By Fred Clasen-Kelly
Posted: Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2011
CHARLOTTE — A deeply divided Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday removed Jennifer Roberts as chairwoman and replaced her with a fellow Democrat, commissioner Harold Cogdell.
In a 5-4 vote that fell almost entirely along party lines, Cogdell won over objections from other Democrats who portrayed him as a traitor and opportunist.
Cogdell ousted Roberts by securing support from the panel’s four Republicans. Board Democrats, except Cogdell, chose Roberts.
The shakeup is unusual because traditionally commissioners select the member with the most votes in the election as chairman. Roberts, who has served as chairwoman since 2006, had 6,000 more votes than Cogdell in last year’s election.
“Under no set of circumstances would Harold be legitimately named as chair,” Democratic commissioner George Dunlap said.
The vote carries implications far beyond the chairman title. Democrats enjoy a 5-4 majority, but Cogdell has become a swing vote when the board sets spending priorities.
In announcing his candidacy for chairman, he sent commissioners a letter suggesting the county lower its debt and lower the property tax rates – two articles of faith among board Republicans.
On Tuesday, he voted with four GOP members to pick Republican Jim Pendergraph for vice chairman over Roberts.
“My biggest issue with Roberts is she consistently worked to expand the size of government,” Republican commissioner Neil Cooksey said before voting for Cogdell.
Cogdell declared he is still a Democrat, drawing jeers and mock laughter from the crowd. He then made clear his votes would not be tied to party loyalty.
Cogdell, a lawyer who joined the board in 2008, said he was unfazed by criticism from fellow Democrats. “I do what I think is right,” he said. “I will sleep well tonight.”
The commission chairman, often the board’s most high-profile member, helps set the agenda and run the public meetings. With the Democratic National Convention coming to Charlotte next year, the position gains even greater prominence. Cogdell is all but certain to make numerous television appearances and meet party luminaries and rub elbows with deep-pocketed campaign donors.
Commissioners annually elect a chairman and vice chairman in what is usually a routine vote.
Last year, Cogdell appeared poised to unseat Roberts, but withdrew from consideration at the last minute after withering criticism from his own party.
That move, which included a deal between Republicans and Cogdell, made Pendergraph vice chairman though he is not in the majority party.
This year, Roberts and other Democrats tried again to pressure Cogdell.
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote, Roberts lobbied board members to keep her as chairwoman and questioned whether Cogdell was capable of leading the board. A supporter leaked an email from Cogdell that harshly criticized Republican commissioner Bill James.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Roberts’ fans held up signs showing support. She cautioned them to remain courteous after crowd members drowned out Cogdell’s comments with jeers.
Commissioner Dunlap offered a blistering critique of Cogdell’s voting record. He said Cogdell voted to cut spending for social service programs despite receiving votes from constituents who rely on those programs.
Democratic commissioner Vilma Leake said the board chairman should be someone who is “loyal to your party.”
For Roberts, the vote is a major political setback. She recently announced she would not seek re-election in 2012, but said she wanted to remain chairwoman.
Roberts, who won election to the board in 2004, also has said she might seek higher office.
“Don’t worry about me, I haven’t lost anything tonight,” she said. “I have kept my integrity. … I have kept my promises to the Democratic Party.”
Since Cogdell announced his intentions to seek the chairmanship, Roberts has brought up discrimination against women in politics. She said it’s important that Democrats keep women in positions of power.
In a copy of prepared remarks handed out to the Observer prior to Tuesday’s vote, Roberts wrote: “After the events that have unfolded over the past weeks, you would think I would feel bitter, betrayed and angry. But I am none of these. I am not the first woman who has been shoved aside by a man, and I won’t be the last.”
Roberts strayed from her prepared statement at the meeting and did not include those remarks in her speech.
[Ed. Note — This article has been updated.]