; Jennifer Roberts: B-
Clodfelter: He fulfilled the stereotype he has earned over the years with answers that were smart, specific and revealing of a deep understanding of the issues the mayor faces.
As a City Council member, state senator and mayor, Clodfelter has always enjoyed digging into the nitty gritty of public policy. The ribbon-cutting part of the job has come less naturally for him. At this morning’s debate, he showed that he has a firm grasp on public policy questions, ranging from the complications of funding mass transit to whether a stoplight should be placed at a particular intersection in north Charlotte.
Asked why the candidates are talking about schools so much given the city’s lack of involvement in schools, Clodfelter ticked off four specific ways the city and mayor can play a meaningful role. Asked about combating homelessness, Clodfelter named two initiatives already under way, then talked in specific ways about what the next battles will be. In answering an audience member’s question about a traffic signal she wanted on Parkwood Avenue and a neighborhood sign she wanted for Belmont and Optimist Park, Clodfelter knew exactly what she was talking about and explained what had happened.
One audience member asked the candidates to explain what skills they have that make them better than their opponent. Clodfelter convincingly talked about his experience working with legislators in Raleigh, an increasingly vital trait for Charlotte’s next mayor. Just Tuesday, he said, he had been working the phones with Mecklenburg County’s delegation to oppose a last-minute measure that would have severely hurt cities. That measure died Tuesday night.
His performance wasn’t perfect. He was disingenuous, to say the least, when he feigned not knowing that an audience member was asking about a controversial rezoning vote for the Cherry neighborhood that took place Monday night. Some listeners might not have been totally convinced with his denial that he told council members that he wouldn’t run for mayor if he was given the interim job. And he occasionally came across, as he sometimes does, as a tad snippy and not suffering fools gladly. All in all, though, his was the clearly superior performance.
Roberts: She also fulfilled the stereotype she has earned over the years by being perfectly pleasant, offering uplifting notions about the city’s future, and delivering answers that just scratched the surface.
Roberts has never seen a crowd she doesn’t want to engage with, and upon her arrival at Spirit Square this morning, she bypassed the “green room” offered to her to make final preparations and instead went straight to working the audience gathered around pre-debate coffee and doughnuts.
On stage, she was adequate but not much more. She knows the issues the city faces and can talk about them at some length, if not depth. She didn’t botch any question, but she didn’t knock one out of the park either.
Asked why she thinks the Observer editorial board didn’t endorse her, she instead gave a rote recital of her platform. She said she wants to strengthen schools and do more more to end homelessness. She said growth presents challenges and that she’s a stronger candidate in part because she was a foreign service officer and has been to Raleigh and Washington.
At one point, she said: “I’m a big supporter of transit. The question is how do you pay for it.” Well, yes, that is the question.
In explaining why she has made schools an issue in her campaign despite the city’s limited involvement, she compared it to when the county during her tenure helped with domestic violence, saying it did so even though it wasn’t the county’s responsibility because the shelter was run by a nonprofit. This is an underwhelming comparison, given the county’s vital role in social services.
Roberts is intelligent, experienced, hard-working and well-equipped to fulfill the role in the public spotlight that a mayor must. But Wednesday’s debate confirmed that her answers on public issues, compared with Clodfelter’s, are only skin deep.