Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy walked into his office unexpectedly one Friday in May and delivered the news: His fourth term would be his last, and his aide, Carlo Robustelli, would be out of a job by the end of the year.
"It's probably the most difficult conversation that I've ever had with him," said Robustelli, who has led the daily operations at the mayor's office since July 2007. "In a job when you work with somebody that long, and you know somebody that long, it's tough. At the time I kind of felt like I was 15, and I was being broken up with. It was hard."
There wasn't much time to dwell on it. Robustelli wrote a press release, and Foy's decision was public 30 minutes later.
"My role is to support the decision he makes, even if it's to my own detriment," Robustelli said. "So in that moment, actually, I had to immediately put aside the reality and say, 'OK, I'll need to think about this. I need to work on this, but the immediate concern is getting behind the decision, thinking about it and what are the next steps.' That's what we did."
For two and a half years, Robustelli was the person on the other line when residents called for Foy, who also taught law at N.C. Central University in Durham and ran a law practice. Robustelli thought of himself as the town ombudsman, listening to residents share concerns ranging from the relocation of the homeless shelter to the increasing beaver population, advising them where to go next for information and how to craft a meaningful petition and presentation to Town Council.
The 28-year-old New York native wrote speeches, planned town events, oversaw eight interns, served as the mayor's representative on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Partnership, researched policy and served as an advocate—and often as a devil's advocate, too.
In May, he didn't know what the future would hold. Seven months later, he still doesn't. He'll stay on through the month as Town Council holds two meetings to fill the seat vacated by Bill Strom. Mark Kleinschmidt was sworn in as mayor Monday night. The new guy, Mark McCurry, who ran Kleinschmidt's campaign, starts Jan. 1.
"I've reached out to my network of contacts and people I've worked closely with—and I've been really grateful for all of the support and all of the goodwill that people have put in to help me—but there's the reality that right now the economy is in rough shape. There aren't a lot of jobs, and where there are jobs, there are just an incredible number of people applying for them," he said.
The job hunt is new territory, both for Robustelli and his family. His grandparents came to New York from Italy. A bricklayer, his grandfather didn't have enough education to be a foreman. He ran a landscaping business at night, while his wife opened a deli.
Robustelli's father followed suit, opening his first pizzeria in Brooklyn when he was 19. Since then, he's opened and sold more than a dozen delis, bakeries and pizzerias.
When Robustelli wanted to go to college, he had to provide his father with a plan on how he'd finance it.
"My generation is the first generation to be educated," Robustelli said. "My family had this very kind of entrepreneurial, 'You do well in life if you want to (own a restaurant),' and this was kind of a little outside the box for them. At the time I was paving my own road."
He graduated from high school early, saved his money, got into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and took some classes at a community college to cut the cost. While in school he campaigned for Foy in 2003 and later worked as an intern in the mayor's office. He worked as program director for UNC's Parr Center for Ethics for three years before Foy's third aide left, and he got the job.
"I'm the different kind of path. We'll see how it works out," Robustelli said. "My family has been active and engaged in the community but not spent much time behind a desk."
His brother opened Carmine's Ristorante & Pizzeria in Chapel Hill last year. Though Robustelli credits growing up in the food business for his ability to connect with people, he is searching for a gig in politics, advocacy or nonprofit work.
"I'm looking for something that would really give me an opportunity to use this kind of diverse skill set, and that's not immediately transferable," he said. "You know, I think I'm looking for a career at this point."
Robustelli's situation is unusual in that Chapel Hill's mayoral aide position is unique in the state. In other municipalities, the mayor's staff, including his or her aide, reports to the city or town manager, and they keep their jobs even after the mayor leaves office.
Robustelli is the only staff member in Chapel Hill government who reports directly to the mayor. Those who worked alongside him say his ability to navigate that relationship made him an asset not just for the mayor but also to the Town Council and staff.
"He was kind of like the grease that kept the mayor's office well oiled and running," Town Manager Roger Stancil said. "He was the link between the mayor's office and the manager and the public."
Foy says parting with Robustelli is one of the biggest negatives in leaving his job, but his former aide can point to several tangible achievements while updating his résumé.
The town wouldn't have been named America's most livable city without Robustelli. He was the one who handled the application and brought the U.S. Conference of Mayors to Chapel Hill. Foy also credited Robustelli with spearheading the Mayor's Youth for a Sustainable Future, a group of high school students who conducted a water conservation audit on public housing, which ultimately led to a retrofitting of all of the units. He also helped reinvigorate the town's Justice in Action Committee.
Catherine Lazorko, the town's public information officer, said beyond that, Robustelli never lost sight of the smallest details, even on Foy's last night in office.
"He's the type of person who remembered legal pins for all the new council members tonight," she said. "It's the kind of detail that he would remember."
Ironically, Foy was sick at home as the new council was sworn in, leaving Robustelli to act on his behalf one final time.
The audience laughed as Robustelli read Foy's words (PDF, 89 KB), which thanked Robustelli for his "gracious style, innovative ideas and long hours of service." He just ducked his head. He has never liked being in the spotlight, after all.
"It's kind of a mix between being melancholy and it being an honor, I guess. I wish he was here," he said afterward. "I'm not the one who speaks before a lot of people."
Robustelli paced the aisle, as he usually does, ensuring the agenda and paperwork was in order. It was a fitting beginning to an end, with the question of what's next looming ever closer.
"I don't think anybody should feel sorry for me. I understood fully what I was getting into," Robustelli said. "It's a finite period of time. It's an incredible opportunity, and I was thrilled to have it. I've learned a ton, but having worked so closely with the people I've worked with and being engaged with a community like I have in this way that I have, it's something you miss."