By Jason Brady
We met on a rainy Saturday morning at City Hall. He took my advice and came casual. No suit, no red “power tie.” Instead a pair of “workin’ man” jeans, wet-weather moccasins and what I would call a country squire’s woolen shooting jacket. On his head he sported the quintessential American head cover, a dark blue baseball cap, its bill riding low over his forehead. The word “Fayetteville” inscribed on the front in that classic font created by local advertising gurus on behalf of the Chamber some 22 years ago. He was wearing his brand…his city’s brand.
Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson was obviously comfortable in his rainy day attire and it is evident that after almost 90 days in office he is extremely comfortable in his role as mayor of the fifth largest city in North Carolina.
The City Hall Mayor’s Office décor usually reflects the personality of the office holder. In Robertson’s quarters, gone are the ceremonial trappings. Instead, a few well-placed prints grace the walls. The massive desk that has served more than a dozen mayors no longer carries the eclectic trophies of the office such as the ceremonial gavel that has seen better days or tarnished brass coasters of bygone administrations. Instead, two computer screens and a keyboard take center stage. It’s all business.
Was becoming mayor what he expected? “There were no big surprises after the election,” Robertson said. “But I was pleasantly surprised about people willing to meet and converse about common issues and solving problems that will make Fayetteville a better place to live. And that’s what it’s all about.”
It’s Robertson’s fifth term on city council and he fully understands and accepts that government does not move very fast.
“Although I knew it, it’s still frustrating,” he said. “The projects we ran on in our campaign won’t happen in the first 90 days. It’s why I did not make any short-term promises. Moving government into action is like turning a battleship. It takes time.”
He said becoming mayor has not changed his life style too much…other than a lot of people want to talk to him about their problems. “Sometimes it’s hard to get the grocery shopping done,” he admitted. Kim, his wife of 25 years, is a “workaholic,” according to Robertson. “A lot of nights we get home at about the same time.”
Daughter Carly, age 19, is a freshman at East Carolina University majoring in political science and eventually plans to follow her father’s footsteps into politics. Son Cameron, 21, is busy holding down two jobs. Being the son and daughter of a mayor has had a minimal affect on them.
For Kim, who recently won honors as a Principal of the Year and who oversees about 750 young minds at Elizabeth Cashwell Elementary School on Legion Road, there have been some changes since becoming the First Lady of Fayetteville.
“The real changes have been the great many opportunities to meet very interesting people,” she said. “Getting to know the people at Bragg is awesome.”
Robertson first ran for and won a seat on the Fayetteville City Council in 1989 at age 26. Throughout his political career, Kim Robertson was part of the team. “He ran for city council during our first year of marriage,” she said.
And since 1989, she’s been supportive of her husband’s political career and said it’s a good fit for him. “He’s got an even-keeled temperament and he’s a great listener. He wants to hear everyone’s concerns,” she emphasized.
She believes that both their positions in leadership roles help them understand their mutual responsibilities to the community. It allows them to talk about their respective challenges and keep their commitment to make a difference in their community in the forefront of their conversations.
The couple also likes to travel together — on their motorcycles. Robertson proudly displays a picture of his new Harley Davidson Ultra Limited on his smart phone. Mrs. Robertson, who has been riding for at least the past six years is on her third upgrade, having learned to ride on a Harley Sportster, then a Dyna and today straddles a Harley Softtail Deluxe. On warm, sunny weekends, they enjoy the outdoors during group rides with the Mild Hogs or Law Dogs, the latter being made up of mostly law enforcement, attorneys and court officials.
A major motorcycle outing for the couple will occur in a few weeks when the Mayor and First Lady are scheduled to lead the Dogwood Festival’s annual Rags & Hogs Motorcycle Rally to Myrtle Beach, S.C. Organizers say the event consists of 400 bikers and classic convertible automobiles in a 92-mile rally from the Airborne & Special Operations Museum to Myrtle Beach. The event raises money for the American Cancer Society, the Green Beret Foundation and the Kidsville News Literacy and Education Foundation.
“There’s nothing more liberating than getting out on a pretty day and riding your motorcycle,” he said.
Robertson said he first seriously thought about running for mayor in 2009, when incumbent Tony Chavonne considered not running for the term he later served.
“I started watching the mayor’s race after that.”
Robertson ran against Chavonne in 2011 and made a fair showing against a popular incumbent with a hefty political war chest.
That campaign was not in vain. It did give him additional name recognition and when Mayor Chavonne declined to run in 2013, Robertson was poised for the opportunity. The result was a hard-fought and costly campaign, first to make it through a primary and then take on an incumbent council member. The final tally that determined the new mayor came down to less than 300 votes.
But this wasn’t Robertson’s first taste of mayoral aspirations. In April 2000, immediately after the passing of popular Mayor J.L. Dawkins, who had spent more than a quarter century on the Council before succumbing to cancer, Robertson offered himself as a compromise candidate on a divided City Council to finish Dawkins’ unexpired term. The council eventually stayed with Mayor Pro Tem Milo McBryde.
Robertson’s reoccurring theme, and what he wants his administration to be known for, is to get people talking. In his first days in office, Robertson coupled neophyte and veteran council members in a sort of mentoring program, re-established the previously successful City-County Liaison Committee, consisting of municipal and county elected officials who meet regularly to discuss common interests and says he’s reached out to the Fayetteville Public Works Commission, the city-owned yet semi-autonomous utility company with whom the City has had a very tenuous relationship at times.
“During my campaign, I promised to build bridges and re-establish relationships.” And, he says, make government more responsive to economic development. Therefore, he also added a Budgetary Oversight Committee, charged with focusing on efficiency and budget matters and a Gateways Committee to review municipal regulations regarding aesthetics and land-use planning.
He firmly believes some of the City’s ordinances are too heavy handed and stifle economic opportunities. He wants more flexibility and a common sense approach when it comes to laws affecting economic development.
Robertson pulls up an aerial view of a small city back street on one of the two large monitors on his desk. He points to the only house on the private street and says a city requirement to build a sidewalk is hampering expansion plans for a business that backs up to the street.
“It’s frustrating, but I signed up for this and it’s a serious commitment for me.”