ELKHART — Mayor-elect Rod Roberson is already thinking ahead to Jan. 1. And what does he think about?
“I think about getting to work. I think about – let’s go,” Roberson said of the day that he will assume office. “It’s time to roll up your sleeve and make things happen.”
That doesn’t just apply to himself. The newly elected Democrat said he is expecting the community to be engaged and take responsibility for making the city a better place.
Building Elkhart Together, he said, was not just a campaign slogan. It’s what he sees for Elkhart’s future. His administration will depend on getting feedback from residents to know if their steps for the city are effective.
“This can’t be just a concept, a feel-good, get-elected strategy. This has to be something that people have a buy-in on,” he said.
That is particularly important now because, the way Roberson sees it, the election had three big themes: The Tolson Center, development in or outside the River District, and rebuilding trust with the Police Department. Those themes have divided people between the north side and south side, downtown and neighborhoods, whites and people of color.
“We want to be united,” Roberson said. “What unites us? Service. So let’s make sure that we are serving each other so that we can see each other.”
Roberson, 61, defeated former Republican Mayor Miller in the election on Tuesday. The Democrat said his win, at least in part, came down to bringing in voters that did not identify with the Democratic Party.
“I was speaking to people who said, ‘I’m Republican, and I’m getting ready to vote for you,’” he said of some interactions on Election Day.
But how did that happen? Roberson said he didn’t run as an ideological Democrat, and that he didn’t ask Democrats to vote a straight ticket. Instead, he asked everyone to believe in a unified way to deal with what issues are confronting the city.
“And that was tough for some of my liberal friends,” he said. “They were concerned about whether or not I was vacating or just didn’t have Democratic values. And I’m not quite sure what Democratic values are relative to Elkhart values.”
Roberson said his win also came from people trusting in him because regular people might be able to identify more with him than most politicians. Roberson attempted to turn criticism of his financial history, including a foreclosure during the Great Recession, to his advantage, saying that going through that struggle made him a better person and would make him a better mayor.
A four-term veteran of the Elkhart City Council, where he was an at-large member, Roberson had significant experience with running a city-wide political campaign. But this campaign, eight years removed from his most recent run, was different because of social media and the division in national politics.
But some things are the same. His yards signs were the same color and size and were made by the same people as when he ran for City Council in 1999, he said. Those yard signs were an important part of the winning strategy.
“I owned the ground. Miller bought billboards,” he said. “If you’re in the yard, it’s a personal relationship that you have to a yard. That says something.”
He believes that tactic helped him overcome raising less money than his opponent, both in the Democratic primary and the general election.
The mayor-elect is now in the transition period, which Mayor Tim Neese’s chief of staff has promised will be smooth. Neese, a Republican, announced in December he would not seek another term.
Roberson continues to work as an energy and risk-management specialist at Elkhart Community Schools. That will come to an end soon, though he is not certain when. But Roberson is getting his transition team ready to look at the issues that must be tackled right away.
One of those issues concerns the city staff that is appointed by the mayor. For those appointments, party affiliation is insignificant, Roberson said. He promises to deliver unparalleled service to the city’s residents, so having staff that can make that happen is what is required.
“I’m not going to be looking at who they are. I’m going to be looking at what they can do and what we need them to do,” he said.
He said would like to have all appointments done in time for Jan. 1.
Roberson will be Elkhart’s first African American mayor. That is not as important to him as it might be to others, he said.
“I’ve seen white folk and Latinos and African Americans and Asians find some significance in it, in a positive way. And that, to me, is special,” he said. “It’s almost as if they become African American and are hoping for me to be successful so that we can finally stop saying ‘the first.’ We can finally be able to put that behind us.”
On Tuesday night, as Roberson was giving his victory speech in front of a few hundred supporters at the Lerner Theatre’s Crystal Ballroom, he noted the diversity in the crowd. That moment was one you cannot properly prepare for, he said. He didn’t know if he would win, and, if he did, what he was going to say, how he was going to feel. It was surreal.
“All those things occur to you as you’re headed towards the Crystal Ballroom, with the hope that what I was feeling was going to be, indeed, reality. And I was feeling pretty good going to the Crystal Ballroom,” he said.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus