How Roberts can lead the city effectively

The Observer editorial board

Mayor-elect Jennifer Roberts will work with a Democratic City Council but that doesn’t mean instant harmony.
Mayor-elect Jennifer Roberts will work with a Democratic City Council but that doesn’t mean instant harmony. AP

Can Charlotte’s new mayor learn anything from its old one?

When former Mayor Pat McCrory was elected governor in 2012, Republicans finally controlled all of state government’s levers of power: the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion (in addition to the Supreme Court). On paper, McCrory was primed to fulfill all his campaign promises, since he would be working with a like-minded legislature. Together, they could form a team capable of doing whatever they pleased, with no one to block their path.

It didn’t quite work out that way. From day one, McCrory struggled to find his footing, insisting he was relevant while Senate leader Phil Berger, then-House Speaker Thom Tillis and other legislative leaders had their way. They drove the agenda on everything from abortion to tax policy to coal ash to teacher pay.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca dismissed McCrory’s part in budget negotiations this summer, saying “The governor doesn’t play much of a role in anything.”

Now, Jennifer Roberts could find herself in a similar arrangement. Democrats control Charlotte government, with Roberts as mayor presiding over a 9-2 Democratic City Council. That’s a friendly environment for Roberts, it would seem. But there’s reason to think she could struggle to wield much power and that this council will set its own course.

Roberts faced three other main Democrats in this fall’s primary. No council members publicly supported her. Last year, Roberts arose as a potential interim mayor to replace the prison-bound Patrick Cannon, but the council did not want her. Even fellow Democrat Mayor Dan Clodfelter was silent in Roberts’s general election showdown with Edwin Peacock.

Like the legislators who don’t need McCrory, most council members are elected from safe districts. They don’t need Roberts for votes, money or anything else. She votes only to break a tie, and she can cast a veto. But the council members hold most of the official power, and they know it. It would not be surprising if they look for opportunities early on to show the new mayor who’s in charge here. Not long into her term, for instance, the council will have to decide whether to extend City Manager Ron Carlee’s contract. Will Roberts have a meaningful voice in that discussion?

Given the statutory limitations put on the office, there may be only so much Roberts can do to overcome all this. But if she wants to be an effective leader, she should enlist the support of someone Gov. McCrory did not: the public. If she is seen as fighting for their interests, rather than just her party’s or her own, she will accrue influence from their support.

When she was ousted as chair of the county commission in 2011, she said “I have kept my promises to the Democratic Party.” Now she has a second chance to serve an even broader constituency.