Last Wednesday, as Charlotte’s mayoral candidates readied themselves for the Observer/WBTV debates, at least one question worked its way around the room:
Would Jennifer Roberts, the clear frontrunner in the Democratic primary, be the debate target of the three men trailing her – Michael Barnes, Dan Clodfelter and David Howard?
It’s customary in political races to point out why the frontrunner shouldn’t be a frontrunner. A televised debate seemed a good time to do that.
It didn’t happen. Then it didn’t happen again this week at another Democratic debate. The only swipe at Roberts has come from someone affiliated with Howard’s campaign, a woman who also criticized the other candidates. Howard distanced himself from the remarks.
Why the reluctance to take on Roberts? It could be that each of the trailing candidates is confident that come primary day Tuesday, he will be in second place and Roberts won’t have enough votes to avoid a runoff election.
Or it could be that they don’t want to go negative on a woman.
That, at least, is what one of the candidates told me privately this month.
It’s a notion that’s kind of genteel, maybe even refreshing in an era where the Republican frontrunner for president thinks it’s OK to call a woman a “bimbo.”
But it’s also a reminder of how clumsy the clumsier sex still is when it comes to treating women as equals.
That doesn’t mean gender isn’t a factor in this or any race. Roberts, for one, has used sisterhood to her advantage, smartly pointing to her “unique” perspective into the challenges facing many Charlotte families. In the Observer poll, she has a huge lead among female voters.
But Roberts probably would be among the first to frown on being treated more delicately than her male opponents.
Voters should, too, because criticism is instructive. It helps us differentiate between candidates. It also can reveal something about the candidate being criticized.
An example: When Roberts was chair of the Mecklenburg county commissioners a few years back, she was knocked for being uncomfortable with conflict, especially when it came to standing up to powerful county manager Harry Jones.
Voters might benefit now from hearing her perspective about those criticisms. Voters also might learn something seeing how the possible mayor-to-be handles being challenged about it.
That’s true of any candidate, male or female.
The voters who probably feel most strongly about that? They’re women.
They know that, genteel or not, as long as they’re seen as weaker and more vulnerable, they’ll continue to be paid and promoted less than men. As long as we focus on their differences, they’ll continue to be treated differently.
None of which is Roberts’ fault, by the way. She’s run a close-to-flawless campaign thus far, with a blend of retail and digital politicking that’s a model for the modern municipal candidate.
It’s her opponents’ strategy – at least one of them – that seems stuck in the 1950s.
Peter: firstname.lastname@example.org; @saintorange