At about 10 p.m. Tuesday night, Jennifer Roberts walked down the stairs of Dilworth Neighborhood Grille to watch the election night results with the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party. Dressed in a crisp navy suit, she was met with a frenzy of photographers and journalists giving her a reception reserved for a mayor or even a local celebrity. Calmly she told them she may still be able to pull off her race against Republican opponent Robert Pittenger for the 9th Congressional District.
But the wince around Roberts' eyes, obvious to me only because I've followed her campaign for nine months, betrayed her hopeful smile. Although she was leading with 50.3 percent of the vote to Pittenger's 47.2 percent in Mecklenburg County, he was ahead in Iredell and Union. She needed all three counties, which make up the 9th District, to win the election.
The Democratic candidate had fought for a seat that Republicans have controlled since 1952, and around 11 p.m. she knew the writing was on the wall. A flatscreen television showed Pittenger preparing to make his victory speech, having gotten 52 percent of the vote. All he needed was for Roberts to concede. Surrounded by her family and campaign manager Henk Jonker, she called Pittenger on a cell phone, congratulating him with one finger in her ear to shield the crowd's noise.
Then Roberts, husband Manley, daughter Montana and son Lee posed for press photos for another hour. She did an interview with a television station. Radio and news reporters barraged her with questions, some asking why she decided to a run in a race she would most likely, and did, lose. Others asked if she had another campaign in her. She told them that even though Pittenger outspent her 6-to-1, she was still energetic and healthy for future endeavors. What those were she didn't say.
"I am so humbled to have been the center of this tremendous vision of working together," she said. "I am looking forward to contributing some more in the future, but right now I'm very grateful and celebrating a great race."
As much as she was mobbed by press and supporters when she arrived, her exit was quiet, filled with hushed words of encouragement. It was a stark contrast to the joyful screaming that permeated the building when President Obama was reelected moments after Roberts conceded.
Before she left, Roberts told me what she wanted most: sleep.