Charlotte mayoral debate grades - Peter St. Onge

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 associate editor Peter St. Onge’s recap:

Grades from associate editor Eric Frazier

Grades from editorial page editor Taylor Batten

St. Onge’s grades: Jennifer Roberts: B; Dan Clodfelter: B-plus

History books tell us that a half-century ago, radio listeners thought Richard Nixon beat John F. Kennedy in their celebrated presidential debate. The pale and sweaty Nixon didn’t project well on TV, however, and was declared the debate loser.

So how did Charlotte’s Democratic mayoral candidates sound to the thousands who listened in on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks?

Roberts, unlike the first Democratic debate, was relaxed and less scripted. She still reverted too often to her stock stump answers, including in an opening answer/statement that sounded as if she were reading from notecards. But thanks to some precise questions and the pressure of sitting next to a wonkish mayor, Roberts was forced to be more precise herself.

She was at her best on a question about open spaces and parks, where she confidently blended her achievements on the county commission involving Romare Bearden Park with a smart answer on greenways being “linear parks.”

Still, her answers were too often superficial. We know that “public/private partnerships” are a good approach to some funding issues. But as an answer to a toll road question, it exposed a shallowness in policy knowledge that hurt Roberts.

That lack-of-depth is amplified in a two-person debate, especially when the other person is Clodfelter. The mayor, who is most comfortable getting in the thicket of policy and issues, showed an ability to do so in disgestible, insightful snippets that came across as comfortably conversational on radio.

A highlight: His answer on using I-77 tolls as a lesson to get out in front of future toll projects was astute and farsighted, especially in comparison to Roberts’ answer.

Clodfelter had the incumbent’s advantage in the debate – he knew more about specific city initiatives and policies. He also was helped by a series of late audience questions on narrow, personal issues, such as a neighborhood stop light. Those allowed him to sound very much like a mayor, and Roberts was nowhere to be heard.

Still, Clodfelter also sounded a little snippy and impatient with questions, and radio listeners didn’t have the benefit to seeing if a smile softened some clipped responses. He also was mostly disinclined to hit Roberts on her up-and-down stint as County Commission chair. Two-person debates are a chance to contrast your perceived leadership strengths with your opponent’s shortcomings. Even down 10 points after the primary, Clodfelter chose to do very little of that.

Peter St. Onge