Back in March, as the field of Charlotte’s mayoral candidates continued to grow, a lot of people considered Democrat Jennifer Roberts a long shot.
It wasn’t the first time that Charlotte’s new mayor-elect had been underestimated.
A good way to help me do (something), is to tell me I can’t.
Jennifer Roberts in 2006
In 2004, as a political neophyte running for Mecklenburg County’s Board of Commissioners, she was given little chance in a field of political veterans. She won, but two years later, a poll found her the least-known of six at-large candidates. She went on to lead the ticket.
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And last year, she got virtually no consideration from Democratic City Council members when they chose a replacement for departed Mayor Patrick Cannon, who is now in prison on corruption charges.
“A good way to help me do (something),” Roberts said once, “is to tell me I can’t.”
Since her entry into county politics a decade ago, Roberts has enjoyed remarkable success as well as notable failure.
After winning the last of three at-large seats by just 955 votes in 2004, she went on to lead the ticket three times and chair the board for five years. In 2011, she was ousted as chair by Republicans and a rogue Democrat. The next year she ran for Congress. Though she lost, she carried Mecklenburg County by more than 5,000 votes over Republican Robert Pittenger.
Roberts has built her success on a sort of populist appeal, assembling an army of loyal followers through hard work and a mastery of social media.
There are few who work harder.
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Roberts has campaigned for mayor longer than anyone, almost 18 months.
She’s met people in living rooms and coffee houses across the county. She’s visited up to four churches on a Sunday. She’s been known to stay up late, emailing constituents and colleagues long after midnight.
As she canvassed neighborhoods this year, she often stopped to linger with voters. One told a reporter in September that she’d sat in his living room for a half hour last spring while visiting the Northwoods neighborhood.
In July, Roberts released a campaign report showing she’d raised more than $300,000 from nearly 1,000 donors. Both, she told supporters, were more than any non-incumbent Democrat in at least 20 years. (At the same point, Peacock had raised $137,000).
Many of those supporters were not traditional Democrats. Take Turk Akbay.
A Turkish immigrant, he runs a dog-training business. He’d never supported a local candidate until this year, when he gave Roberts’ campaign $500.
“Jennifer was an absolute exception,” Akbay said. “I said, ‘I’m going to give to her because she understands how I feel and what I think.’ ”
The turning point was our poll and the finance numbers coming out within two weeks of each other showing her message was resonating.
Campaign manager Jacob Becklund
The news about her fundraising came out on the heels of a campaign poll that showed her with support from 30 percent of Democratic voters – nearly twice as much as incumbent Dan Clodfelter or any other Democrat.
“The turning point was our poll and the finance numbers coming out within two weeks of each other showing her message was resonating,” said her campaign manager, Jacob Becklund.
An ‘outside game’
Before the September primary, some of Charlotte’s best-known Democratic women, including former office holders and business leaders, formed a group called “Women for Clodfelter.” But bringing in nontraditional support – and non-household names – was part of the Roberts game plan.
We haven’t been running an inside game nearly as much as we’ve been running an outside game.
“We haven’t been running an inside game nearly as much as we’ve been running an outside game,” Becklund said.
That support was nurtured on social media. Roberts’ campaign Facebook page has nearly 2,500 likes. Her Twitter account has 3,900 followers. By comparison, Clodfelter had fewer than 600 likes.
In 2014, when she sought appointment as mayor, Roberts’ supporters mounted a Facebook campaign and orchestrated an online petition. Her rivals, Clodfelter and James Mitchell, relied on personal contact with council members.
Jane Whitley, president of Mecklenburg’s Democratic Women’s group, recalls Roberts as an early user of “meet-ups” in her 2004 campaign. It was an Internet technology popularized by presidential candidate Howard Dean.
“She was sort of there at the start of this whole social media thing,” Whitley said.
To Becklund, the early summer poll foretold how she would win.
“The real key for her was the breadth of her support,” he said. “There wasn’t a part of the city where she didn’t have strong support. And ultimately that was her strength.”