CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The elevation of two Charlotte Democrats to national posts could raise the city’s profile in Washington – at the expense of valuable experience and seniority in both Congress and Raleigh.
Already, would-be successors are scrambling over what would be rare vacancies.
Last week President Barack Obama nominated Mayor Anthony Foxx as U.S. transportation secretary. Two days later he tapped U.S. Rep. Mel Watt to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Both face Senate confirmation hearings in the coming weeks, though they appear likely to be confirmed.
Watt, elected in 1992 to represent the sprawling 12th Congressional District, is North Carolina’s second-most senior member of Congress. With last year’s retirement of Republican U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick – who represented the Charlotte-based 9th District – his confirmation would mean the loss of almost 40 years of congressional experience in little more than six months.
During her time in office, Myrick translated her experience into the chairmanship of an Intelligence subcommittee and initiatives on health care. She was also the first female chair of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of House members who support a conservative agenda.
Watt, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, is a senior member of the Financial Services and Judiciary panels.
“It does create a leadership vacuum,” said Susan Roberts, a political scientist at Davidson College. “I just can’t see that losing that much institutional memory and experience is a good thing.”
But U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said while it’s a loss in experience, “I don’t think that’s necessarily a net loss for the city.”
“Having leaders such as Anthony or Mel in their positions certainly raises Charlotte’s profile,” he said.
Ripple effect in Raleigh
The ripple effect of losing a mayor and congressman could also cost seniority in Raleigh.
State Sen. Dan Clodfelter and Rep. Becky Carney, both Charlotte Democrats and senior members of Mecklenburg’s legislative delegation, are both considering running for mayor, along with a pair of City Council members.
Sen. Malcolm Graham, in his fifth term, is one of several Democratic lawmakers exploring a run for Watt’s seat in the 12th District; the district runs from Charlotte to Greensboro and juts into Winston-Salem. Other potential candidates include at least one veteran Triad legislator.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat. “Some institutional knowledge would be lost. (But) we are blessed to have an abundance of young, talented leadership that could step up and take their place.”
Such plum jobs rarely come open. Watt’s job would be available for the first time in a generation – he’s the only representative the 12th District has ever had.
And Charlotte voters will face a wide-open mayor’s race for only the second time since 1995, at a time when the city struggles with passing a capital spending plan and possibly losing control of its airport to a proposed regional authority.
The mayor’s race will take place this fall. A special primary election would be scheduled for Watt’s seat if he’s confirmed.
Stability to chaos
Last year, Myrick’s decision to retire – after nine terms in Congress from the heavily GOP 9th District – created a free-for-all Republican primary with 10 candidates. Businessman Robert Pittenger had to win a hard-fought runoff with then-Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Pendergraph before winning the general election and succeeding Myrick.
Now there’s plenty of pent-up demand for the latest openings, which also are expected to draw a crowd.
“We went from a period of stability with these offices, experienced people who knew their job very well, to a period of chaos,” said Democratic consultant Dan McCorkle of Charlotte.
Carney, a lawmaker since 2003, said she’s weighing the value of her experience in Raleigh against the possibility of taking it to Charlotte.
“Whether I stay in Raleigh or run for mayor and become the mayor, that institutional knowledge is going to pay off for Charlotte either way,” she said.
Foxx and Watt would give the city and the state prominent voices in the Obama administration. But few expect either to use their office to directly benefit their state or hometown.
Instead, said Hodding Carter, a former administration official under Jimmy Carter who teaches at UNC Chapel Hill, their influence would be more indirect.
The last Charlottean in such a post was Democrat Erskine Bowles, who as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff in the late ’90s, helped negotiate a balanced federal budget.
“That provides a fair amount of reflected glory and sense that Charlotte is a place that turns out influential folks of national competence, of achievement which is recognized,” Carter said. “And that’s a really, really good thing for any community to be able to say.”