Elected: 1992, 11th term.
Born: August 26, 1945, Mecklenburg
Education: U. of NC, B.S. 1967, Yale U., J.D. 1970
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1971–92; Co–owner, East Town Manor nursing home, 1989–2008; Campaign mgr., Harvey Gantt Senate Campaign, 1990.
Family: married (Eulada) , 2 children
(NOTE: The Senate confirmed Watt in December 2013 as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. A special election for the 12th District seat will be held in November 2014 along with the regular state elections.)
Democrat Melvin Watt, first elected in 1992, is a strong liberal who is more business friendly than some of his left-wing colleagues. In May 2013, President Barack Obama nominated Watt to head the federal housing finance office, but in October, his nomination set off a political battle with Senate Republicans, who claimed that Watt was not qualified for the executive branch job despite his more than 20 years on the House Financial Services Committee, a law degree from Yale, and his past leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus.
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 study 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, and 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.
In the House, Watt’s voting record is among the most liberal of Southern Democrats, and he’s not afraid to go his own way. He was one of just 22 Democrats in March 2012 to vote for a budget modeled after the Simpson-Bowles commission’s deficit-reduction recommendations. “It’s the only thing out there that talked about shared sacrifice,” he later told the Greensboro News & Record. In March 2010, he cast one of just 35 Democratic votes against a massive jobs bill that became law because he considered it “woefully inadequate.” 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. 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 descendants of African-American slaves.
On Financial Services, where he has served since arriving in Congress, Watt has faced a challenge balancing consumer concerns with those of his banker constituents, who have been major contributors to his campaigns. He has strongly defended the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau set up in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial services overhaul law. With fellow North Carolina Democrat Brad Miller, he was able to get anti-predatory lending provisions into the law in 2010. And he worked with Kansas Democrat Dennis Moore to broker a compromise to allow states to enact tougher rules beyond those of a proposed consumer protection agency.
The bill also landed him in an ethics controversy. Two days after a fundraiser was held for him that included major players in the auto-financing industry, he withdrew an amendment the industry opposed that would have brought it under the jurisdiction of the new consumer watchdog. He said he had done nothing wrong, and several lawmakers came to his defense. The Office of Congressional Ethics looked into whether there was a connection but closed the case in January 2011. Still angry about the matter, he offered an amendment to an appropriations bill in July to cut the ethics office’s budget by 40%, but it was overwhelmingly rejected.
Still, Watt seemed a natural choice for Obama when he needed a new director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the government-owned mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Republicans opposed the choice from the get-go; the vote in the Senate Banking Committee to advance his nomination was 12-10 along party lines.
Within the housing finance industry, there was speculation that Republicans favored leaving in place acting director Edward DeMarco, a President George W. Bush appointee who opposed Democratic efforts to reduce loan costs for homeowners at risk of foreclosure. Republicans maintained publicly that the president should appoint a "technocrat" with a background in mortgage finance, not a "politician" like Watt. On October 31, 2013, the Senate voted 56-42 on Watt's confirmation, four votes short of the 60 needed to cut off debate.
The vote outraged Democrats, who threatened to revisit a controversial plan to require only a simple majority for presidential appointees. "It is enormously disappointing that Republicans would filibuster the nomination of such a highly qualified nominee," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also vowed to bring Watt's nomination back the floor "at some point in the very near future."
In the House, Watt also serves on the Judiciary Committee, where in 2011 he became the ranking member on the panel’s subcommittee on intellectual property and the Internet. He questioned the motives of some opponents of legislation to fight piracy and counterfeiting on foreign websites, saying some of the critics are profiting from infringement. “The obstinate opposition since the day (the bill was introduced) is really about the bottom line,” he said at a November 2011 hearing. He previously had focused on voting rights and national security matters on the panel.
In the 109th Congress (2005-06), Watt was the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He led the CBC members in an effort to try to open up a legislative dialogue with President George W. 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. Watt also was a sounding board for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois 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 Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. He later endorsed Obama prior to the North Carolina primary.
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 reelection 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.