Person of the Year: Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts

2016 Year in Review — Retrospective: Amidst controversy and criticism, mayor advocates with character

With 2016 drawing to a close, many people reflect that it has been a trying year, especially for those North Carolinians passionate about LGBTQ issues. The city of Charlotte has been home to many decisive events over the last 12 months, and its mayor has taken part in them all. As qnotes’ Person of the Year, Mayor Roberts wants to be known as “someone who’s a fighter, who’s not afraid to face criticism, who’s not afraid to go against the grain when change was needed.”

There has certainly been much criticism to face as the figurehead of Charlotte’s government. In February, the Charlotte City Council passed a non-discrimination ordinance that solidified protections for the LGBTQ community. There was massive blowback from the state government in the form of a legislative special session that birthed House Bill 2 (HB2), otherwise known as “the bathroom bill.” In the months that followed, the law’s staunch defenders repeatedly pointed to Charlotte as the trigger for what some activists called the most anti-LGBTQ law in the country.

“This whole idea that Charlotte started this problem, Charlotte made the state do this thing, has been ridiculous,” Roberts said in a recent qnotes interview. “Throughout the summer, we had several conversations, and they [the Republicans] would say ‘if you repeal your ordinance, we’ll do something.’”

Roberts and her colleagues in the City Council didn’t seriously consider this vague promise for a long time. Months passed, each one with more canceled events and lost jobs in protest of the discriminatory law. Still worse, Roberts feels, was the impact on the LGBTQ population.

“The outrage that I feel is that HB2 has just been so damaging,” Roberts attests. “I know transgender youth who are extremely troubled, who feel the weight of HB2 every day…I look at how hard it’s been for my transgender friends and neighbors with HB2 in place because they can’t even use the restroom they identify with at our Convention Center.”

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Gov. Pat McCrory defended HB2 to the point of losing his seat to the newly-elected Roy Cooper, by a relatively narrow margin. The new governor-elect turned his full attention to repealing HB2.

“Governor-elect Cooper got personally involved, and his staff worked tirelessly for many days to put pressure on Senate Leader Phil Berger (R) and North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R), and to continue to line up voices to say how harmful HB2 was,” Roberts explained. “The first time that I heard the word ‘repeal’ was just now.”

With the promise of a full repeal in place, the Charlotte City Council had a decision to make. Give into the GOP lawmakers screaming “you started it!” or continue the fight through the judicial system. To the displeasure of many LGBTQ advocates, the Council voted to repeal their ordinance, hoping against hope that the North Carolina legislature would repeal HB2 in full.

“We are in a political situation where the General Assembly has a veto-proof majority,” Roberts explained. “We don’t know what federal appointments are going to be made, we don’t know how long the courts are going to take, we have no guarantee the courts are going to be our solution. So we had to look at the option of living for two or three more years not being able to do what’s right, having no authority, and suffering, or setting the clock back to Feb. 21st, getting HB2 off the books.”

It was a decision that Roberts called a “Sophie’s choice,” but one that the City Council decided to make. When the Council repealed the non-discrimination ordinance, conspiracy theories abounded.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts has spoken candidly about her concerns over Charlotte, N.C.’s issues. She still maintains that a high priority for her is an ‘inclusive and welcoming city.’ Photo Credit: The Charlotte Observer

“The rumors are rampant,” Roberts said. “People say that I orchestrated it, but I didn’t even know Cooper’s push until Sunday afternoon. I think the reason they worked so hard to get an unanimous vote on Council and to get everything in place before they even talked to me, is because they knew I would have said ‘no’ if everything wasn’t sealed up tight as a drum.”

“It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever done politically,” she said. “I’ve been sick to my stomach since Sunday. I’ve slept fitfully. It’s been incredibly, incredibly hard, because I know the symbolism hurts. I know in the end, that I have the LGBT’s interest at heart, and that I do believe this is better for them, the best way forward.”

Unfortunately, Roberts’ hopes did not reach fruition. “It was clear that they did not intend to repeal HB2,” Roberts said. The General Assembly failed to repeal HB2 despite meeting for a special session on Dec. 21.

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HB2 isn’t the only controversy for which Jennifer Roberts has been criticized. The mayor has also been under fire for her handling of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the resulting protests, turned riots. Activists accused the government of conspiring to cover up or justify the police’s behavior. As the city’s “titular head,” Roberts was a clear target for this criticism.

“I think they’re right to be pushing,” Roberts admitted. “I absolutely believe that we can be better, that we can improve. I also believe that our country has an issue, that we have racial disparities that are deep and will take a while to correct, and we have to push the institutions to correct them.”

Regarding the way the shooting was handled, Roberts pointed out that she faced criticism from within the government as well as from the public.

“During the protests I really pushed to get the video released. I pushed for transparency, and I ruffled some feathers by doing that,” she said. “If the city manager or police chief don’t want to do something, then I have to turn to public opinion and the power of persuasion … Looking at best practices around the country, and listening to other mayors and police chiefs in other parts of the country, I knew it was the best practice. I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Yet very few of Charlotte’s population have confidence that the tension was handled the best way possible. Even Roberts describes the system she takes part in as flawed.

“We face a history of racial segregation and racial disparities,” the mayor said. “We face a challenge in concentrations of poverty that exist in our city, in the way that we have built our neighborhoods and our schools. We face people who don’t realize there’s discrimination, who are unaware or think it’s minor. We face some opinions that are based on narrow views of the world. We have to work to continue to educate folks.”

This education is a central part of Jennifer Roberts’ mission as mayor of Charlotte, but she also wants to ensure that opportunity is universal. In her upcoming bid for re-election, Roberts said that her main goals are to combat discrimination in all forms, promote public safety and economic opportunity and improve infrastructure. She also wants to devote time to affordable housing and job opportunities.

“Being an inclusive and welcoming city is really a high priority for me, whether it’s the LGBT community, the African-American community, the immigrant community,” Roberts said. “Every single person is worthy of dignity and respect and should be valued and included in our society. I want people to remember me as somebody who fought really hard to have us live up to those principles.”

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