Jennifer Roberts is an athlete at heart whose endurance might be enough to prepare her for the race of a lifetime.
The Mecklenburg County Commissioner is the lone Democrat among 10 Republicans and one Libertarian vying for Republican incumbent Sue Myrick's vacated congressional seat. The GOP has controlled the 9th District, which includes parts of Mecklenburg, Union and Gaston counties, since 1952. Without any Democratic challengers, Roberts will bypass the May primary, and her name will go directly onto November general election ballot.
To some, Roberts faces an uphill battle. But the avid volleyball player is focused on her game, even during a break in the action. On a clear Saturday morning in early March, she took a walk on the Greenway in Charlotte, marveling at the stream running along the path and commenting on the frisky muskrat bobbing in and out of the water. "You can support wildlife even in the center of the city," she said.
Eric Heberlig, an associate professor in the political science department at UNC Charlotte, says Roberts' chances of winning are tied to how her Republican counterparts will fare during the campaign season. "It will be less about her than the total collapse of the Republican candidate," he said. Basically, Republican voters would reluctantly support a Democratic candidate if they looked unfavorably enough on their party's own.
Funding may also determine the race. Heberlig said Republicans and conservative super PACs in the presidential election will play a pivotal role in congressional contests. The controversial groups can accept unlimited corporate and union contributions for election activities. Unlike traditional political action committees, super PACs can't contribute directly to federal candidates or parties. Instead, unlimited funds can buy political advertising time or fund activities like voter canvassing.
"Even if Roberts were able to make it close, allied interest groups would flood a lot of money into this district to tip the balance to where it's the Republicans. They wouldn't give up this district lightly," Heberlig said.
While the GOP has been associated with super PACs since their inception in 2010, The Washington Post reported that President Barack Obama recently approved a Democratic super PAC.
Despite the odds, Roberts doesn't plan on throwing in the towel any time soon. "I have every plan to be in Washington next year as a congresswoman," she said. "I would not be taking this time away from my family if I didn't think that I could win."
Born in Raleigh, Roberts moved to Charlotte when she was 11. She studied English literature and mathematics at UNC Chapel Hill and graduated in 1982. She went on to earn her masters in modern European history from the University of Toronto in 1986 and another in European politics and economics from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1988.
In 2004, Roberts started working with the Mecklenburg County Commission. She served as chairwoman from 2006 until late 2011, when current chairman Harold Cogdell, a Democrat who has since become unaffiliated, and Republicans staged a coup that voted her out, even though her term was already winding down.
When Roberts decided not to seek re-election to the commission, rumors started circulating that she would vie for the lieutenant governor position. Roberts initially said she wanted to take a break from public service to spend more time with her family, but on Feb. 13 announced she would run for Congress. What changed? "Serving is in my blood," she said, adding she made the choice with the blessing of her husband Manley, daughter Montana, 15, and son Lee, 12.
Job creation is the centerpiece of her campaign. She said women experienced the brunt of private- (including education and healthcare) and public-sector job losses spawned from statewide budget cuts. A UNC Charlotte report, "Working Women and the Great Recession," found that women experienced higher unemployment than men during the first quarter of 2010 in Mecklenburg County. Men were hit hardest by the recession in 2009. With that in mind, Roberts said the 9th District is ready for a progressive female voice that "understands the challenges that not just middle-class women face but women in poverty face."
The environment is another key issue for her. Jim Garges, director of Park and Recreation at Mecklenburg County, has worked with Roberts on Greenway revitalization, land bond money and open-space protection. "In terms of elected officials, she's one of the best in my 37-plus-year career," he said, adding that her vast knowledge of environmental issues will translate from the state to federal level.
In the end, Roberts' chances might not be so bad. "Typically, to have any chance at all in a district that is solidly for one party, the other party needs a challenger with political experience and name recognition," Heberlig said. "Roberts certainly does."
At the end of her walk along the Greenway, Roberts came out through a tunnel to the other side of Freedom Park. As the sun shone on her face, the woman who tackles 12-mile family bike rides savored the end of today's journey. "You don't get distracted by other things," she said. "When you're in a really tight tennis match or a really tight volleyball game, it's all about the goal. It's all about the team. It's all about what you've come there to do."