Listen Up

Jennifer Roberts is the new chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners, and she’s all ears

Government. Is. Boring.

It’s like watching a French film, only with less smoking. There’s lots of talking, it moves very slowly, and it can be difficult to figure out what’s going on.

The analogy becomes apparent from the back of a brightly lit room in the shiny new Harris Conference Center on the Central Piedmont Community College West Campus. Apparently, another journalist in the back row agrees. He’s playing video football on his phone.

Elsewhere in the room, seven Mecklenburg County Commissioners (it would be nine, but one is sick and another has a business conflict) are ostensibly engaged in strategic planning. Normally a two-day retreat, the previous day’s hour-long snowfall has resulted in a compact seven-hour schedule. During this particular portion of the agenda, commissioners get a chance to air their pet issues. As politician after politician drone on (is it a county commission requirement that one must speak in a dull monotone?), newly elected board chair Jennifer Roberts attempts to keep the bunch on schedule.

This is made more difficult by two facts. One, there are television cameras present. Two, so is Bill James.

When people speculate about how effective Roberts will be as chair of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, they’re not talking about her ideas (interesting) or her grasp of policy (solid). They’re talking about whether or not she can handle Bill James. The chair’s primary responsibility, over and above ribbon cutting and bringing greetings, is running the meetings. And if you’re running the meetings, especially if you’re a Democrat, you’re gonna tangle with Bill James.
That’s not to demonize the Republican representative from District 6. It’s just that James has certain core beliefs, he’s glib, he knows his stuff, and those three facts can mix for a potent, meeting-killing cocktail. At 10:31 a.m., after a nice setup by fellow Republican Dan Ramirez, James begins to explain for the umpteenth time why the county shouldn’t get left holding the bag when an eighteen-year-old makes a poor life decision. While a few other council members suppress wry grins, James’s face reddens and Roberts’s brow furrows. He’s making a point, and she’s listening.

The forty-six-year-old Roberts has many skills (brilliance being one), but this is perhaps what she does best. Listen.

Earlier that morning, a cold, wind-whipped Friday, twelve hearty souls are having breakfast with Roberts at Tryon House Restaurant. As a sassy waitress memorizes orders of eggs, toast, and bacon, Roberts, who even sitting down is half a head taller than most everyone else, cocks her head, furrows her brow, and nods as a citizen explains that teachers are important. She already knows this, of course—we all already know this—but that’s not the point. The point is, she’s listening to what the man has to say. She listens patiently, nods, and offers, “but the question is, how do you get the public’s support, because they are going to have to be taxed.”

At the other end of the table, Jack Brosch looks at his handwritten checklist of issues to raise and questions to ask. Brosch, a mortgage broker, lives in the University area, and he periodically attends Roberts’ monthly breakfasts to pass along news from his neighborhood.
“One of the things that’s admirable about Jennifer,” he says, “is that she tries to make the community meetings, she tries to hear from the people.”

“You need to rely on every means of communication you can, at every level,” Roberts says. “So you go to PTA meetings. I’ve met with school leadership groups. I have spoken to Rotary clubs. Yesterday I spoke to the Optimist club. You go to churches, and speak to seniors groups. Everywhere you can. I have an e-mail newsletter that goes to about 2,000 people. You listen, and answer their questions.”

Sounds like that could get old. Where are the smoke-filled back rooms, the weighty discussions? How does one stay engaged during such mundane tasks? “You keep the enthusiasm because you know how important it is for people to feel listened to,” she says.
She remembers a commission meeting during which a colleague talked through a presentation by a citizen. “She sent an e-mail to all of us afterward and said she was disappointed that this commissioner was not listening to her. And I realized at that moment that everybody who stands up on that podium or has something to talk about watches how you listen. . . . When you remember that, even when you’re sitting there hearing the same argument over and over again, you . . . know it’s important.”

Jenny Watson is all over the 1978 East Mecklenburg High School yearbook. She’s pictured on the volleyball team (she was all-county), jumping center for the basketball team (all-American), and doing the high jump (school record). There she is as a National Merit Semifinalist. French Club, Math Award, Bike Club, the list goes on. It helped win her the prestigious Morehead scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill. In between the studies and the extracurriculars, her parents used to invite city council member Ed Peacock, a neighbor, over to the house, and everyone would discuss policy and politics. Including Jennifer.

Several years later, studying at the University of Toronto while pursuing one of two master’s degrees, she began to consider actually engaging in politics. “When I really got interested was in graduate school reading about the Crimean War.” She laughs, realizing how that sounds. The Crimean War, of course, was fought in the 1850s between Russia and an alliance of France, the United Kingdom, and the Ottoman Empire. As you might imagine, it took some serious diplomacy to get the latter three to work together. That part fascinated Roberts.

“Then I did my thesis on Mussolini’s foreign policy and how he played the French and Germans off each other, and they didn’t really know until the last minute whose side he was going to be on.” In her research, by the way, she read the original source material. In Italian.

After four years working for the U.S. State Department “basically as a visa officer,” she moved home to Charlotte to start a family. She worked at First Union and later ran the local chapter of the World Affairs Council. “I saw the connection between foreign policy and international policy and local policy and local diplomacy.”

When her children (she and her husband, Manley, have a son and daughter) entered school, she saw where she could serve. “I got into this for the schools. . . . Public school is the foundation of your society. I saw two years of flat school budgets from the county, in an attempt to reign in expenses by a Republican-led commission. (The county funds the majority of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget.) And it was probably more visible to me what that meant because I saw it in the classroom. My kid’s kindergarten class went from having a full-time assistant to a part-time. They had one assistant for three classrooms. Parents were putting in many hours every week doing simple things like putting up bulletin boards, making Xerox copies, putting packets together. I saw the impact this had on education.”

So in 2004, she ran a grassroots campaign for an at-large county commission seat and, surprising nearly everybody, won. Last year, she got more votes than any other commissioner, earning her the chair.

Her predecessor in that role is Parks Helms, the long-serving Democrat who remains on the board. “I think Jennifer will surprise a lot of people with her leadership skills,” Helms says. Before the board meeting at which Roberts was officially elected as chair, the two had a chat.

“I told Jennifer, if you’re going to be the chair, you’ve got to be the chair. And you have to say and do those things that are in the best interests of the community even when it is politically unpopular. You need to set the tone and you need to set the agenda, but obviously you need to know who you’re working with—who are the players and what can you hope to accomplish.”

In other words, sometimes you have to count the votes and move on. You can’t listen all night long, and you can’t get consensus on every issue. Roberts knows that, of course, but that’s not her natural style. The diplomat and the teacher (she’s an adjunct professor at UNC-Charlotte) in her wants to always acknowledge everyone. “Both sides are right,” she’s fond of saying.

“Jennifer has got to learn that she should not attempt to engage in every debate,” Helms says. “She hasn’t quite moved away from that habit.”

Which brings us back to Bill James and the strategic planning retreat. Once James warmed up on his issue, it became a two-person conversation. As Roberts listened intently, the other commissioners tuned out. Once or twice, Roberts tried to interrupt, to send the issue to committee. James was having none of it. Finally, Roberts firmed up. “Bill, we’ll have that discussion when we have it.”

She’s learning, Parks.

Categories: People