Shoes to Fill: Finding a winning strategy in the 12th congressional district

by Eric Ginsburg

Finding a winning strategy in the 12th congressional district

Half a dozen people sit in complete silence in a rented four-room office with light, pinkish brown walls. It’s a little eerie how quiet it is despite being midday and only a few yards from Wendover Avenue in Greensboro, but everyone is at their own table, diligently typing behind a laptop, and no sound emanates from their headphones.

Opened liter bottles of Cheerwine and Sprite adorn impromptu desks made of folding tables. The soda, alongside fluorescent green sticky notes and an assortment of thumbtacks, provides the only color variation in the breathless enclosure.

The nondescript stand-alone building, just beyond the edge of the Guilford County Public Health Department’s parking lot, is only identifiable as Marcus Brandon’s campaign headquarters from the outside by posters resting on windowsills — there is no sign on the door.

Even though Brandon, a second-term state representative, launched his campaign for US Rep. Mel Watt’s vacated seat in July, the barren office looks as if staffers moved in hurriedly the previous night or are ready to break down the operation at any time.

Once inside, it’s unmistakably a campaign operation, with various yellow detail maps of the 12 th district on the walls, a volunteer calendar and a sign with the WiFi password says it all: “Victory2014.” It isn’t that the office is desolate for a lack of action, but the inverse — Brandon’s campaign workers appear too busy to think about getting cozy.

The makeshift operation is fitting for an electoral race that remained nebulous until Monday. After throwing up rhetorical barricades in the aisles of Congress to block presidential appointments, including the naming of Watt as the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Republican walls finally fell away. Watt, who served the snaking majority-minority district since its inception 21 years ago, formally resigned and took his post with the Obama administration on Monday.

It was unclear whether Watt’s seat would still be warm by the time one of the crop of six Democratic contenders emerged from the primary — it’s up to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory to set an election date. After Watt’s job shift became official this week, the governor’s office said the election would follow the normal 2014 election cycle with a primary in May and the general election in November.

McCrory’s office said the decision to wait, rather than holding a special election, would save money, remove confusion and allow proper preparation time.

The decision also leaves the district without a representative for the longest possible timeframe.

Brandon is one of six Democratic candidates, several of them with previous elective experience, who filed to run in the 12 th congressional district race. The wishbone-esque area incorporates parts of Greensboro, High Point and Winston- Salem before winding a southward path and opening up to encompass a horseshoe swath of Charlotte. And it’s reminiscent of a textbook example of gerrymandering, circling predominantly black communities and held together by a wavy north-south thread.

The winner of the Democratic primary is overwhelmingly expected to waltz into Watt’s vacated seat — this is the second bluest congressional district in the state — and several well-known African- American legislators are looking to make the step up. Alma Adams, now in her 11 th term in the NC House after serving on the Greensboro City Council and the former Greensboro City School Board, is the only other Triad resident to announce their candidacy so far.

Brandon and Adams, in addition to facing each other, will take on a handful of Charlotte-based contenders: Malcolm Graham, a state senator; former Charlotte City Councilman James Mitchell; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools General Counsel George Battle and employment discrimination lawyer Curtis Osborne.

The number of registered voters in each area favors a candidate with strong support in the southern tier of the district, something Adams and Brandon aim to overcome and something their competitors are counting on.

NC Sen. Earline Parmon, who would be head and shoulders over any other Forsyth County contender for the seat, said she considered a bid but chose to avoid muddying the waters in the hopes that another candidate from the northern portion in the Triad would emerge triumphant from the fray.

Parmon threw her endorsement behind fellow powerhouse and Guilford County lawmaker Adams, as did several other big players, including Emily’s List and the NC Association of Educators. Adams said she is confident she can serve the entire district, noting that she would be of service to other communities in the district like Charlottean Watt was to neighborhoods up the road from his stomping ground.

“[Watt] served this district well from the south to the north and I intend to support this district from the north to the south,” Adams said. “I’m not a stranger to Charlotte or the other areas of this district. I think Charlotte will support me not only for what I intend to do for Charlotte, but for this whole district.”

The spread of voters worked to Watt’s advantage and may favor another Charlottean at first blush, but it is possible that the prevalence of candidates from the state’s largest city will split the vote enough to allow Adams or Brandon to come out on top. The two Guilford County contenders aim to cut enough into Charlotte’s voting block while shoring up northern support to pull ahead.Candidates on both sides of the coin are working to open offices on the opposite side of the 12th district, with Brandon even planning to unofficially move to Charlotte soon in order to maximize time at his forthcoming office and talking to voters there. Even with him staying in town it’s difficult to picture the office as cozier than his East Lindsay Street Greensboro operation.But Brandon’s focus lies elsewhere. While his opponents stress how they will carry on Watt’s legacy and take on the right, Brandon respectfully nods to Watt but says he hopes to win in part by distinguishing himself from the Democratic base.Other candidates struck tones that put the fight with the right at the forefront — on healthcare, poverty, education, minimum wage. To an extent, Adams’ response is emblematic.“We need someone who will be able to stand up to the Washington tea party and fight for the citizens of the 12th district,” she said, “And I’ve demonstrated that I have the ability, the skills and the knowledge to do that.”Graham described his progressive vision for a country, touching on affordable housing, access to healthcare, food and jobs for every able-bodied person that’s looking for employment. Osborne made similar overtures to the idea of a more just society, emphasizing strong public education, protecting Social Security and Medicaid and fully implementing the Affordable Care Act. In many ways, exactly what you’d expect to hear in a majorityminority district that favors the left.“People here supported Mel Watt because what he wanted to do was consistent with our beliefs,” Adams said. Ideological consistency is something that unites many of the candidates to fill Watt’s shoes, with hopefuls drawing parallels between themselves, Watt and President Obama’s agenda, particularly the Affordable Care Act, but Brandon is taking an altérnate approach.Brandon said he represents the African- American community rather than the Democratic Party, saying that he has a grassroots approach while some of his competitors work top-down. Brandon is careful to note that Watt “has done a tremendous job,” but he said he is unwilling to solely focus criticism at Republicans as the party faithful would prefer. The African-American community needs to fight systems that both parties put in place, he said, and more than any other point, he hammered home the need to elect someone that doesn’t represent more of the same.Describing himself as “a legislator and not a cheerleader,” Brandon said that just because someone can talk the talk doesn’t mean they are accomplishing anything, saying that his record shows he is able to work across the aisle. He said his opponents — naming Adams specifically — will do what they’ve always done, and that problems that plague poor communities such as low graduation rates have remained disastrously high. Brandon said his campaign is searching out voters who aren’t interested in the status quo and want “empowering leadership” rather than someone who just tells voters what they’ve accomplished.In contrast, Brandon said he has been working to tackle issues that nobody has been addressing, referencing legislation to provide relief to ex-offenders seeking employment. A centerpiece to Brandon’s outside-the-party approach is education, with his strong support for charter schools and vouchers.He knows some people, including opponents in the race, see his stance as a political liability, but Brandon unsurprisingly characterizes it as a strength.’  In his eyes, it is a matter of effectiveness.Brandon said he’s the only one in’  the race “actively pursuing educational change outside a broken system,” adding that he believes in public education but that the era in which a child’s Zip code determines which school they attend is unjust and must be changed. It’s all about equality, he says.While Graham made no mention of education in an interview, focusing heavily on jobs and economic development for African-Americans, Adams played up the issue and pointed to her record. Adams, who also said she is focused on raising the federal minimum wage, protecting voting rights and “standing up for women’s reproductive rights and healthcare,” is a retired college professor who trained teachers.In its endorsement of Adams, NC Association of Educators Vice President Mark Jewell said that his organization gives her an “A ” rating for her support of public education, teachers, students and school employees. Osborne, who mostly represents “everyday hard-working people” in employment discrimination cases, said education is a crucial issue for him too, pointing out that Graham and Brandon support charter schools and arguing that the voucher system Brandon supports is discriminatory.“I am adamantly opposed to school vouchers,” Osborne said. “Like many people, I see it as a system that can be taken advantage of, in a sense.” Vouchers for parents who send a child to private school covers a small portion of an expensive private school cost, he said, keeping private education unattainable to most families while using their tax dollars to subsidize a two-tiered education system.Instead of distinguishing’  themselves vy putting space vetween themselves and the Democratic Party,’  the other candidates are finding other ways to differentiate themselves to voters. Osborne noted that he’s the only veteran in the race, focused on his long experience serving people as a lawyer and talked about growing up in public housing. While he didn’t keep the party at arm’s length, Osborne said that it’s to his advantage that he’s running against several “career politicians.”“People are tired of politicians and politics as usual,” he said. “This is not a stepping-stone to a political career. It doesn’t take prior political service to be of good service to the people. I think I have more passion for serving the people than any other candidate in this race.” Osborne said that he plans to hold office while he has the fire in his belly but that he fully intends to practice law fulltime after a stint in Congress.Mitchell, whose six terms on the Charlotte City Council came to a close last year after an unsuccessful bid to be the Queen City’s mayor, emphasizes on his campaign website that his role as president of the National League of Cities in 2011 is something that “uniquely qualifies me for this position.”

Adams and Graham talked about their records in office, pointing respectively to an increased state minimum wage and a gang-prevention act as examples of their tireless work. While Adams said she would draw support in the Charlotte area, Graham made the inverse argument, pointing out that his wife is from High Point and listing other family connections to the Triad.

The two long-serving politicians are currently frontrunners for the Democratic primary — set for May 6 — but Brandon characterized polling as a name-recognition contest and said he unseated incumbent Earl Jones from the NC House under similar circumstances.

Still, as he hurriedly walks into his Spartan Greensboro office, wearing a windbreaker and jeans and emitting one of his characteristic laughs, Brandon voices what many of the candidates are likely thinking about their own campaigns: “We’re working to do the impos- !sible.”