Why you should care

Because Democrats think they can win on the culture wars — even in the South.

Welcome to The Wilderness, an OZY original series charting how Democrats are trying to climb out of their historic hole. Read more.

From the 46th floor of the Duke Energy Center, Charlotte opens up from downtown skyscrapers into tree-covered suburbs and rolling hills, with interstates snaking off to the horizon. Some of the most powerful women in town are gathered in this rarified air to network and hear Carnegie Mellon University professor Linda Babcock describe her research into why women are less likely to negotiate — and the impact on the glass ceiling and gender pay gap. Sitting at a front table, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts raises her hand: “What about the gender revolution?”

In July, a baby was born in Canada without being assigned a gender. The January cover of National Geographic featured people with seven different gender labels. What it all means for negotiation in the workplace is not yet clear, but on a brisk walk back to her office, Roberts tells OZY: “I think this is going to be good for women.” She’s an unusually qualified cisgender woman on the topic.

Roberts started hearing about nonbinary gender a couple of years ago from her daughter, who was reading about it in college. Then, in February 2016, just two months after Roberts took office, the city council added sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination ordinance for public accommodations. It set off a conflagration in Raleigh, where conservative state lawmakers banned all local nondiscrimination ordinances, and Charlotte became the epicenter of a nasty national debate over whether transgender people can choose which bathroom to use.

Roberts has wanted to be in the fray ever since she wrote letters to the editor in high school.

The controversy helped oust the state’s Republican governor, but Roberts rejected a compromise brokered this year by her fellow Democrat, Gov. Roy Cooper, to return to the pre-2016 status quo. Still, Roberts remains a face of the gender revolution — a profile that has her being talked about for a U.S. Senate bid in 2020.

But first, Roberts, 57, has to win reelection as mayor, and she’s got a tough fight in September’s primary because of the other firestorm that defines her term: last year’s police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, and the protests and riots that followed. The mayor drew criticism for being too slow to declare a state of emergency and publicly push the police to release video of the shooting (Roberts now acknowledges she waited too long).

She will face two Black candidates, Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and State Sen. Joel Ford, in the Democratic primary — where two-thirds of the electorate is Black and Roberts’ internal polling shows a competitive race. Republican councilman Kenny Smith has already launched general election attacks, saying the city’s crime is ”out of control” in an online ad accusing Roberts of “failing us.” Roberts says she’s not looking past this election, nor can she afford to. Yet she volunteers that she’s able to connect with rural folks as well as urbanites, in part because she drives a Ford F-150. She eagerly weighs in on state and national debates and says she thinks Congress would be a “fascinating place to be right now.” One place she doesn’t want to be is the governor’s mansion: “It’s a very frustrating position.”

Roberts has wanted to be in the fray ever since she wrote letters to the editor in high school. An accomplished athlete who stood 6-foot-2, then–Jennifer Watson played volleyball at the University of North Carolina. She spent four years at the State Department, including a stint in the Dominican Republic. Her fluent Spanish comes in handy in a city that was 13 percent Latino in 2010 — and growing.

After returning to Charlotte to work in banking and raise a family with Manley Roberts, a lawyer, she got involved in local politics to improve her kids’ public schools and spent five years chairing the county board of commissioners. She narrowly lost a 2012 campaign for Congress in a Republican-leaning district, then jumped into a mayoral bid after the incumbent resigned in a corruption scandal.

The bathroom debate came up in her 2015 campaign, but Roberts had no idea what she was in for once the council passed its ordinance. The state law known as HB2 attracted national attention, and an anti-bigotry backlash from businesses such as PayPal, which nixed a proposed expansion, damaged Charlotte’s economy. Though broad antidiscrimination protections were at stake for gays, the political and media firestorm focused on transgender rights. Roberts says she heard from many grateful trans people — and their parents. “I was very proud that Charlotte was identified with helping those folks feel like they were whole people,” she says, “as painful as everything else was.”

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts

Mayor Jennifer Roberts speaks at the January 21 women’s march in Charlotte, attended by an estimated 10,000 demonstrators as a sister march to the one in Washington, D.C.

Source Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the comparative calm of 2017, Roberts is pushing an agenda beyond her office’s limited formal powers as Charlotte’s advocate-in-chief. She’s omnipresent at community meetings and travels around the country to speak on panels. When trying to build support for things like afterschool programs, she courts corporate money.

An afternoon visit to Orchard Trace, a largely low-income condo complex, shows both Roberts’ potential and her challenge. She’s visiting an afterschool program called Heal Charlotte Dream Academy, run by community activist Greg Jackson. Roberts, who’s trying to steer more public and private funding to such programs, takes questions from the kids about the perks of her job (meeting football star Cam Newton) and her favorite food (banana pudding).

Speaking to OZY later, Jackson says Roberts was clearly unprepared for the riots and is not paying enough attention to gentrification, as development sparked by a much-touted light-rail project is nudging up rents and could push families out of the Orchard Trace complex. In the end, Jackson says he will vote for the incumbent in part because of her “urgency” in promoting afterschool programs. Will that be enough? “She might have trouble with the Black vote,” Jackson says. A year after the riots, Charlotte’s tensions linger just beneath the surface.

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People who are accelerating our culture and advancing the conversation – for good or for ill. You may not have heard of them yet – but you'll soon need to know 'em.