Clodfelter's Unseemly Farewell
The outgoing mayor's campaign surrendered some dignity with last-minute mud-flicking
There’s nothing wrong with a candidate for political office “going negative,” regardless of poll after poll that indicates voters hate it. They don’t. Voters just don’t want to admit to pollsters, or perhaps themselves, that they love it when candidates go negative. If there’s something questionable about candidates’ records, their opponents have every right to point it out in an ad.
The caveat: You’d better be on target with your criticism, and you’d better take context—voter mood and the reputations of you and your opponent both—into account. That’s where Dan Clodfelter and the consultants running his campaign failed in the recent runoff election for Charlotte mayor, when the incumbent mayor surprisingly distributed a pair of mailers that criticized Jennifer Roberts, the eventual winner.
As negative ads go, these were pretty mild. One took Roberts to task for her role as Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners chair during the botched county revaluation in 2011, which she initially defended. The other, slimier one accused Roberts of cutting more than $56 million from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget during her eight-year tenure as board chair.
But neither charge holds up to close scrutiny, or even casual scrutiny. Yes, Roberts initially stood behind the reval but eventually voted for a review that led to a fresh revaluation and reimbursements to property owners. On the CMS budget, yes, technically, commissioners did reduce the county allocation to CMS three times under her chairmanship—but they also raised it three times, and the county allocation was bigger in her last year as chair than in her first.
Keep in mind that both “issues” were largely the product of a dysfunctional county administration; that the county board chair has no more voting power than any other commissioner; and that CMS funding, the county’s job, is an odd molehill to charge in a city election.
In the end, as Clodfelter campaign manager Dan McCorkle told The Charlotte Observer, “I don’t think it moved the needle one bit.” No one knew better than Clodfelter himself that the real reason he lost was that Roberts started her campaign a year earlier, raised more money, and worked harder at it.
But it was an uncharacteristically petty move for Clodfelter, who’s been an exemplary public servant for most of his tenure on the City Council, in the state Senate, and as mayor. He’s always been a rarity in a shrill, hyperpartisan political atmosphere: calm, practical, with a deep knowledge of issues and a thoughtful demeanor.
The blame lies mainly with the out-of-state consultants the Clodfelter campaign hired. Still, it was his campaign. It’s unlikely that, at 65, he’ll seek public office again. It’d be a pity for this to be one of Charlotte’s last glimpses of Clodfelter—digging beneath the soles of his shoes for a few last-minute votes.