Questions or comments? Contact Jeff Sykes at jeff@yesweekly
It was about a week after I started working at Yes! Weekly in February that I first got to meet Kyle Gott. It began in the form of an email inviting me to an Alma Adams for Congress town hall event over at the CWA Local 3607 building on Indus trial Avenue off South Eugene Street in Greensboro.
I didn’t notice the Kentucky drawl so many would later mention in remembering Gott, who died suddenly last month in an interstate collision just outside of his hometown of Bowling Green. Being attuned to southern accents of all sorts, his didn’t really stand out.
What did stand out to me was his intense focus, his drive, and the razor sharp edge to his political acumen. Kyle was a small man, as many people also pointed out when I interviewed them for this column, but he lived large in the political arena in his 31 short years. Serving as Alma Adams’s campaign manager, and helping her win the race to replace Rep. Mel Watt, will likely leave a lasting legacy in the Triad area and beyond.
I had meant to call Gott after Adams surprised many pundits in May and took home an outright victory in the crowded Democratic primary in the 12 th Congressional District. But as with so many things these days, I never got around to it. I had wanted to do a story about the wave of women who crushed their opposition in the Democratic primary in May. Not only did Adams surprise many by besting a talented field of legislators and attorneys, but state Sen. Gladys Robinson and Rep. Pricey Harrison easily beat back aggressive challenges by well-known male opponents in Guilford County. There was something to it, I thought, something worth looking into.
I was meeting with another candidate this past week to discuss their campaign when their manager made mention of Gott’s passing. I was stunned. I came back to the office and began making calls and looking up notices about his death.
When I had met Gott that day in February, at the town hall event regarding increasing the minimum wage, his confidence dominated the crowded room. Despite being a very small man, Gott was the first person I noticed. I could tell he was in charge. I introduced myself and asked what to expect and he immediately rattled off exactly what would happen in 15-minute intervals, culminating with an opportunity to speak to his candidate. The well-timed event was thrown off a bit by lengthy speeches by state Sen. Earline Parmon of Forsyth County and Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center, who both spoke passionately about both the need for an increased minimum wage and to elect Alma Adams to Congress.
It was my first in-person exposure to Adams, whom I knew by name given her lengthy service in the General Assembly in Raleigh, and she too seemed brimming with confidence about the race ahead. At the time, early March, Adams was locked in a pitched battle with state Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte. Internal polling showed Adams in the mid-20s, leading the race but only about seven points ahead of Graham, and far short of the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff like the one Republican candidates in the Sixth Congressional District will conclude on Tuesday.
Weeks later when the Guilford County Young Democrats held a candidate’s forum in Greensboro, it was Graham who seemed confident. He did well in the debate, was clearly the best candidate not named Alma Adams, and when I spoke to him afterward he laid out his strategy. He planned to run a strong second and eliminate the other opposition from Charlotte. Moving into the runoff, Graham said he was certain he could solidify the Mecklenburg County vote, almost double the numbers of Guilford County, and beat Adams in a one on one contest.
That never happened.
When I spoke to Adams this past week she said early on that the campaign knew they needed about 12 percent of the vote from the Charlotte area in the May primary in order to avoid a runoff with Graham. Her early polling numbers showed her at eight percent.
Gott put his nose to the grind, Adams said. He managed her staff of eight people effectively and with dogged persistence. Gott came to the campaign in September, thinking there would be a special election last fall to replace Rep. Mel Watt, who was nominated to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. But the Senate continued to delay Watt’s nomination, and the special election stretched into the regular 2014 cycle.
Gott had plenty of offers to leave for other campaigns, Adams said, but he chose to see her to the finish.
“He put his whole life into it and he truly gave us 110 percent,” Adams said. “He was a good manager and a tremendous leader. In spite of his age, I was very impressed and learned a lot from him.”
On the evening of May 6, Alma Adams pulled 18 percent of the vote from the Charlotte area, and when combined with her dominant vote numbers from the Triad, she crossed the line well ahead of the 40 percent mark.
“We exceeded a lot of the projections that we had,” Adams said. “I owe a lot of this, and where we are, to that young man. We were pushing to get 40 percent. We knew it was possible, and probably more possible for me than some of the other folks.”
Adams should likely win against nominal Republican opposition in the general election and become the second African-American female ever to serve in Congress from North Carolina. She will take her unique hats and easy smile to Washington, D.C., continuing the tradition Howard Coble established of representing the Triad with style.
But more importantly, the Greensboro and Winston-Salem area will have an additional voice in Congress once Adams is sworn in. Much like his life, the time I knew Kyle Gott was far too short. But the work he put in to help Adams win an important congressional seat will leave a local legacy for many years to come. !