Partisan cycle puts congressional incumbents in comfortable spot

by Jordan Green


Forsyth County is carved up between one of the state’s most conservative and rural congressional districts and one that is among the most progressive and urban. And that’s generally how the incumbents in both parties like it: Their experience and stature dictate that qualified candidates from their own parties don’t typically challenge them in primaries, and by the time the general election rolls around the contest is all but decided.

The 12th Congressional District, represented by Democrat Mel Watt since 1993, snakes along Interstate 85 from Charlotte up through Salisbury and Lexington. Near Thomasville it forks, with one branch reaching into east Winston-Salem and another passing through central High Point to east Greensboro. Republican Virginia Foxx has represented the 5th Congressional District, covering the generally conservative northwestern corner of the state, since 2005.

12th district: Watt vs. Brosch “The 12th district actually has the notoriety for North Carolina of — it’s listed in Wikipedia under the definition of ‘gerrymandering,’” Jack Brosch, the Republican challenger, told a group of senior citizens at a recent candidate forum at First Christian Church in Winston-Salem.

The 12th district was drawn in the early 1990s to ensure minority representation in compliance with the Voting Rights Act. That arrangement has suited the Republican legislators, who redrew the 12th to increase non-white voters from less than half of the district to 64.3 percent, in the process bleeding Democrats out of neighboring districts to shore up Republican dominance.

“I feel I’m qualified for this partially because I’ve got a heartbeat, to be honest with ya,” said Brosch, who also mentioned his professional experience working in the technology sector and as a financial advisor.

Two days later, Watt was visiting Winston-Salem from Charlotte. He sat on a dais with Mayor Allen Joines and Forsyth County Democratic Party Chair Susan Campbell at Union Baptist Church for an event billed as a “citywide get-out-and-vote revival.” Watt jestingly brought greetings on behalf of his opponent, who was not present. (Brosch said later that he had not received an invitation.)

As Watt left the assembly hall, a supporter called out from behind a curtain that concealed an organ: “Give ’em hell, Mel!” The congressman made his way down the hallway, and other constituents warmly greeted him.

“He’s done so much for all black people, for the community and for cities,” Terrie Spalding said. “He’s the No. 1 congressman in the country.”

Cynthia Moseley, who went to college on a scholarship provided by the Congressional Black Caucus, enthused, “I’m the beneficiary of a program that was implemented during his tenure.” Watt chaired the caucus in 2005 and 2006.

“A lot of people are saying we ought to make these districts more competitive,” Watt said during an interview in the office of the Rev. Sir Walter Mack, the pastor of Union Baptist Church. “I also think there’s something to be said for having districts be very conservative or very progressive because the interests of the constituents are different. It’s difficult to represent people who disagree with each other.

Marked growth of the district’s Hispanic population over the past two decades has made immigration an important topic. A VA hospital in Salisbury and de-centralization of services to Charlotte and Kernersville has made veterans’ issues a constant preoccupation. And Watt noted that the foreclosure crisis has hit Charlotte and other urban areas particularly hard. Watt said he has handily won election during cycles when black voters made up only 40 percent of the district, and he called the new makeup with its higher percentage of minority voters “ridiculous.”

“In my district some of the most ultra-liberal constituents are white people at Davidson College,” he said. “You have people who want to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan yesterday. African Americans will say, ‘I know you’ve thought this through. We trust the president to make the right decision.’” Watt said the fact that he doesn’t have to worry about reelection frees him to make decisions based on what is in the best interest of the country rather than ideological considerations.

To illustrate how he assesses the power dynamic every two years to determine how he can make the most effective contribution, Watt noted that after helping to shape the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation in 2010, he asked to be switched from the Financial Services Committee to Judiciary.

“I knew we were going to have a Republican majority,” he recounted. “All they want to do is un-do Dodd-Frank, which they talked about, but they couldn’t get enough votes to do it. I knew there wouldn’t be much we could do with financial reform, but as a result of being on the Judiciary Committee, I got assigned ranking member of the Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet, and we did a patent-reform bill that got signed into law. That was something that both parties agreed needed to be done.”

Brosch, like his opponent, is from Charlotte. During the Winston-Salem candidate forum, he assailed one of Dodd-Frank’s provisions. “The government raised the requirement for banks so that they have a certain reserve on hand should something bad happen,” Brosch said. “Well, everybody says the cash crunch and the liquidity is an issue [with] small businesses and being able to borrow money for those companies that have great credit. Well, the problem is the government raised the reserve requirement for those banks, and now all of a sudden they can’t loan it.”

The candidates also differ on the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature legislative achievement. Watt voted for the legislation, which he called “historic.”

“I am a proponent of repeal and replace,” Brosch said at the Winston- Salem candidate forum. “There are some portions of the Affordable Care Act that I think are good, such as covering children up to the age of 26, such as no preexisting conditions…. I think a couple of programs should be included in it which are not — that is transportability.”

5th district: Foxx vs. Motsinger

The redrawing of congressional lines has resulted in the percentage of Forysth County residents who live in the 5th Congressional District increasing from 57 percent to 85 percent, with the 12th district shedding some outlying areas of Winston- Salem.

Virginia Foxx, an unyielding social and fiscal conservative from Watauga County, is a disciplined party worker who enthusiastically warmed up a crowd for Mitt Romney in High Point in August and retailed the Republican candidate’s economic message during a Winston-Salem press conference last week.

“I’m very much in touch with constituents,” Foxx said. “I talk with them on the telephone. They keep me well informed. I listen to them. I do a lot of radio shows. People can call in. I’m very accessible. You know, I go to the grocery store and talk to the people in the grocery store, pump my own gas. I think the main thing is to be visible and accessible.”

The contrasts between the two candidates in the 5th Congressional District are stark. “My opponent is extraordinarily liberal,” Foxx said. “She actually has protested at the White House because she thinks the president’s too conservative, so I think there are two totally different philosophies.”

Elisabeth Motsinger, a physician’s assistant from Walkertown who has served on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board since 2006, was arrested in September 2011 during a protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Foxx said she favors the repeal of the Affordable Care Act “because it’s a government takeover of our healthcare system.”

She and her fellow Republicans have a plan for “real reform for healthcare.”

“Basically,” the candidate said, “it’s getting the federal government out of the business of running healthcare, and making it be based on market forces.”

Motsinger told the audience at a Winston-Salem candidate forum: “I am really glad that the Affordable Health Care Act passed. It’s the first time as a nation that we try to address and make sure all people have access to healthcare. As a physician assistant and healthcare provider, I have never met a patient who I didn’t want to get quality healthcare.”

Foxx states on her congressional website: “Illegal immigration should not be tolerated or rewarded, and we should do all we can to protect against unlawful entry into our country and fraudulent use of our taxpayer-funded government programs.”

Motsinger has expressed support of the DREAM Act, which would provide young undocumented people with a pathway to citizenship if they complete certain requirements such as obtaining a college degree or military service.

Foxx offered a successful amendment to federal legislation last year that would prohibit the use of taxpayer funds for federal grant programs that provide training for abortion procedures. She has received the endorsement of National Right to Life.

Motsinger said, “I believe women have the right to make their own choices about their own healthcare and about contraception.”

Foxx avoided specifics about her position on taxes, entitlements, the budget and the deficit in an interview. “Our Republican platform basically in terms of what we have done in the House of Representatives, my record is out there, and without going into great detail — I’ve voted to take care of entitlement reform so that we can save Medicare,” she said. “That’s the only way we can do it. The president has taken money out of Medicare, and he has no plan to save Medicare. But the Republicans have put forward a plan to save Medicare, to reduce the deficit and to reduce the debt.”

Republican House members have dug in their heels in opposition to Democratic efforts to repeal Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.

Motsinger blamed these tax cuts for increasing income inequality, and argued that too much focus on deficit reduction could stall the economic recovery.

“When the economy is fragile, it’s a very bad idea to try to do massive debt reduction because you can throw us right back into recession or depression,” she said. “The other piece is so much of what we have been talking about has been on the backs of the most vulnerable. We have had tax breaks when times are good, but we never say, ‘Gee, when times are bad it’s time to raise taxes again.’ We went to war twice without ever asking people to pay more taxes and particularly on the highest income earners.

“Tax cuts for the wealthy have never stimulated the economy, have never created more jobs, have never increased savings, have never done any of the things we’ve been told they will do,” Motsinger continued. “They’ve always had one effect and one effect alone — that was to massively increase income inequality.”