Watt’s exit will leave scrambled race for Congress

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comDecember 9, 2013 

U.S. Rep. Mel Watt’s departure from Congress could trigger a complicated process to fill his seat for those who would replace him – a group that Monday grew by one.

James “Smuggie” Mitchell, a former Charlotte City Council member who lost this year’s Democratic mayoral primary, announced his candidacy. He joins a group of at least five other Democrats in the 12th District, which stretches from Charlotte to Greensboro.

Watt, who has held the seat since 1993, might be confirmed as early as Tuesday as head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. If confirmed, he could resign his seat and be sworn in as early as this week.

Watt is part of a congressional delegation that left Monday for the funeral of former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Filling Watt’s seat would require a special election. Bob Stephens, Gov. Pat McCrory’s legal counsel, said Monday he could have a proposed timetable as early as Tuesday.

“We’re working on a schedule with the (state) board of elections to figure out the appropriate time to do this election,” Stephens said.

One option could be to hold a special congressional primary in February, with a possible runoff on May 6, the date of the state’s regular primary. A special general election could take place in July.

Another would be to piggyback on the current election schedule. That would mean a primary on May 6, a runoff in mid-July and a general election in the fall.

That would be a less costly option. But it would also mean the vacancy would not be filled for nearly a year.

Under either scenario, candidates might face two contests: the special and regular elections.

Mitchell became the latest candidate in an already crowded field.

It includes three other Charlotteans: George Battle III, general counsel to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, state Sen. Malcolm Graham and attorney Curtis Osborne.

Also running are two Guilford County Democrats, state Reps. Alma Adams of Greensboro and Marcus Brandon of High Point.

Through September, Brandon had raised more than $143,000, more than any of his rivals.

“We’re working really hard,” said Brandon, a 35-year-old political consultant.

Battle had raised nearly $110,000, compared with Osborne’s $83,000 and Graham’s $57,000. Adams, the only woman in the field, had taken in $89,000 with the help of Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports Democratic women who support abortion rights.

Candidates have been raising more money since then. Graham has a Wednesday night fundraiser hosted by business and political leaders including Democratic Sen. Dan Clodfelter and broadcast executive Jim Babb.

The 12th District once stretched from Charlotte to Durham. In the 1990s, it was the most litigated congressional district in the country and the focus of four cases that went to the U.S. Supreme Court that focused on the role of race in redistricting.

Now the district spans six counties and includes parts of three large cities: Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. More than half the registered voters – 57 percent – are African-American.

The population tilts toward Mecklenburg County, which has 52 percent of the district’s population. Guilford County has 27 percent.

That could give an advantage to a Mecklenburg County candidate, or mean those from Charlotte will split the vote.

“Theoretically it could,” said Battle. “I hope it doesn’t.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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