Yesterday there came reports that the White House is considering nominating Mel Watt to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates the mortgage-finance firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Watt is North Carolina’s congressman from the 12th congressional district and has been for over twenty years.
If nominated, there will be a vacancy in the state’s House delegation, and both a special election and a primary will be held. This vacancy could come about as soon as April, assuming that Mr. Watt is nominated and confirmed by the Senate.
The 12th district is known in political lore as the “I-85 district”, a squiggly-lined atrocity that snakes its way from urban (read: black) neighborhoods in Charlotte all the way up to Winston-Salem and Greensboro, profiled in political science textbooks as a notorious example of gerrymandering. Since its inception in 1991, the district has gone through various remodelings and has been featured in a number of prominent court cases, most notably Shaw v. Reno.
The latest redistricting plan has made the 12th even less compact and even more Democratic. There are only a handful of precincts in the entire district that vote Republican, these being mostly rural areas in Rowan and Davidson that lie in the 12th’s unfortunate path up to the Triad. President Obama won 79% of the district’s vote in 2012, an improvement on his 78% showing in 2008.
Needless to say, the Democratic primary is tantamount to election in the 12th. For the record, the Republican nominee in 2012 was Jack Brosch, a Republican Party activist from Charlotte who is now in the running for NC GOP chairman.
There are a number of prominent Democrats who can run for the seat, but by far the strongest candidate would be Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx. A majority of the district is comprised of Mecklenburg County, Foxx will have ample campaign funds to scare off any challengers, and he’s very good friends with President Obama and would probably get his endorsement if he needed it.
The question is: does he want it? The U.S. House of Representatives is an attractive option, but he might also want to challenge Senator Richard Burr in 2016 (or he could do both). Alternatively, he could run for governor in 2016, or perhaps settle into the Charlotte mayor’s office for perpetuity. Most political observers, however, think that Foxx has Washington ambitions.
If the 12th district becomes open, it’s his for the taking. At 42 years old, the seat would basically be his for a very, very long time. Foxx, however, might desire something more high-profile than a seat in Congress. If so, there’s a chance that being the congressman from the 12th district could hurt his future political career. It’s much more urban, more liberal, and much less white than North Carolina as a whole. And how would voters statewide respond to a congressman from such a horrendously gerrymandered district? If people know anything about Mel Watt, it’s that he represents the I-85 district, and many people make the erroneous assumption that he had a hand in drawing it. In the end, it’s easier to seek statewide office as mayor of the state’s largest city than as the representative of the state’s most gerrymandered district. The Charlotte curse is over, and a stint in Congress would rob Foxx of the opportunity to run as a Washington outsider, which all voters love.
Assuming that Watt is nominated to head Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – assuming that he is confirmed by the Senate – assuming that Foxx runs for the seat and he wins – keep an eye on his voting record. If it’s as liberal as Watt’s, then he’s probably planning a lifetime career serving the 12th District. But if he stakes out some surprisingly moderate positions, then he’s probably planning a run for statewide office sometime in the future.
Even if Watt isn’t nominated, I think it’s more likely than not that we’ll be seeing a new representative in the 12th district. Last year, Mel Watt seemed ambivalent about running for another term, so even if he doesn’t get this appointment there’s a fair chance he’ll be leaving Congress. If that’s the case, then the pressure will be on for Mayor Foxx.