It’s been quite a year for Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts. She’s been playing the political game for over a decade, but after 12 years of relative obscurity in elected office, the incarceration of Mayor Patrick Cannon gave her the chance come off the bench and take the ball.
Roberts, who won the Democratic mayoral primary by hard work and determination, seems to be motivated by the glow of the limelight and an inferiority complex. Obviously born with the energy and drive to win elections, she was once quoted as saying that the best way to help her do something “is to tell me I can’t.”
That kind of self-focused motivation is well suited to children’s books and individual sports, but is particularly ill-fitting for a collaborative office such as mayor, especially in Charlotte’s weak-mayor system of municipal government.
Roberts, who took office in December 2015, wasted no time seeking the spotlight. Hitching herself to a movement that fractured the city of Houston, in February Roberts pushed through a poorly worded ordinance that would have had the effect (apparently unintended) of opening all bathrooms and shower facilities in Charlotte that are accessible to the public to anyone, regardless of sex or gender identity.
This kind of rushed mistake, passed over the bipartisan opposition of the council, is the result when egotistic politicians see collaboration as weakness and hear legitimate questions as someone “telling her she can’t.” The morning after the ordinance passed, council member Kenny Smith said the move “is about forced acceptance, it is not about solving a problem.” Bipartisan opponents were painted as bigots; a promise from Gov. Pat McCrory to override the ordinance was seen as a political opportunity. The resulting controversy over the too-hasty (but at least bipartisan) House Bill 2 allowed Roberts to remain in the leftward glow of the spotlight while still not requiring much actual work. She was winning the game in her mind, at least and that’s all that mattered.
After the ACC announced it would move its football championship game from Charlotte because of H.B. 2, McCrory announced he would call a special session to repeal it if Charlotte would repeal its ordinance. Most Charlotte leaders quickly got behind the governor’s call for the status quo ante. But not Roberts. Again showing no appetite for compromise, she saw the governor’s move as another play in the long game, a play she was happy to counter: no deal your move.
All this gamesmanship gave Roberts no foundation for collaboration when it was sorely needed following the Sept. 20 shooting death of Keith Scott by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer. As protests turned to riots, she resisted timely offers of help from McCrory (remember that for her, he’s on the “other team”), a decision that resulted in more property destruction, looting, and another death. Using the lens of a politician, she worried how it would look if the military were called in to restore order. She should have been looking through the lens of the protestors, who saw red when the thin blue line was arrayed against them, where they may have seen National Guardsmen who had not shot anyone as neutral to the controversy. It was no longer a game, but Roberts was still trying to score points from the parking lot while two men lay dead and a city smoldered around her. Then on Sept. 26, Roberts penned a bizarrely detached op-ed placing blame on her police chief and a state law that had not gone into effect yet. Sprinkled with progressive Pablum, the piece’s only valid point was that trust in the city is lacking.
Perhaps if she had spent time building that trust instead of playing politics and dividing the city by attacking nonexistent problems, she would have been in a position to lead. But for Roberts, the clock shows nothing but zeroes. Having lost all authority and trust, if she has any love for the Queen City she will resign and let a more serious leader guide Charlotte up from the ashes. The city’s future is too important to play any more games.
Drew Elliot is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; every editorial, letter, op-ed, or column has its author or authors prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed column, see our submission guidelines.