When Jennifer Roberts became Charlotte mayor nearly two years ago, she was an outsider: the first mayor since Eddie Knox in 1979 who hadn’t served on City Council.
And after perhaps the most eventful term of any mayor – international attention over a police shooting and House Bill 2 – Roberts is still often a solo mayor.
Some of her most notable achievements and moments are frequently hers and hers alone. What’s unclear is whether Roberts has acted when others weren’t willing, or whether she’s been divisive, unable to get council members to follow. She faces four challengers in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, including Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and state Sen. Joel Ford.
During the 2015 campaign, Roberts, 57, often talked about the need for the mayor to improve education. Her opponents and council members doubted whether that was realistic or advisable, since the county and state – not the city – are responsible for funding Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Roberts pushed ahead, and has launched a new nonprofit to help parents of middle-school aged students find after-school programs. She started the program, Charlotte Next, without help or money from the City Council, and with almost no help or money from city staff, outside of the two people assigned to work directly for her. Private donors have paid for the program.
In January, during a speech at East Mecklenburg High, she called on paid family leave for city employees, which will be offered for the first time in 2018.
In September, she was often the face of Charlotte on national TV interviews during the Keith Scott protests and riots. She initially defended the city’s reluctance to release video and dash camera footage after the shooting, but then began to question that position.
Two days after the city released the footage, Roberts wrote a column in which she said the city’s “lack of transparency and communication about the timing of the investigation and release of video footage was not acceptable.”
Her comments upset some city officials, who said the mayor “threw the police chief under the bus.” Some police officers were furious. Council members complained people would assume Roberts was speaking for them too.
“I think that people recognize that sometimes the mayor can speak for the entire city and the council, and sometimes the mayor has to speak for the mayor’s perspective,” she said in a recent interview. “I think when there isn’t time for a council vote ...I think it’s incumbent on the mayor to speak up. I will continue to do that.”
Roberts added: “And when Trump’s policies go counter to the values we hold, I don’t always have time to talk to the entire council. I think that’s leadership.”
In her second year as mayor, Roberts has often cited President Donald Trump as being a threat to the city’s interests. And the mayor has focused heavily on national issues and their impact on the city.
Controversy over LGBT protections
During Roberts’ tenure as mayor, the City Council expanded its nondiscrimination ordinance to include LGBT legal protections. The ordinance would have allowed transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matched their gender identity.
That effort started before Roberts became mayor. But she became closely identified with the issue, and Republicans in Raleigh lampooned her as an out-of-touch liberal.
For much of 2016, she stood in lockstep with the Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, which opposed any compromise.
But in December, Roberts placed on the council agenda an item that would repeal the city’s ordinance, which HB2 had already nullified. The city had hoped the legislature would have then repealed HB2, which didn’t happen until four months later.
“I think we firmly believed with a couple of new players engaged – the governor-elect, for one – people recognized the economic damage that HB2 caused.”
She added, “The fact that it didn’t work as it planned, it was incredibly disappointing and very hurtful.”
Roberts received $5,200 from the Human Rights Campaign and almost $4,000 from Charlotte businessman and LGBT advocate Billy Maddalon.
She has relatively few campaign contributions from the city’s developers, who historically fund the campaigns of mayors and council members.
Joe Padilla of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition supports state Sen. Joel Ford in the Democratic primary. He said he can’t point to any particular ordinance Roberts has supported for not endorsing her.
“Our concern with the leadership is more of a macro level, with lost opportunities for economic development,” he said. “The debacle over HB2 was a big part of our rationale.”
HB2 led to numerous boycotts of the state, causing Charlotte to lose a planned expansion by PayPal, the NBA All-Star game this year as well as other sporting events.
Focusing on national issues
The mayor has often focused on national issues that impact Charlotte locally, such as LGBT rights and the Trump administration’s new immigration policies. Roberts ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2012.
But she speaks out publicly less often on other local issues. The mayor usually doesn’t vote on most items, but former mayors Pat McCrory and Anthony Foxx often tried to sway a council vote. Roberts does not often urge council members how to vote.
Earlier this summer, council members were split over a plan floated by Republican council member Ed Driggs, who suggested a new way to pay for renovations to Bojangles’ Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium. Driggs wanted to use hotel/motel tax money, which would free up more than $18 million for something else, like affordable housing.
Driggs said that would have been a sign to residents that the city was serious about its “Letter to the Community,” which promised to build more housing. But the proposal was defeated 5-4.
After the debate, Roberts did not urge her colleagues to vote one way or the other on the proposal, which had bipartisan support.
Soon after, Roberts moved Driggs from the economic development committee to the housing committee. Some council members speculated it was payback.
Roberts said that’s not true. She said she replaced Driggs because she wanted the committee to have a representative from District 2, a mostly low-income area in northwest Charlotte.
“It’s important that when we have a Letter to the Community, when we have an Opportunity Task Force, to include every corner of our city,” she said.
Observer, WBTV to host debate
The Charlotte Observer and our news partner, WBTV, will host a debate 7 p.m. Sept. 6 with the leading candidates for mayor. The debate will air live on WBTV Channel 3.
More election coverage
For complete election coverage, including candidate questionnaires, go to charlotteobserver.com/election.