Rep. Melvin Watt (D)
North Carolina 12th District
“This is perhaps the Negro’s temporary farewell to Congress,” said George White, a Tarboro, N.C., lawyer and Republican, in his last days in the House of Representatives in 1901. Segregation was being imposed by law, and blacks informally but effectively were being driven from the voting rolls in the rural South. It was 28 years until another black candidate was elected to Congress (from Chicago), and 72 years until another African-American won in the South (in Atlanta). When White said his farewell, most North Carolina blacks lived on farms or in tiny towns. Through the 20th century, few moved to the textile towns, where most mills hired only whites, but some African-Americans did move to North Carolina’s larger cities. In the years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they were numerous enough to elect members to the state Legislature. And some black candidates were successful with white-majority constituencies, notably Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. But North Carolina blacks were not concentrated in high enough numbers either in the rural areas or in the cities to become the majority of any congressional district, at least not one drawn compactly. No African-American from North Carolina followed White to Congress until the Democratic Legislature, after the 1990 census, drew two irregularly shaped black-majority districts. That resulted in the election in 1992 of Eva Clayton in the mostly rural and small-town 1st District, and the election of Melvin Watt in the 12th District.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
This 12th Congressional District of North Carolina was the most litigated district in the country during the 1990s, and was the focus of no fewer than four cases that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. It originally was made up of a series of scattered black precincts connected in some places by nothing wider than the lanes of Interstate 85, and it stretched 160 miles from Gastonia all the way to Durham. In the current version, drawn in 2001, the 12th remains a 100-mile-long, snake-like agglomeration that roughly parallels I-85 and includes African-American voters in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Lexington, Salisbury, and High Point, the international furniture center. A near-majority, 44%, of its residents are black. The Charlotte-area precincts account for a bit more than one-third of the district population, the Greensboro area is slightly more than 20%, and the Winston-Salem portion accounts for a little under 20%. In recent years, Hispanics have increased to 11%. This is North Carolina’s most urban district and includes the major banking center in downtown Charlotte. Politically, it is reliably though not overwhelmingly Democratic.
Rep. Melvin Watt (D)
Elected: 1992, 9th term.
Born: Aug. 26, 1945, Mecklenburg .
Education: U. of NC, B.S. 1967, Yale U., J.D. 1970.
Family: Married (Eulada); 2 children.
Elected office: NC Senate, 1984–86.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1971–92; Co–owner, East Town Manor nursing home, 1989–2008; Campaign mgr., Harvey Gantt Senate Campaign, 1990.
The congressman from the 12th District is Melvin Watt, a Democrat first elected in 1992. Watt grew up in a place called Dixie outside Charlotte, in a tin-roofed house with no electricity or running water. His dream was to attend the University of North Carolina, and he was one of the first black students to go there. He had a superb academic record and went on to Yale Law School. He set up a civil rights law practice in Charlotte. He served one term in the state Senate, then decided not to seek office again until his sons completed high school. He managed Harvey Gantt’s campaigns for City Council and mayor in the 1980s and for the U.S. Senate in 1990. In 1992, Watt decided to run for the 12th District seat. The contest turned out to be the kind of friends-and-neighbors Democratic primary common in the South. Watt won 47% in a four-way race. His base in Charlotte was bigger than those of his rivals, and he made inroads in other counties as well. He won the general election easily.
|Melvin Watt (D)||215,908||(72%)||($646,075)|
|Ty Cobb (R)||85,814||(28%)||($25,584)|
|Melvin Watt (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (67%), 2004 (67%), 2002 (65%), 2000 (65%), 1998 (56%), 1996 (71%), 1994 (66%), 1992 (70%)
In the House, Watt has compiled a voting record among the most liberal of Southern Democrats, and he’s not afraid to go his own way. He voted against crime bills because of death-penalty provisions, against the popular notion of increased prison sentences for crimes against children because he said they would interfere with the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s autonomy, and against the constitutional amendment to prohibit flag desecration. He vehemently opposed the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which President Clinton forged with the Republican Congress. And he cast the only vote in the House against Megan’s Law requiring registration of convicted sex offenders because, he said, individuals ought to be able to get on with their lives once they have paid their debt to society.
In the 109th Congress (2005-06), Watt was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He showed his independence by voting against a formal challenge by several Black Caucus members to the November 2004 presidential vote count in Ohio. He led the CBC members to try to open up a legislative dialogue with Bush, who then included what appeared to be a couple of the CBC’s proposals in his State of the Union address. But other than on the broadly backed 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act, the two sides reached little common ground. His chairmanship was marked by frequent clashes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, notably his vigorous objection to her decision to remove Rep. William Jefferson from the Ways and Means Committee after the Louisiana Democrat was caught up in a federal bribery investigation. Watt criticized the “political expediency” of taking on a Black Caucus member when Pelosi did not take comparable action against ethically tainted white Democrats. Watt also was a sounding board for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in his early stages of considering whether to run for the Democratic nomination for president. Watt initially doubted that the nation would elect a black president, and he backed former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. He later endorsed Obama prior to the North Carolina primary.
As chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Financial Services, he faced a challenge balancing consumer concerns with those of his banker constituents, who have been major contributors to his campaigns. The committee approved his bill to require bank regulators to file annual reports on their efforts to promote minority-owned banks. With Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., he sponsored a bill to prohibit insurance companies from using credit scores to set rates for auto policies if the Federal Trade Commission found that racial discrimination resulted. In 2007, he worked behind the scenes with committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., on legislation to overhaul the housing finance market, including requiring lenders to establish that borrowers have a reasonable chance to repay loans. But moderate Democrats opposed Watt’s plan to give $40 million in legal aid to borrowers facing foreclosure. Watt also co-sponsored a bill to protect consumers from predatory mortgages.
Watt was a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq, once accusing the president of lying about the justification to go to war. In July 2007, Watt apologized for the remark, which was made on the House floor, after Republicans threatened to have him reprimanded for violation of House rules requiring respectful debate. The following year, Watt teamed with Republican Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina to sponsor a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Watt, whose great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee, threatened to deny housing assistance to the Cherokee Nation after the tribe voted in March 2007 to rescind the tribal citizenship of African-American slaves.
Despite the many twists and turns in the 12th District since he was first elected, Watt has shown the ability to endear himself to voters regardless of their race. His toughest re-election contest came in 1998, when the black share of the district’s population had shrunk to 36% and Republicans put up a candidate who attacked him as an “extreme liberal.” Watt won 56%-42%, with support from the district’s many white liberals. He has not been seriously challenged since. Watt hates fundraising, but he has not needed to do much of it in recent elections.