Watt's legacy: A consistent liberal voice

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comDecember 10, 2013 

For over two decades, Democratic Rep. Mel Watt has been Charlotte’s reliably liberal, if sometimes lonely, voice in Washington.

A former civil rights lawyer, he juggled the interests of his constituents and those of the financial industry that powered his hometown’s economy.

Votes on war, spending and the rights of convicted sex offenders often left him in a distinct minority. He served under three presidents, led the Congressional Black Caucus and acted as a sounding board for a young senator named Barack Obama.

Watt, 68, is expected to resign from Congress after being confirmed 57-41 Tuesday as head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

In 1993 Watt and Democrat Eva Clayton of eastern North Carolina became the first African-Americans to represent the state in a century. Watt’s 12th District snaked from Charlotte to Durham. Over the years, it was the subject of repeated legal challenges over the role of race in representation. Four times it ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

After winning in 1992, Watt rarely faced a serious challenge. That left him free to vote his convictions, even when it was unpopular.

In 1996, he cast the only House vote against what was known as Megan’s Law, a bill requiring registration of convicted sex offenders. He argued that people who paid their debt should be free to move on.

Rep. John Spratt, a York County Democrat and friend from Yale Law School, walked over to him.

“I said, ‘Mel, watch out,” Spratt recalls, warning Watt the vote could hurt at election time.

“It shows,” says Spratt, “how he would stand on principle in peril to his own political position.”

Liberal record

In 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the House overwhelmingly passed a measure supporting the troops and their families. Watt, who felt President George W. Bush had committed to a costly war without exhausting other options, was one of 22 members voting “present.”

He voted “present” the year before when the House voted to express its affront at a court ruling that called the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional because it mentions God. Watt said he had no trouble with wording, but thought it was “tacky” for Congress to express an opinion about another branch of government.

Sometimes he bucked his own party, even his friends.

In 1993, President Clinton and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, Watt’s friend and 4th Ward neighbor, urged him to support the North American Free Trade Agreement. He did not.

Watt’s voting record consistently ranked as one of the House’s most liberal. Last year the ACLU gave him a 100 percent rating; the American Conservative Union, a 0.

“He was at the time a more liberal member of the Democratic caucus,” says Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist. “But over the years the caucus moved to his end of the spectrum. So while he had the lone dissenting voice sometimes, he became the epitome of a more liberal Democratic House caucus.”

He was vocal critic of Bush and a consistent supporter of Obama. He supported the president’s health care initiative despite not having a “public option,” which he argued would lower costs for working families.

In 2006, supporters credited his behind-the-scenes work in brokering an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Watt, then chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, announced the deal at a news conference on the Capitol steps with a group that included Sen. Ted Kennedy.

“I’m going to miss him on the voting rights front,” says Assistant House Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat. “He was my go-to guy in that area.”

Banking regulation

As a senior member of the Financial Services committee, Watt also had a hand in Wall Street reform and strongly supported the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

Years ago, he was also at the center of debates that restructured the nation’s banking system and made it easier for banks to expand across state lines.

“He bridged the gap between the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the financial services industry and also the Black Caucus,” says Mark Leggett, who for 25 years lobbied for the Bank of America and its predecessors.

“Mel always had the consumer in mind. He never ever forgot the consumer … If you could convince Mel it was good for the consumer, and good for the banking industry, you had his support.”

Watt largely retreated into the background on banking issues since the Dodd-Frank regulatory law passed in July 2010.

He made fewer floor speeches on banking and introduced fewer bills on the subject. Watt told the Observer last year that it was a conscious decision and a result of the committee’s polarization since Republicans captured the House in 2010.

“We really haven’t done anything in financial services of substance,” he said at the time.

But his reduced activity on banking also reflected the sensitive position of a Democratic lawmaker representing Charlotte.

Commercial banks have also been among Watt’s largest donors. They’ve given him more than $392,000 over his career, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s more than any industry.

Ethics investigation

Watt’s ties to the financial industry once got him in trouble.

In 2010 he was among eight House members investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics for fundraising activities that occurred around the time of a key vote on regulatory overhaul. He held a fundraiser two days before withdrawing an amendment that would have put auto dealerships under the regulatory umbrella of a consumer financial protection agency. Several financial firms made campaign contributions around the same time.

Though the ethics panel eventually dismissed the allegations, Watt said having his ethics questioned was “humbling and emotionally draining.”

But his reduced activity on banking also reflects the sensitive position of a Democratic lawmaker representing Charlotte.

Former GOP Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord rarely agreed with Watt. But they always got along.

“I have tried to change Mel’s mind and positions on a number of issues,” Hayes says. “I can’t say I succeeded but it was always a cordial conversation. You could always talk to him about the issues and get straight answers.”

Spratt and Clyburn say members respected Watt’s intelligence. “If Mel disagrees on an issue,” says Clyburn, “we all take note.”

In a statement, N.C. Republican Sen. Richard Burr said, “For over 20 years, I’ve watched Mel bring his passion for the state of North Carolina and his commitment to its people to Washington. Through all of my experiences working with Mel, I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand his leadership and potential.”

Not long ago, Republican Rep. Howard Coble of Greensboro, who serves on the Judiciary Committee with Watt, asked a GOP staffer a question.

“I asked who his favorite Democrat was, and he said, ‘Mel Watt’,” says Coble. “I asked a second Republican staffer the same thing about a year ago and he said Mel … That’s pretty consistent with the way most people view him up here. He’s partisan but we’re all partisan.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

The Lake Wylie Pilot is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service