With U.S. Rep. Mel Watt’s confirmation last week to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, there will soon be a new face representing the state’s 12th Congressional District for the first time in 20 years – and there’s no shortage of candidates vying for the seat.
Watt is expected to formally resign from Congress this week to take the housing job, for which he was hand-picked by President Obama. After he bows out, Gov. Pat McCrory will call a special election that may occur as early as February. Since the 12th District is overwhelmingly Democratic, whoever wins the Democratic primary is expected to take the seat.
The district snakes its way from Charlotte, Concord and Salisbury to the Triad and includes portions of Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point and Lexington.
State Reps. Alma Adams and Marcus Brandon, both Democrats who represent Guildford County, have announced that they will run to succeed Watt. As of last week, the seven other candidates who have announced plans to run all hail from the Charlotte area, where Watt launched his successful run for Congress two decades ago.
It doesn’t surprise John Dinan, a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, that most of the 12th District hopefuls live in the Queen City. While a quarter of the 12th District’s population is in Guilford County, a full half live in Mecklenburg, giving candidates from the county an advantage, Dinan said.
“Especailly when you have a district that’s spread out so much, name recognition is crucial,” he said. “…It’s very difficult for officials to have name recognition across all those areas, and so the first thing election analysts look at is who’s making up the bulk of this district – well, it’s Mecklenburg County; it’s the Charlotte area.”
Greensboro resident Adams said her 30 years in politics has made her well known throughout the state, including Charlotte, where she says she has been involved with many organizations.
The former Guilford County School Board and Greensboro City Council member is serving her 11th term in the General Assembly, where she said one of her biggest successes was the 2006 fight she helped lead to raise the minimum wage for the first time in a decade. She said she plans to take that type of fighting spirit to the U.S. House.
“We need someone who really stands up for middle class families and women’s rights, health care, protecting voting rights. All those things that I have been doing at the state level, I’ll be able to do on the federal level,” said Adams, a former educator.
High Point’s Brandon is a relative newcomer, having won his first term in 2010. He said he wants to go to Washington to fight poverty and end educational disparities – causes he says he has rallied for in Raleigh.
“The reason why I’m running is the reason I ran for the state House and the same reason I got into politics; I felt that particularly the African American community has been marginalized a lot and that we need people who were going to represent the issues of African Americans and put that at the forefront of their policy-decision making.”
Brandon is especially proud of the school voucher legislation he sponsored; he said it gave poor students and those with disabilities more educational options. Critics, though, charge that vouchers are a threat to the public school system.
Brandon said he plans to work hard to make sure his name and works are known throughout the district. He already enjoys some name recognition. His primary victory over longtime incumbent Earl Jones in 2010 made him the first openly gay male member of the state House and one of the few openly gay African American lawmakers in the Southeast.
Reportedly, there already are a slew of potential candidates in the Charlotte area who have expressed interest in running, including former Charlotte City Council Member James “Smuggie” Mitchell, former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Harold Cogdel, N.C. Rep. Rodney Moore, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools attorney George Battle, attorney Curtis Osborne, Watt staff member Torre Jessup and Avery Staley, a Salisbury nonprofit human resources director.
Dinan said those Charlotte area hopefuls don’t have an automatic advantage because so many of them are likely going to toss their hats in the ring, increasing the possibility that a crowded primary ballot may split Charlotte area voters and give an outsider a chance.
Watt, an attorney and former state senator, easily won reelection time and again. Incumbency is a powerful thing, Dinan said, with 90 percent of members of Congress who seek reelection winning. Dinan said whoever wins the seat can probably expect to hold on to the seat for awhile.