Candidates face uncertainty in 12th district race

Nov. 16, 2013 @ 01:51 PM

For months, candidates looking to succeed U.S. Rep. Mel Watt have been organizing, raising money and preparing for a tough campaign.

But now they're stuck in political limbo, with U.S. Senate Republicans recently blocking Watt's confirmation path to a key mortgage regulatory post.

The candidates say they hope he'll still get confirmed. But they also know that Watt, a Democrat, might run for re-election in the 12th Congressional district.

For some, that would spell the end of their Congressional campaigns.

"I never intended to run against the congressman," said state Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford. "That's still my position. So we'll have to wait and see what he does."

U.S. Senate Republicans last month stopped an effort by Democrats to free up Watt's nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The 56-42 vote fell short of the 60 needed to halt the delay tactics.

After the vote, Watt, a Charlotte attorney and 12th District congressman since 1993, said he didn't plan to withdraw from the nomination.

Tapped for the post six months ago by President Barack Obama, Watt said he's "hopeful that we will prevail when the motion for reconsideration is taken up in the Senate."

Meanwhile, his spokesman Keith Kelly said Watt hasn't made a decision about his Congressional seat if his nomination continues to be delayed or is scuttled permanently.

"He normally will make a decision about re-election either in late December or early January before the filing period in February. He's always done that and he will continue to do that," Kelly said.

The uncertainty of Watt's nomination leaves hanging at least four Democrats who have said they'll run for the 12th District seat if he's no longer in Congress.

They include Adams, state Rep. Marcus Brandon of High Point, state Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board attorney George Battle III.

Should Watt resign to take the housing post, Gov. Pat McCrory would call a special election to fill out his two-year term, held at least 90 days after the vacancy occurs. A primary for that special election would be held depending on the date of the vacancy. The ultimate winner would be the likely front-runner to keep the seat in the November 2014 election.

If Watt runs for re-election, the filing deadline is in February.

Watt, 68, has won by comfortable margins in the general elections for years in the heavily Democratic district, which starts in Charlotte and goes up Interstate 85 to Greensboro, taking in parts of Winston-Salem.

"The dominoes are just not falling like everyone thought they would," said J. Michael Bitzer, a political science and history professor at Catawba College.

With so much uncertainty, the candidates are in an "awkward holding pattern," he said.

"They can raise money, but do they want to be seen as raising too much money? It's a delicate line to walk. They just have to stay in this holding pattern," he said.

Bitzer said campaign finance reports could indicate Watt's plans.

"Any member of Congress running for re-election is going to raise something, even if it's a token amount. And if he hasn't raised anything by the end of this quarter that may be the indicator that he may be looking at choosing not to run for re-election," he said.

Watt's third-quarter campaign report filed with the Federal Election Commission shows his congressional committee raising just $10 and having $68,000 in the bank.

The four candidates say what happened to Watt's nomination is unfair and that he's qualified to run the agency.

Watt is a 21-year veteran of the House and its Financial Services committee. Democrats have praised his pro-consumer record, including opposing risky Wall Street behavior that helped produce the 2008 financial industry collapse. He's won support from the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders.

But Watt faced opposition from Republicans who said he was short on technical expertise needed to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and from powerful conservative groups that criticized his support for federal intervention in the troubled housing industry.

"The Republicans are playing politics," Adams said.

Battle said Watt is a strong advocate for homeowners.

As far as campaigning, Battle said he has been meeting voters in the district. But he said he would withdraw if Watt runs for another term.

"He's done an exceptional job, and I'm one of his biggest fans," he said.

Brandon also said he would pull out of the race.

"He's a hero of mine and deserves to be confirmed," he said. But he said it has been difficult and frustrating: "You have to campaign as if there is an election in 60 days."

Adams agreed. "You have to be prepared and ready to move if things come to pass. We'll just be in the readiness mode," she said.

So will Graham.

"I'm still cautiously optimist that he will get confirmed. If he does not, then I am willing to give him the time and space necessary to decide where he goes from here. We have not made any decision about if he is not confirmed because we believe that he will - and he should be."